In one of the Harry Potter books, author J.K. Rowling presents a device called a pensieve. Characters peer into this stone basin to see events experienced by other people. Those memories are removed from a person’s head like wispy spaghetti and dropped into the magic bowl, and the “viewer” peers into the basin for the experience. The word “viewer” has to be in quotation marks because they do more than merely see the memory. They walk around in it and feel the space and hear the sounds, and one presumes, smells the scent alive in the scene they uncannily inhabit. By “playing” the memory, the “viewer” lives in another’s shoes.
Imagine a battlefield where gun positions are effectively mapped out and the defenders are alert and ready to respond to your intrusion. To traverse that field risks cross-fire from a variety of locations arranged with the precision of caliper and slide rule. Once you step foot onto this engineered battlefield, you can expect deadly fire coming at you from straight ahead, from the right, from the left…from above and even from below. It is designed to deter any intrusion, and if you are the poor soul who is ordered to enter that lethal field, your only hope is to do so quickly and exit just as rapidly.
The B-17 Flying Fortress was a menacing machine of the air, but it was positively frightening when it flew in formation. Skies Above the Reich is premised on a simple idea: the formation can be thought of as a terrain. For the Luftwaffe pilot tasked with the job of knocking those B-17s out of the sky, that terrain was lethal.
I asked my design partner, Mark Aasted, if he wanted to write something for InsideGMT about our game, Skies Above the Reich. He came back with a pithy reply. Actually, he came back with an uncooperative, evasive, mildly combative, yet unexpected, reply. It’s worth printing here. His reply may not provide the details of the difficult and often contentious design process that must be negotiated between two intelligent and mature designers (I hear you snickering, Mark), nevertheless it elucidates a certain something about what it’s like co-designing a game. This is what he wrote back:
“Do I wanna write one? Ha ha ha…it almost sounds as if you asked if I wanted to write an article for a war game magazine. I remember how well the last one went. Hold on, let me wipe the tear from my eye and catch my breath…
Jerry White has been attending our GMT Weekends at the Warehouse for many years now. A few years back, as I greeted him at one of the events, he mentioned that he had a game design that he wanted to show me. This happens a lot at GMT Weekends, and it’s kind of “hit and miss” as to whether the design is both a) a good fit for GMT and b) in good enough shape to be ready for development. I had my doubts about whether a game covering a single historical mission would be something we could get enough orders for on P500. On the plus side, it was a solitaire game, which always helps sales, and Jerry is a very detail-oriented guy, so I went into that demo “wary but hopeful.”
What I found was a game featuring systems designed by an engineer that somehow worked together to quickly immerse the player in a tense, ever-evolving story. I kept looking for things I didn’t like (because that’s what we DO! 🙂 ), but I couldn’t really find any. I started to say “Wow, it’s pretty much ready for P500 now,” but before I could, Jerry said that he was still working on making the game better and would have something to show me in six months, at the next Weekend at the Warehouse event. So, I smiled, thought “I really like this guy,” and immediately put Enemy Coast Ahead into my “Future P500 Games” tracking spreadsheet. It was a beginning.
Six months later, the game WAS better, and it soon made its way to our P500 list, steadily rising and Making the Cut. Jerry supported the game online and proved to be excellent at handling customer questions and providing interesting historical perspectives and examples of play. Now, as the P500 process is coming to a close, I STILL “really like this guy!” Components for Enemy Coast Ahead are arriving in our warehouse now and over the coming week, and it should ship to our P500 customers right around the end of the month. So, to give you a sense of what this game is all about, here’s Jerry’s first post for InsideGMT. Like his game, this article displays the fingerprints of its creator: the “engineer with the heart of a storyteller.” I hope you like it! – Gene
John Steinbeck began the novel Cannery Row by explaining that flat worms are so delicate “that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle.” That advice for writers, penned in 1945 just as the war was ending, applies well to game design. Enemy Coast Ahead (ECA) attempts to tell a story, just one of thousands, that could be told about the war.
I wish I could boast that as a designer I have done what Steinbeck advised: “to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.” But a game is not a novel, and yet, it manages to tell stories nonetheless. A good historical simulation has the potential to evoke the time that it depicts, as well as the events that took place. ECA is intended to evoke the RAF raid on Germany’s dams in May of 1943, and it does so not by a linear narration of events but with a decision tree.
Games inherently allow stories to happen. They unfurl before a player, but that player is not a passive audience. He moves the story along by engaging with it. Perhaps it is this engagement, unique in these type of games, that allows the story to “be set down alive,” to borrow again from Steinbeck. A game can tell a story in ways no other medium can match.