Disinterred Devil’s Advocate

I’ve written hundreds of articles during my twenty-odd years as a games inspector. As many of these appeared in the British version of PC Gamer magazine and nowhere else, now and again something from my archive may appear as a THC post. For a spell in the Noughties PCG UK ran an intentionally provocative single-page opinion piece every month. Thanks to titles like Sprocket, Through the Darkest of Times, and Gerda: A Flame in Winter* this 2009 ‘Devil’s Advocate’ isn’t quite as pertinent as it once was, but I reckon it still contains sufficient truth to warrant another airing.

*50% cheaper than normal on Steam at present

Have a K-ration cookie Games Industry. You’ve achieved something I thought was impossible. You’ve managed to make the most important, most extraordinary event of the Twentieth Century seem dull and prosaic.

When I close my eyes and think of WW2 now, all I see is feldgrau figures framed by blurry iron sights, and platoons of tiny Shermans scuttling around like cockroaches. All I feel is apathy.

What’s gone wrong? Well, for starters games makers have insisted on pouring the war into restrictive genre moulds rather than letting it flow naturally into new designs. Secondly – and this one’s the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger in the guts – they’ve fixated on a handful of battles and situations.

Consider this: almost all of our 1939-45 software can be shoved into one of three categories. There are those offerings that let you play at soldiering, those that put you in the boots of a commander, and those that plonk you into a war machine. History’s biggest and bloodiest conflict involved hundreds of millions of people in thousands of different roles and how many roles have our developers and publishers identified as game worthy? Three. The lack of vision is staggering.

There are over ninety different WW2-themed games on my shelves. Why do none of them let me serve my country as, say, a bomb disposal expert. Picture it: the eerie London bomb sites, the tense tinkering with dozens of different kinds of unexploded Luftwaffe ordnance. Is that a J15A with a trembler, or a J15B with a time delay? Should I drill it? Should I freeze it? Should I leg it?

Where’s the game that lets me be a boffin, a Werner Braun/Barnes-Wallace type, assembling secret weapons from a vast selection of research-unlocked components. Imagine Garry’s Mod crossed with Call of Duty and Armadillo Run. “Thanks for the mine-clearing crab Professor Stone, but now we need a snowmobile with AT capability. It’s got to fit in a glider, can’t weigh more than 8 tons and must be able to do at least 30mph cross-country. Think you can help?”

How about a spiv sim, or something that casts us as war photographers, or Bletchley Park codebreakers. For years I’ve been waiting for the game that will let me design and build the Atlantic Wall, then sit back, cuppa and custard cream in hand, as Eisenhower’s finest take their best shot. Stronghold with concrete, 88s and minefields.

Wherever you look in WW2 history there are fantastic stories waiting to be told. The work of stage-magician-turned-military-trickster Jasper Maskelyne is crying-out to be transformed into a turn-based ruse-em-up. We don’t need another Normandy landings RTS, but a strategy game recreating Operation Fortitude, the pre-D-Day deception campaign, now that would get my attention.

Come on developers, throw away those Band of Brothers DVDs, forget you ever played Sudden Strike. Give us games about negotiation and collaboration, logistics, reconnaissance, and propaganda. Give us games about the Holocaust and the Home Front. Give us anything but more of the same dreary WW2 clichés.


  1. You’re a young woman whose rations just don’t seem to stretch to feeding your family every week while your husband is off fighting the war. However, the American GIs are in town with their seemingly unlimited supplies.

    Elsie down the road seems to be getting along famously with the new arrivals and never seems to be short on food and are those new stockings she’s wearing?

    Play ‘All’s Fair in Love and Especially in War’ the new WW2 seduce-em-up from etc etc etc…

  2. I could imagine something glorious emerging from people and policy management games. The idea of a game like Suzerain taking place in mid-war India, for instance, sounds marvelous.

    I also liked the witness interviews in L.A. Noire. Easily transplantable to one of the back rooms in Yalta or one of the preliminary meetings. If you botch it you traded the balkans away for nothing but vague promises not to partition post-war Germany into east and west. Ouch, old chap!
    Negotiating is a vastly under-developed area in gaming history anyways. Economy simulations and 4Xs alike, which are ostensibly about trade are actually mostly about logistics. Which is fun, no doubt, but not what it says on the tin.

    And narrative driven games with WW2 as background practically write themselves. We got a couple of them over the years, so I am not complaining too loudly.

    But, as always, industry consolidation and insanely growing expectations about what constitues a `successful game`lead to a drab and meek enviroment where innovation might only come from independents and will swiftly be buried under good-enough-crap.

    • I’ve always thought it a shame that LA Noire became a dead-end of game development – no sequel and no one else picked up that kind of interrogation gameplay. Advances in motion capture would make that more convincing now.

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