The Hitler Problem

The Hitler Problem

Honestly, this was the least horrifying image I could find that was still relevant.

This post is spurred by the recent comment in ‘What Next for Total War?‘ by Spiral Architect, who raises a very valid point of the startling moral conundrum of verisimilitude (or realism for everyone not doing a literature degree) in the next Total War game, which could very well deal with the 20th or even 21st century. Before I start out I’m going to throw the blanket of safety over myself by saying that all within here is merely speculation, and Creative Assembly could make a brilliant game that covers these moral problems without making it tasteless, sickening or muted. They are, however, going to face some very real problems when even considering this game, not least its scope.

I’ve named this article ‘The Hitler Problem’, but really that’s just to draw attention. The Hitler Problem is perhaps what will be most focused on in a 20th century diplomacy/war game, but there are a huge number of others that are perhaps a little too politically virulent at the moment; it’s just too soon. Total War has worked mainly due to romanticised views of history, and the inaccuracy and distance (chronologically) of the events. You could be a quasi-Genghis Khan in Medieval Total War, killing thousands as you invaded from the east, but it was never a moral problem, because it was just a game, and you were just enslaving virtual countries in the privacy of your own home. There was no emotional attachment to that world, because even the one that existed a few hundred years ago in the real world has little to no visible effect on your life.*

Accelerating to Empire: Total War, and Creative Assembly have removed all mention or portrayal of slavery, perhaps the Imperial period’s biggest political minefield, entirely from the game. While this is a smart PR move by the company, it does present a slightly warped view of the historical context. They are going to include the American Civil Wars (or at least the ability to have one), but have no slavery? Wasn’t that what everyone thinks it was all about?

So the game has been arguably neutered to appease the PC (bad kind, not good kind) brigade, and will perhaps be lesser for it. I’m sure shooting huge lumps of metal at wooden boats will keep me interested, though. The point is, slavery is still very much an issue for a good deal of people in the world, mostly visible through the rampant racism still very much a part of many people’s lives. So it has been removed, in favour of keeping everyone happy. The problems with a Total War game held in the 20th or 21st Century is that instead of one political mine, there are dozens. Maybe hundreds.

The Holocaust. Ethnic Cleansing. Two World Wars. Atrocities in Africa and the Middle East. Those are the biggest four I can think of off the top of my head, and all of them are incredibly divisive issues. There is no way they can avoid the World Wars and still have a game that is any semblance of relation to our world. Yes, Medieval: Total War had the crusades, but, like everything a few hundred years old, the Crusades have been romanticised by the Knights Templar, Assassin’s Creed and Bernard Cornwell. We now think of glittering knights, dirty Persians and flaming balls of catapult fodder. So you play it with a clear conscience, taking the Holy Land back from the heathens. It’s not a problem for the modern conscience.

It’s taken me a while, but we finally get to Hitler. Regardless of how it really happened, whether he was merely misunderstood or truly evil, any game that lets you step in his footsteps, recreate his actions or any of the absolutely vile things that occurred during his period of power is going to be assaulted from all sides by any number of groups. It’s not the same as a normal RTS like Company of Heroes where you can play as the Nazis, because in those games you are merely fighting a battle. The Total War series brings you back further, allowing you to parley, trade and declare war. By allowing such a vast political playground to explore, you are, without doubt, creating a set of tools with which to bring about a World War.

When I spoke about this with a friend, I at first thought it would be fine. There is already an example of a horrific RTS that acts on a global scale. It’s called Defcon and it’s a brilliant game. However, there are two large difference between the two games that makes one merely shocking and sobering, and the other a dangerous simulation that allows you to be a truly grotesque human being. In Defcon, there is a detached graphical style that makes the numbers accumulating during nuclear war both shockingly detached and somehow understandable. There also, (luckily), hasn’t happened to be a nuclear war yet, and so there is no reference point for experience. These two things differentiate Defcon from a Modern: Total War, and they are how the former is acceptable and the latter potentially isn’t.

There is a way out though, and it could potentially work brilliantly, without upsetting either the PC brigade or those wanting a truly realistic experience. CA could skip the 20th and 21st century and create something set in the near, or far, future. It would be interesting to see what they would do with a blank slate, and at the same time it would allow them to make the game as freeform or limited as they wanted. Added to that my favourite Civ-a-like ever, Alpha Centauri, was brilliant, and they could be on to a winner.

Of course, I’m not a developer, so there could be a very simple and elegant way to avoid the whole ‘Hitler Problem’, but I can’t see one that allows them to portray the 20th Century in the way they have done so excellently to the previous periods. In the end, it’ll be interesting whatever happens, if it happens.

*I say this not because it’s true, but because it’s the public perception. I really doubt many people think of the impact the medieval of Imperial periods had on their lives, whereas the 20th Century is still very much in the mind’s eye in many things, from the television to air travel. These things are New, on a historical scale.

10 thoughts on “The Hitler Problem

  1. I couldn’t agree more. While my own major personal aversion to anything 20th century onwards is that it’s covering ground already well trodden, and there’s not enough swords and steel (even Empire will have alot of melee combat) set games, I feel this ideological perspective is another one.

    I actually feel that I’d be fine playing a FPS as a German soldier. You are after all, but a cog in the machine, having been put into place and geared up by the Nazi propaganda machine. But I’m not really sure how you can honestly portray the administration of Nazi Germany, or indeed any of the nations of the period without making clear the fact that their affairs were often undertaken in the context of some horrific ideology. Remember, the main players outside of the Axis weren’t totally absolved of sins, being post-Imperial powers. After all, British planes strafing Iraqi villages in a desperate effort to keep “the locals” under sway is a very potent image in peoples minds and is a painful memory (and even more painfully re-lived today) to the people of the Middle East today. Conversly, I suppose you could argue that like slaves in Empire, they’ll be more or less “put to the side”, with the game focusing soley on Economic/Miltary/Administrative matters in the way the Hearts of Iron series does – which is probably the best comparison to a Total War game set in the modern age.

    The thing is I suppose, we are pretty much all connected to these horrific Imperial abominations in our own ways. While Empire is starting to include nations that have more or less stretched through to the present in one shape or form, I think we’ve long come to be able to distance ourselves from the Red Coats. We can however, still associate ourselves with the men and women who fought and died in wars past and present. We totally understand that wars in earlier periods were undertaken by corrupt kings or governments – and we know that we should be wary of associating ourselves with them.

    It’s harder however telling someone to take control of say, the British at the turn of the century when they’re so directly associated with the government of today. But on the other hand – maybe we need teaching about who our ancestors really were? What they really did? What they still do. When I put it that way mind, perhaps I’d revel in the idea of teaching people the brutal reality of British Imperial rule as late as the 1960s for a change…

    1. I would play this game even if it had all the exact details of horror that took place during the World Wars not because I am an insensitive son of a bitch, but because I have the intelligence to be open minded and not be influenced by a video game to turn into an antisemite or any other misguided racist fool. History is truth, and it shouldn’t be changed in order to sell to a wider audience. Either get the game or don’t.

      1. All well and good you are mature enough, but unfortunately I doubt the tabloids in this country would think like that, they would probably blow things massively out of the water. That shouldn’t stop devs from doing this kind of thing though.

  2. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a huge problem as games like Hearts of Iron and Strategic Command have shown. I think Total War in a modern setting would be rather boring, but that’s offtopic.

    What I often hate in many games is the bad kind of PC. The kind of PC that makes issues totally shallow by making it interchangeable and remove anything that could even be a slightly provocative. Like Assasins Creed does with the religion and Crusade stuff. I hate that stuff passionately.

    Personally I’d love to see these issues being handled in a game, making people think about it, allow players to discover that history in different perspectives. Even with the slavery stuff in Empire Total War it could’ve been done.

  3. I think this is a moot point, thus why I didn’t bring it up at all in my What Next for Total War post. You see in playing a Total War game, you are thrown into a time period where in reality loads of different things happened. But what makes the Total War games so important is that not everything has to happen. Yes in Medieval 2 there is the finding of America and the first ballistics (i think), but apart from these few things, you don’t have to follow the course of history.

    Lets fast forward to the modern era then, how would the game deal with the situation of the World Wars and coincidentally, Hitler; nuclear war and all the other horrendous atrocities we saw? Simple, they don’t have to happen. If the game starts in the late 1800’s when the major wars of that period (Crimean especially) then the game would start at a perfect place.

    This was a time when the major powers started an arms race, namely Britain and Germany at the time, if we are inserted into the game here, then we have the chance to control our own destiny. Rather than escalate the situation which led towards World War One, we can take the peaceful approach and lead Europe into decades of peace; or take the continent into war again.

    Take it a step further, regardless of what happens with a possible World War One, in 1917/1918 the first tanks become available to develop. So too at this time they could implement a Russian Civil War, though again that touches on dangerous territory with Stalin. In 1945 the nuclear bomb is created and such forth on in history.

    In this way I think it would be simple enough to avoid the moral dilema posed by the 20th Century still being part of the recent past and firmly engrained on our memories. The one issue with taking the game in this direction and not necessarily having Hitler appear is that people would think that the game is skirting the issues.

    That poses another massive problem, but that is best left for another long ramble.

  4. The point isn’t really whether Hitler is in it or not. You may not be playing as Hitler literally, but any game in a mid 20th Century setting in which a country (You, the player) succeeds in aggressively taking over most or all of Western Europe, and other nations band together to fight you (Bound to happen in a TW game), with WW2 era technology and weaponry, irrespective of what country you start off as, is going to have strong overtones of being Hitler The Game. What would your justifications as a leader be for invading and occupying all these countries in that setting that don’t involve greed or tyranny (or crazed ideological dogma)? You could of course say the same about war in any period, but like Phil says in the other games you’re playing a romanticised role, plus they are set in the times of huge empires and wars, whether the Roman empire or the Holy Roman empire. What aggressive empire and huge war are people inevitably going to think of in a 20th Century setting, a not very romantic one at that? As for not following the course of history, I agree, and part of the appeal of the TW games is being able to rewrite history. But don’t they normally try to include certain key world events that stirred things up, especially ones as important as the Great Depression for example. which led to the arguably inevitable rise of extremist parties like the Nazis?

  5. They dealt with this issue splendidly in Red Alert, whose plot centers around someone going back in time to assassinate Hitler… which causes Stalin to become the big new bad-ass on the block. You can play as either Stalin’s side or the Ally’s side. It’s not historically accurate, but it’s believable given the backstory supplied and political climate at the time.

    Of course, erm, Total War don’t have this option available to them without looking a bit unoriginal.

  6. Somehow traditional wargames managed to muddle through the ’60s while producing dozens or hundreds of games set during World War II without sending people into a panic. And that was while World War II was still relatively fresh in the memories of many.

    I’m not convinced this is actually any kind of serious issue.

  7. The fact that you used ‘traditional Wargames’ is essentially the problem here. Total War isn’t really a traditional game in any way. It’s a bit of a genre straddling game where you have both elements of diplomacy and nation management along with the battles and such. Because all those elements are mixed together, it becomes far more relevant, where something like Company of Heroes doesn’t really touch on the same things.

  8. > What would your justifications as a leader be for invading and occupying all these countries in that setting that don

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