“Above all else, stay alive.”

Lans Staying Alive

In my limited free time, I’ve been replaying Tactics Ogre for the PSP. This is one of my favorite games of all time, if not the number one. I originally played it when I was a teenager for Playstation and then years later when I was in college and working as an intern in Washington D.C., playing it on the Bolt Bus between DC and New York.

I’ve been playing this game on and off for over fifteen years, and I’ve never finished it. The game is non-linear, which I love, and from what I understand, it has multiple endings – none of which I’ve seen. It’s an adult game, with ethical dilemmas that rival modern games like Mass Effect.

One of the things I’ve found intriguing is the character Lanselot’s mentorship to the main character, Denam. On two separate occasions he lectures Denam on the importance of staying alive above all other things. In one of his first meetings with the main character, he says:

“So you’re off to aid one of the Duke’s men. I regret we cannot join you. Above all else, stay alive. Win or lose, while there’s life, there’s hope.”

And then later on, in a quiet moment before one of the game’s pivotal scenes he again advises Denam to stay alive:

“Risking your life is one thing. Losing it is another. The best way to aid your people is to stay alive. See the battle through to the end. And there’s your sister to think of.”

It’s a curious piece of advice in a video game, from a famous warrior. You would expect advice of honor on the battlefield, bravery, or skill. There’s a part of me that thinks the advice might have served as kind of early tutorial in the game. The original Tactics Ogre for Playstation was much more unforgiving when it came to death – if a character was slain in battle he/she was perma-deathed. Lanselot’s advice might have been there to warn the player to protect life, as training a new character was a long and arduous process. The updated version for PSP/Vita still has perma-death, but there’s a timer on the character as in Final Fantasy Tactics.

Still, whether it served as a tutorial for the player or actual advice, it is refreshing to see it.

Is it not true?

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War, as told through Final Fantasy Battles

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I don’t remember how this thought entered my brain. I think it was around the time I was doing this tongue-in-cheek post on “how to win the war in Afghanistan,” which, by the way, I still think is true, if you pay close attention.

Anyway, it occurred to me that you could kind of compare war to different Final Fantasy battles.

For example.

Conventional war looks something like this:

That is to say, it’s a lot of grinding. Attack. Defend. Counter-attack. Push forward. Over and over again.

Special purpose missions, like the raid that nabbed Osama bin Laden are like this:

Lots of special equipment checks immediately before sending your best guys in to do the final deed.

Counter-insurgency? Without a doubt, that’s a dungeon crawl:

Please ignore the un-ignorable commentary. But COIN is essentially a long slog. Bring lots of equipment that you’ll use occasionally. Get sniped and harassed by pretty easy enemies who wear you down over and over again. It sucks. You just want to get to the end, but it takes forever.

And there are shuras, where everything you say has significant consequences:

COP DEFENSE!

Ethical dilemmas:

War crimes:

I know there are more. There are plenty. But I’m going to stop it right there. If you have a good addition, drop it in the comments and I’ll add it.

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The RPG Elements of Military Service

Petraeus Explained
RPG Elements at work.

For those not familiar, RPG elements are defined as “game mechanics traditionally found in role-playing games that are incorporated into a non-RPG title.” They include:

Leveling up player characters
Inventory systems
Loot and loot systems
Character customization
-Persistent weapon and skill upgrades
Quests

For a deeper look at how RPG elements work, and how they make playing video games addictive (in a fun way), read this article at Kotaku.

One of the things that makes military service so enticing are the built-in RPG elements. Military service, by nature of war, is probably the job that relates most to video games – even if that comparison remains trite or childish. Besides the “content,” the way the military works internally often looks and feels like a very, very long video game.

To be clear, the military is not like a video game and, if it was, it would be like this one. However, I’m acknowledging something I’ve noticed over time, as a longtime gamer and soldier.

Looking around, RPG elements can be found all over the place. Using the examples above, I’ll elaborate.

Leveling up – Promotions with increased pay and job upgrades. Some promotions require going before a selection board, what might be known as a “trial” in an RPG.

An Army promotion board. Also known as a "trial."
An Army promotion board. “The Trial of the Command Sergeant Major.”

Inventory –  There are certain things that might be identified as “inspectable items” that have to be on a soldiers’ person at all times. Then, of course, there are packing lists for training and operations.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The stuff I’ve got in my “inventory.”

Loot – Special equipment for different mission sets (breaching tools, signaling equipment). Items found on the objective during a sensitive site exploitation – maps, cell phones, etc. And don’t forget the “free stuff” soldiers find when conducting police calls – usually eye protection, multi-tools, and magazines.

"Loot" gathered after conducting sensitive site exploitation during NTC.
“Loot” gathered after conducting sensitive site exploitation during NTC.

Character customization – Admittedly, aesthetic choices are limited. However, when it comes to field gear, most units allow a degree of customization – “shooter’s preference” – and most soldiers can tell apart other soldiers based purely on the way their gear is setup. And while hair is strictly regulated, there is definitely a range of allowed styles that can easily differentiate – from bald to the infamous high and tight.

"Geardo."
“Geardo.”

Persistent weapon and skill upgrades – Weapon upgrades come in the form of actual weapon upgrades. New sights, magazines, slings, etc. Skill upgrades come in the form of additional schooling and training.

Lots of "upgrades."
Lots of “upgrades.”

Quests – This is probably where military service most relates to RPGs. While military service generally speaking is most similar to a traditional Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMO) – essentially a single player game with thousands of others – there are also opportunities for Campaign Mode (Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom), numerous side-quests that upgrade your “stats” (Ranger School, Recruiting/Drill Sergeant Duty), and lots and lots of grinding (physical training, field exercises, staff duty, etc).

Worst. Quest. Ever.
Worst. Quest. Ever.

The thing that I think most encapsulates the RPG elements of military service is the Enlisted/Officer Record Brief. It’s like pressing pause and clicking on “status” in most video games. On the ERB/ORB, you get a “snapshot” of a soldier’s service. Included is: name, branch (infantry, aviation, etc.), rank, personal information (religious preference, marital status) previous deployment information (campaigns), security clearance status, foreign language proficiency, military education (special schools), additional skill identifiers, civilian education, awards and decorations, assignment information, and a picture of the service member (avatar). The more things you do in the military – the more quests you go on – the more stuff you get on your ERB/ORB. By the time you make Command Sergeant Major or General, you’re essentially at level 99.

It was Napoleon who said “A soldier will fight long and hard for a piece of colored ribbon.” While that statement remains true (look again at GEN Petraeus’ stack up top), today, Napoleon might say “A soldier will fight long and hard to update his ERB.”

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