Children of War: Pain and Remembrance13 Jul 2016 13
Before I begin, I feel the need to say that I love strategy games, including historical wargames. I think they should exist, that they deserve to exist as entertainment, as thought exercises, as a representation of and reflection on both the past and the present moment that creates them, as remembrance and education… and fun. I also think that it can be worthwhile to stop, once in a while, and think about what generally isn’t represented in the games we love so much: the civilians, the victims, the consequences… what Goya called Los desastres de la guerra, “The Disasters of War.”
A couple of recent mobile games have invited, perhaps even begged us, to reflect on the consequences of real war, and in particular, what happens to children in warzones. The methods of This War of Mine: The Little Ones, and Lilya and the Shadows of War are different, but both ask us to see conflict through young eyes, to hold on to life with small hands.
This War of Mine is the better-known title, and has been out for a year now, but the The Little Ones expansion, available now on consoles and PC and coming soon to mobile, puts 11bit Studios/War Child’s game in a whole new light, adding children who have been orphaned or separated from their parents to this game about civilian survival in a city under siege. I don’t think this addition was in any way an afterthought, just something outside the scope of the original This War of Mine: after all, 11bit named their dev team for the title “War Child.”
Play is a critical element of the child AI in The Little Ones. The children need shelter, food, and clean water, but they also need to play, as children do, even in a war zone. If you let an adult play with a child, they will develop a mutual bond, as children and their caregivers do. Does that make you uncomfortable? It makes me uncomfortable, and not just because I have young children of my own.
It’s strange, though, isn’t it? We’re comfortable enough ordering the Wehrmacht to invade Poland in a game, comfortable raising cities in a game, comfortable enough blowing up entire planets in a game. In a game is the critical phrase there. I love an imaginary combined-arms tactics and have ordered my share of orbital bombardments, but I’m nearly a pacifist in real life, and I have an absolute horror of real, working firearms. So, why does caring for a child get under our skin?
War Child deserves credit, of course. They set out to create this effect, and it works, at least for me: I know some players find the zoomed-out side view distancing. For me, it gives the shelter an eerie, dollhouse-like quality and forces me to think about how all of my survivors are doing in a different way from what’s possible in a first-person game. This War of Mine isn't a god game, but it makes me feel like a pathetically insufficient guardian angel.
I think it’s more than that. In a game, ordering the Battleship Yamato out of port doesn’t require the player to order the kidnapping of “comfort women,” and taking the place of General Lee at the battle of Gettysburg doesn’t require one to employ slave catchers. That doesn’t feel dishonest to me: it’s a matter of the scope and nature of the game in question. Frankly, Sid Meyer’s Colonization (original and Civ IV version) and the perennial eurogame Puerto Rico bother me more, because in these games your actions depend directly upon the use of slave labor, but slavery is completely erased from both games… but that’s a thorny discussion for another day.
The Little Ones is upsetting because it doesn’t just remind us that children suffer in times of war, but that political and military decisions underpin the suffering of children right now. The setting of This War of Mine is fictional but it draws heavily upon the siege of Sarajevo. Sarajevo is no longer under siege, but Aleppo is, and there are tens of thousands of children still trapped there, facing dehydration, starvation, and daily bombardment.
Shelling is no longer taking place in the Gaza Strip, but Lilya and the Shadows of War wants you to remember that it was the scene of brutal armed conflict between Hamas and the Israeli military in 2014, and that hundreds of children died and thousands were injured in the two months of bizarrely and tragically indirect fighting, consisting largely of Hamas launching rockets out of Gaza and Israel sending missiles in from planes and drones.
Unlike the This War of Mine’s focus on simulating the challenges of surviving day by day until a ceasefire is declared, Lilya is all about about the minutes when shelter is shattered by deafening explosions and careful planning dissolves into terror. A much smaller and simpler game, Lilya uses silhouette art in the same vein as Limbo. Nearly every scene in the game is interrupted and altered by aerial bombardment, and the stark visual style pays off in the way one feels blinded by the white flash of the game’s explosions. Unlike some games that have adopted the silhouette style, Lilya seems to be openly referencing Limbo’s aesthetic, as if to say “you thought those spiders were terrifying? I’ll show you terrifying.”
Lilya shifts in quick succession through platforming, autorunning, and decision-point mechanics, and uses them more for narrative impact than anything else, as in the autorunning bit where the unnamed father is able to jump much further than the eponymous Lilya. None of the scenes in the game are challenging enough to take even the most twitch-impaired player more than 2-3 tries, a deliberate design decision: the game wants you to successfully play through it in your first sitting.
Like This War of Mine, Lilya feels representative of both a specific moment in recent history and of a broader class of experience. Families throughout the middle east, as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have come to dread the roar of jet engines, the buzzing sounds of props, and, above all, the pitch shift of an incoming missile or rocket. We don’t even have to talk about the politics of preemptive strikes and drone warfare. We know that, in any warzone, parents constantly fear for their children’s lives, and fear also that they will be injured or killed and become unable to care for their little ones.
The past few years have seen mobile strategy games about the Vietnam War and the Cuban Revolution, histories worth knowing, worth playing. Some other conflicts are still too raw or unpleasant to touch: there is at least one PC wargame about the Yom Kippur/October War out there for the true grognard, a few tabletop games about the Gulf War, and quite a few videogames in various genres over the years about overthrowing fictional middle eastern dictators with a more-than-passing resemblance to Saddam Hussain.
My favorite game about Middle Eastern conflict is PeaceMaker, a light political simulation game where you play as the President of the Palestinian Authority or the Prime Minister of Israel, and try to parlay a ceasefire into sustainable peace. PeaceMaker was originally created in the ever-so-slight optimism that existed after Mahmoud Abbas was elected President of the Palestinian Authority, and released mere months before the Fatah-Hamas war split the governance of the West Bank from that of the Gaza Strip.
PeaceMaker quietly made it’s way to iOS and Android back in December, and still holds up fairly well, despite a certain to admit it’s age: PeaceMaker is a game about 2006-7 as well as from that time, but the in-game calendar uses system time, erasing a decade of developments in a manner much more befitting Doctor Who than a game that asks you to “play the news.”
Time does not heal all wounds, but it does change or perspective on them. How long before there are games about the Syrian civil war and the rise (and, hopefully, fall) of Daesh? When they come, what will they be like? One can’t deny that that recent events are politically and strategically complex enough to have potential. Don’t tell me that it’s inconceivable because of how terrible Daesh is: the abuse, enslavement and attempted genocide of entire peoples is the largely-neglected context of most popular historical settings.
That, in the end, is why I think we need to pay attention to games like This War of Mine: The Little Ones and Lilya: Shadows of War. Not because today’s conflicts shouldn’t become strategy and simulation games in thirty years, or fifty (or ten?). They will, and most of those games will concern themselves more with supply lines and economic production than with orphaned children and grieving parents. Still, we must hope that the future finds more than just entertainment in our present horror, more than just tactical lessons learned in our present bloodshed. The disasters of war haven’t prevented us from making games about past conflicts, and they shouldn’t - but neither should they become part of sanitizing the past.
In addition to everything else they are, wargames are a form of remembrance. Remembrance is an essential prerequisite for progress, for improvement. There is a virtue in taking our leisure in remembrance largely scraped free of pain, so long as we never quite forget past (and present) suffering. After all, George Santayana, the man responsible for the truism that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” also said “only the dead have seen the end of war.”