Playing the Story in GMT’s Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid

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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.

Maybe this is a stretch, but the historical simulation genre, the wargame, bears some resemblance to this. Sure, the game medium is not multi-sensory. You can’t feel the stiff seats in the cockpit of a B-25, nor can you hear the twin Wright engines sputter, nor can you smell the fuel as your crew empties yet another tin can behind the bomb bay keeping the aircraft in the sky for another hundred miles. On this count you might think a flight simulator can outdo the humble paper and counter wargame. I concede that simulators, digital games, and big budget motion pictures deliver a cinematic experience impossible in a wargame. Those media types affect us through our senses, and it is hard to resist their charm. And yet, there are other aspects of the wargame experience resembling this fictional pensieve. Somehow, the wargame does a sneak maneuver and finds a way into our imagination despite a paucity of cinematic ammunition.

The combination of abstraction, historical detail, and the cocktail of decisions presented by the wargame presents a unique experience. In some ways, immersion in the unfolding event is more complete in the wargame, even though immersion is not really happening through the eyes and ears as in those other media. Is it possible that this medium works because of, and not despite, an underwhelming presence in the realm of our senses? The story is seen in our mind, not in our eyes.

Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid is designed to involve the player in the historical situation, not just in “the battle.” It can’t provide the sound of twin engines kicking up, nor can it deliver the rocking and swaying underfoot as the aircraft carrier bobs up and down in a turbulent sea. The simulation does not happen through the senses quite as much as it is concocted from within the mind of the alert player, pieced together through the course of game flow. The Doolittle Raid is not unique in this; the wargame genre is steeped in this kind of immersion. Some wargames achieve it through grand scale, as in the East Front Series depicting Operation Barbarossa in a game space the size of my garage, or by minutia of detail as in Advanced Squad leader that accounts for every squad’s actions in an inhospitable terrain.

You might think abstraction deters immersion and the construction of narrative, but I think the opposite may actually be at play. In The Doolittle Raid, the game is organized into segments of time. I don’t mean turns, although there are plenty of those. The narrative of the game is broken into segments, and maybe “chapters” is an appropriate analogy. Each segment is devoted to a portion of the raid, each with its unique scale and its own set of counters. The mapsheet has space devoted to each segment as well. The segments comprise a framework of multiple interlocking scales of action, organized in a line. We can call it a “story line,” and indeed, one of the game’s segments is called “Denouement.”

If playing Scenario 9, the player begins on the naval map handling the task force and its component ships. Once the decision to launch is made, the action switches to the bi-hourly scale of the flight map, allowing the player to watch as the bombers approach the enemy coast. Fuel leaks, uncooperative wind, and enemy eyes in the sky and on the ocean must be dealt with or avoided, offering small decisions each turn. With the target in sight, the action switches to a target map where the player maneuvers bombers over the enemy city seeking important vulnerabilities. Flak, balloons, haze, camouflage and concrete, all become part of the terrain. The presence of a defense grows as the raid progresses, giving the player the feeling that Tokyo is waking up. After this segment of the game is resolved, the player resumes the flight turns, but now the bombers are heading for safety. If playing the historical scenarios, that means China, although if desperate, as was Ski York and his crew, faced with insufficient fuel, the player can decide to find an alternate landing site.

As you can see, the simulation extends beyond the strictly defined limits of the military situation over the target. The player’s imagination is thus shifted too, away from a narrowly defined military criteria based on the effectiveness of ordnance, to the human drama of crews attempting to survive. The game’s lens, its pensieve as it were, allows the player to watch fuel dwindle as well as the enemy’s pursuit increase. Maybe “watch” is not the right word, because there is no fuel, merely counters representing it. Watching is not something that happens strictly through the eyes. The player’s mind is prompted to shift from pilot to engine to pursuit plane overhead to ground crew waiting with fuel and spare parts in China. Because the player is not receiving the simulation’s dramaturgy through convincing sound effects or visual magic, the narrative is not held hostage by the player’s senses, as it is in a movie theater. The narrative unfolds in the imagination, nudged along by the player’s manipulation of the meager components that came in the box, and allowed to expand wherever the story wants to go.

The complete game, Scenario 10, begins with the Planning segment, extending the scope of the narrative even further. It has four turns, each a month long, in which the player wears several hats as he requisitions bombers, modifies those aircraft, trains crews (even deciding where training will happen, Florida or California, with consequences for security), and arranges for landing sites either in China or the Soviet Union. The player makes big decisions. Because this small raid implicated the political relationship between the United States and China, and between the United States and the Soviet Union, diplomats are involved. Not exactly what you’d expect in a flight simulator.

With the mission underway, as the game progresses in actual time, the player pushes the task force marker to the west (to the left on the mapsheet, advancing the story). Once launched, the player does the same for each flight of B-25s on their way to Asia. Although there is no roar of engines, the game engages the player’s imagination at multiple scales, prompting the player to think about many places and people as the story unfolds. Fuel evaporation, enemy aircraft, General Stilwell’s preparations at landing sites in China, the destroyer in the task force that charged the Japanese submarine; these are the features within the narrative that transforms the wispy into the tangible. Although an effort was made to make pleasing components, this is not a film and it is not a flight simulator or even a digital game with a generous cinematic budget. There are no air raid sirens or explosions to tingle the senses. The “magic” of immersion is accomplished not by the presence of a cinematic effect, but by its absence. Or maybe that absence allows the player’s imagination to come into its own. And, of course, there is no stone basin or magic wand either.

Just paper and ink in a box.

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8 thoughts on “Playing the Story in GMT’s Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid

  1. Fantastic read Jerry! You describe so well the building of the story in the wargamer’s mind as we push card board across the map and how this compares to and sometimes exceeds more cinematic like experiences. I cant wait to dive into the “pensieve” of the Doolittle raid and catch a glimpse of what those on the mission experienced! Thank you for your design covering such an interesting topic, and in great detail from beginning to end.

  2. I am absolutely loving Doolittle’s Raid! The amount of work and love you have poured into this game can be seen in every crack and corner of the game. The Debriefing Manual and how you “score” your mission is awesome-the sense of story and narrative drips off the page. Please, continue to pump out some more of these Enemy Coast Ahead titles.