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.