Have found myself playing the Gameboy Advance version of Advance Wars a bit today, not having really thought about it since playing a version on the Nintendo DS years ago. I don’t have a great deal to say about it, except that I still find the game very interesting because of the way it depicts the obviously violent activities you’re part of during play.
The game is a turn-based strategy in which you lead an army against another army, pitting your various units against each other. Infantry, tanks, anti-aircraft, attack helicopter, battleships, and so on – pretty standard stuff on that front. By and large you just move the units around and when it’s to your advantage attack the enemy and so on, destroying them, or being destroyed, or whatever. So clearly it’s a game in which you’re involved in killing large numbers of other people (the infantry, the people in the tanks, etc.). And yet the game manages not to feel quite so disturbing as I often find violence in games these days.
There’s some sense created, which I don’t really understand, of the simultaneously reality and unreality of the actual battles (all within the context of the game world itself). Fighting goes like this: you move your units on a big grid-based map, then order them to attack another unit. The game then cuts to a kind of view ‘on the ground’ of the two units involved facing off, firing their weapons, and then some number of them being eliminated. The semiotics/aesthetics of it all seem to negate any sense of suffering or brutality.
Yes, it’s obviously cartoon graphics, and that probably accounts for some of it. But I think there are other layers as well. The cutting from the map to the split-screen of the units seems to make the combat less real rather than ‘showing what’s happening’, in no small part because the units depicted are so clearly ‘signs’ for the strength of the unit rather than ‘the actual people’. So if your unit is at strength 10 you see 5 little people standing there firing their machine guns, say. They don’t seem like a picture of the ‘actual people’ involved in the fight. Then when the combat is over and you cut back to the map, the defeated unit explodes in a puff, even if it was, for instance, an infantry-versus-infantry encounter, making the elements seem more like tokens/symbols that representations.
Along with that is the incredibly chipper narration from the generals. One of them is often mentoring you, cheerfully explaining unit tactics and so on, and very much in a tone of “oh gosh, we sure need to get over to that tank” – urgency without fear or sense of danger. And meanwhile the other general joins in with similarly light hearted expressions of frustration or confidence, again without every referencing any sense of this actually being a war. It’s very much a play war, not just in the sense that it’s a game, but for the very fictional characters inside the game. As if they would all head off for ice cream together after a good ‘battle’.
All of which makes the game appealing to me, more like a set of puzzles narrated by happy-go-lucky misfits, that happen to have puzzle pieces and puzzle metaphors in the language of a cartoon war where no one ever gets hurt, just blown up…