The Beautiful Female Warriors of Troia

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The castle and town of Troia (or Toroia, for those who played it on SNES in the 1990s) has always fascinated me. The nation is governed by women. Its leaders and warriors are all female. Both the town and castle are marked by their greenery and water. It’s lush and peaceful. The music of each castle in Final Fantasy IV reflects the character of its nation; the imperious Baron, the warrior-minded Fabul, the sadness of destroyed Damcyan. Troia’s music reflects peace and contentment.

Playing it as a kid, I was always impressed and intimidated by the order and symmetry of the castle, especially compared to the mish-mash style of the other castles. Troia is swarming with female warriors, but it is also the only castle that has frogs in the water, a seemingly insignificant but nice touch that makes the castle appear friendlier. There is a soldier inside who confesses that Troia has never been in a war before, but the impression given through exploring the town and castle is that Troia is a powerful nation that jealously guards her power. I always imagined that their military might is such that they wish to avoid war for fear of unleashing it, in the same way martial artists swear that the best way to win a fight is to avoid getting in one in the first place – a line of thinking I never understood as a child.

In furiously Googling conducting research for this piece, I came across some familiar scenes from Troia. Considering Troia is female run, it surprised me as a kid (and more surprising now) that the town is also home to a pretty robust prostitution racket. I’m sure there is an argument in here somewhere about the politics of sex and who has the upper hand, but I would have expected that in a matriarchal nation like Troia, prostitution wouldn’t feature so prominently. In the North American version of Final Fantasy IV, a lot of the text in the Troia was modified to try to present something other than what was going on (click here for an in-depth look at what was changed). Instead of a “pub” for example, they changed one location to a “Cafe.” Some of the lines that the patrons speak are completely re-written, making the whole visit awkward at times. Still, it wasn’t too difficult to decode that something scandalous was going on – even as a 12 year old kid.

The video below is from the “pub” in Troia, in which you have to purchase a special – and expensive – pass to gain access. It’s a strange departure in the game. Once you talk to the guy at the desk you get sucked into a performance that looks like a kind of cabaret show. There’s a creepy feel of being at a night club in the middle of the afternoon, with only one other patron in the audience and the normal, calm village music softly playing in the background until the show begins. During the show, Cecil gets pulled into one of the chairs and is surrounded by the dancing girls. It’s an old game with basic graphics, so you have to use your imagination as to what’s going on. I’ve always been haunted by the way Cecil dips his head after he is pushed into the chair. He looks shamed, and he holds it until all the girls leave, one by one and the town music fades back in.

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How a 1990s Strategy Game Predicted the Birth of ISIS

jake-busey-contact

Okay, that was a ridiculous headline.

But I’ve been thinking lately about¬†Civilization II, a game that I spent countless hours playing¬†in my attic room during summer vacations. I enjoyed taking a civilization from its infancy and growing it into the space age, trying my best to satisfy my bloodlust through war while being sure to keep some other civilizations alive to keep things interesting.

As the game progresses, from the stone age through medieval times to the present and beyond, I was always perplexed by the emergence of the ‘fanatic’ unit type. Usually towards the end of the play-through, when my civilization was technologically advanced and beginning to explore space, ‘fanatic’ units began to populate. They were a kind of dismounted infantry. They sucked at fighting and were easy to destroy. But they were annoying, destabilizing, and a distraction.

They came from governments that shifted to the ‘fundamentalist’ type. The fanatic units were aggressive and cared little for self-preservation.

As a teenager, I never really understood why such ‘backwards’ units would emerge. In the years before 9/11, I always pictured them as the Jake Busey-from-Contact type of fundamentalist, not the al Qaeda/ISIS variety. Still, they were attacking my mechanized infantry with waves of untrained ‘fanatics’ and it was annoying.

It’s interesting now to think of the ‘fundamentalist fanatic’ as a reaction to the civilization that’s sending men to the moon, but also working towards keeping the “other” civilizations at bay and away.

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Saving Catiua

Catiua Suicide
Catiua’s suicide.

I’m still slogging through Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. I’ve finally reached a point in the game that I remember reaching the first time I played it and abandoned it. I know I am nearing the end. Or, at least, I think I am nearing the end. When I played originally, I followed the Law route (which means you know what I did at Balamusa). I eventually got to the part where Catiua kills herself in front of you. It was pretty heavy stuff for the the fifteen year old me. Shortly thereafter, I stopped playing.

The other day, I finally rescued Catiua only to see her kill herself again. The game let me save just before the dialogue and I was presented with a couple of choices on what to say, which hinted at alternate outcomes. I took a deep breath, and before I continued with the game, I decided to reset it and see what would happen if I chose a different dialogue option.

Given the two options of dialogue, I chose the “other” one, which kept the conversation going a little longer opening up a second pair of dialogue options. I chose the option that I thought most natural, and she killed herself a second time.

I reloaded again, a l√° All You Need Is Kill / Edge of Tomorrow and went through the dialogue again, choosing the “other” option again, which resulted in Catiua collapsing and apologizing, and most importantly, not committing suicide.

A new cut-scene appeared and Catiua joined the party. I saved the game and went to lunch.

There, I started to regret resetting the game (twice!) in order to make sure Catiua joined. One of the things I love about Tactics Ogre (and Mass Effect) is how your in-game decisions have lasting effects. The in-game dialogue options hinted to me that there may have been a way to save Catiua – whom I assumed always killed herself on the Law route from my first play through over ten years ago. As I finished my lunch, I felt guilty for having made the wrong decision that led Catiua to kill herself and not accepting that fate and replaying it for a more favorable outcome.

The game, now, feels a bit skewed. I’ll finish it out, and once complete, there is an option to go back and make different decisions to “see what happens” and fully explore the game. That’ll be the first thing I do. But I feel a bit like an impostor.

The whole episode is similar to the death/saving of Shadow in Final Fantasy VI, which gets a great write-up over at the A.V. Club. In the era of GameFAQs, it is getting harder and harder to be surprised in video games anymore. Perma-death and game-changing decisions are still too easy to avoid or double-back over. Despite resetting the game to get the result I wanted, I know I would have enjoyed this part more if I would have accepted the consequences of my initial decision, which is why I did what I did at Balamusa, by the way. It’s also why I will forever “Tell them I held the line…

It’s all a bit complicated. I thought it interesting and I wanted to get it down here before I forgot about it. There’s so much to say about Tactics Ogre – a very adult game, way before it’s time.

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“Inside kids” are the new “outside kids” – video games and war

I wrote a short piece on the new Task & Purpose blog about the military and gaming. The force behind the blog is Hirepurpose, a company “committed to addressing some of the incredible gaps that exist in the transition from military service to civilian career success.” The blog is new, but has promise.

Check it out.

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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.

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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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“Gender-Neutralizing” Call of Duty

Female Call of Duty

I’ve never been a big fan of the Call of Duty series. Not because it’s bad, but because I just haven’t really played it. I am completely aware, however, of its reach and popularity with the gaming public generally and the military gaming community specifically.

That’s why I found it interesting when it was revealed that the next generation of Call of Duty games will include playable female characters in what is considered to be one of the more “realistic” combat shooters. As an aside, if you want an “ultra-realistic” version of combat, try this. Or at best, play Mass Effect.

I assumed that the decision to include female fighters was Infinity Ward’s way of responding to the rescission of the combat-exclusion policy, or the recent test runs by the USMC to start allowing women to try out for infantry.

Turns out, the reason was actually technological.

Apparently, the game engine has to work overtime if there are different “models” being drawn onto the screen at a given time. If there are only “male models” then the processing power is less. Adding “female models” eats up double the processing power.

Well, it looks like they figured out how to address that and now women and men can kill each other without slowing things down. Additionally, the developers ensured that even given the female character’s slighter frame and size, there is no competitive advantage to choosing to play as a female.

“Even on the female characters, we can’t make them smaller,” Rubin said. “They have to have gear on them that makes them the same size as male players. We need to be fair. It has to be fair from a gameplay standpoint.” As a result, the female soldiers may appear to have slightly differently-shaped bodies, but the areas that count as their bodies as far as the game’s bullets are concerned will be the same shape as men’s. “They might look differently, but they’ll fill the same area so that your hit-boxes aren’t out of whack.”

In other words, Infinity Ward found a way of integrating women into the virtual combat arms of Call of Duty without changing the standards.

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