WAR GAMES: The ARMA Series’ Simulacra and Simulation
We move through the shallow valley slowly and cautiously at around 17:00. Flanked by trees on both sides, we bound from cover to cover. The entire area glows with the early evening light. On any other day, it would’ve been a nice day for a barbecue. All sectors are covered. My unit is Bravo 2, a 5 man fireteam doing a sweep and clear of grid location 072 085 so our platoon can move up and take a ridge. Our squad leader calls into our platoon ops command to update our progress. No enemy contact so far. It’s almost kind of wonderfully boring: that dangerous moment where you drift off and start to think about what’s for dinner. A small cough of smoke puffs from a nearby tree. Then the noise of the sniper fire catches up to the bullet: a sharp, angry crack.
“Contact! Hill to the west!” Our AT calls out. I switch optics on my Leupold HAMR site to long-range and get to cover.
“Command, this is Bravo 2. we have sniper contact to our west. No one’s hit. We’re engaging.”
“Copy, Bravo 2,” The voice over the radio coldly acknowledges.
Oh shit. Mortar fire. We got sucked into engaging a sniper and now we are fucked royal. We have two options: get moving or die and get moving or die.
Our squad leader squawks to us: “Fall back to 073 084.” To Command: “Command, we have incoming mortar fire from unknown. We are moving south east to 075 084.”
“Copy. Overwatch is aware. Scrambling Alpha 1 KA 60 heading 320.” Nice. The cavalry coming up behind us. Cue Ride of the Valkyries.
There’s not enough time. We’re zeroed in. A new barrage hits our position and everyone is dead except for me. I’m left barely alive, my vision totally blurry, breathing heavy. I can’t hit the side of a barn. I simply go prone and radio in my position. This entire clusterfuck happened in about 30 seconds.
Welcome to ARMA, gentlemen.
Band of Brothers
The most amazing thing about the above story is that it didn’t happen as part of an elaborate cutscene or animated set piece. That valley of death was an emergent part of the game: a synchronicity of player choices and actions that led to all of us dying spectacularly. Those voices? Other players. My own panic? All mine, baby. As I was waiting the agonizing (but totally respectable) 2 minutes to respawn, I was laughing the entire time. You see, in ARMA, losing is fun. Losing is learning. What I learned from that encounter: you can’t control every situation.
ARMA‘s single-handed dedication to simulation is both its greatest strength and weakness. In this final edition of War Games, I’ll examine the ARMA Series, in particular ARMA II and III Alpha, and their usage of simulation to create the most immersive, engaging, and worthwhile military gaming experience ever.
There’s no such thing as a lone wolf in ARMA. No one-man army tearing up the match and getting a 50/1 KTD ratio. Those don’t happen very often, and when they do, punishment comes quick and fierce as a carefully aimed shot rips through their player. In fact, you may go an entire ARMA match without firing at a single visible enemy. You may be tasked with spotting for snipers, repairing vehicles, going medic on fireteams, recon, and a thousand other insanely important jobs that actually exist in the military, but never make it into games. The modern military shooter is about individual player empowerment, making you the singular American Hero. ARMA plays a different game: you’re an intricate and important part of a team effort to succeed. If one of us fails, we all fail. Victory belongs to everyone, not just a triggerman.
ARMA trumps cheap heroism for teamwork by making several important changes to the traditional shooter formula:
- Removes many artificial HUD elements communicating info too easily to players.
- Maps and compasses are crucial tools for navigation to an objective.
- Enemies are difficult to spot and one/two shots can kill.
- Players have specific roles in a fireteam.
- Implements a multi-channel radio system.
- An open world equals many emergent situations (like the one above).
Due to this intentional obtuseness in how the game displays information, such as almost completely lacking in objective markers, enemy silhouettes, or regenerating health, communicating with your team makes or breaks a mission. It’s on you and everyone alike. If your team can’t talk to each other, you’ll end up in a situation where victory is impossible. This one aspect of the game is what sets it almost above every other shooter: the dependence on others to win. Multiplayer arenas in shooters are hyper-unreal: an intensely artificial bowl of continual, mindless action that shits on the truth of military life: that you depend on the person next to you as much as yourself.
The lack of HUD information, such as objective markers and easily seen enemies, provides a unique sense of tension nonexistent in other games. It’s military rogue-like. You can be killed in one or two hits (if the hit is on a limb or shrapnel), so the dependency on your squadmates to call out contacts and communicate a combat situation to you couldn’t be more valuable. Everyone needs a headset. Everyone needs to be aware. You’re not a near-invincible superhero, you’re a person, fully capable of death and failure and all the scorn in the world if you think otherwise. Maps and compasses actually have to be brought up, just like in real life, and usage of these tools, as well as your own careful eyeballs, is deeply immersing. You’re interacting with a game object in the exact same way you would in a real situation.
This sense of camaraderie and teamwork does more justice and truth to military life than any scene of self-less heroism in any other shooter. It’s not just a single moment where you raise the USSR’s flag above the Reichstag, it’s every moment you’re in the game you’re part of a unit. A team. An intricate part of a larger operation. That feels intensely gripping, un-emulated in any other experience.
FUBAR: Difficult by Design
The reason the ARMA series has enjoyed a fevered cult community and not mainstream success is that ARMA is goddamn hard to pick up. That’s just the skinny of it. It’s clunky, counter-intuitive, and near impenetrable at first glance. This is the default control scheme:
After you’ve un-Eschered your mind, take another look at it. There’s literally a button for everything, including saluting and sitting down on the ground. The overly complex control schemes, once understood, can provide insanely detailed movement and command options for your character. Beyond the control scheme, there’s the lingo, how to read maps and compasses, how to use their multi-channel radio, how to decipher navigation symbols, how to organize units, how to command AI, and an assortment of other things the game simply doesn’t teach you how to use in a logical way. Weapons use model numbers and weapon switching involves a drop down menu.
For all the shit I shovel on console shooters, one positive thing they gave us were simple control schemes conducive to a high-stress situation. Controllers only have a limited number of buttons to use, so developers had to maximize use of all those buttons. The keyboard’s a different animal and Bohemia went buck wild. There’s literally three options for changing to a prone stance and zero explanation in-game on how to use them to your liking.
There’s no hand-holding with ARMA, and I mean none, which I appreciate as a seasoned gamer but hated when I was first starting. The problem is, and always has been, that the new player has to overcome all of these obstacles before they can actually enjoy the game’s amazing experiences. I was compelled by ARMA‘s tension, it’s seriousness, it’s dedication to detail and realism. Battlefield never really captures that existential sense of dread that death can happen at any time. Sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes exhilarating, but always an emotional high unrivaled in other games.
The immense level of complexity makes ARMA a perpetual niche product, destined to be played by hardcore gamers accustomed to rogue-like challenge and Dwarf Fortress levels of impenetrability, but perhaps that’s where it should stay. I like my hipster military simulator. ARMA will never be a mainstream success because the game refuses to be anything but itself. I can appreciate that dogged determination to not dumb itself down. But maybe instead of dumbing itself down, ARMA could reform the way it does tutorials, make its command interface resemble something I can use quickly, and simplify its controls with single one-line explanations. ARMA III is the best chance in years for the series to break out, and not just from a Greek prison. I’ve never seen a developer arrested for trying too hard for realism before.
My advice to Bohemia Interactive is the following: stay true to your game. Don’t change how the game works or plays. It’s a tense, surprising, amazingly simulacra of military action unrivaled by anyone. Simply give new players the tools to learn how immersive the game can be, and you have something beyond our expectations.
After Action Report
The ARMA series rightfully eschews many of the traditional tropes of the modern military shooter for something more closely approximating truth. I mean, it’s still a game with artificial conventions, but bent towards a respect and honesty about the military combat situation rarely seen before. The lingo in modern military shooters is just window dressing, in ARMA, it’s for real. Combat happen suddenly and is over in mere seconds. Weapons are lethal, impersonal machinery. Choices have permanent consequences. You can’t just hide behind cover and wait for your bloody eyes to dry up. You’re not a hero, you’re a soldier.
Bohemia Interactive is striking their own confusing path through the wilderness of hyper-excitement, Hollywood explosions, and grimy sweaty grunts to a realm of golden simulation. War in the modern age is a complex and confusing affair, with bad choices and lack of communication everywhere, so maybe it’s right that its most effective simulacra be just that: a grey zone of hidden enemies and constant dread.
War is not fun sometimes after all.