Meet the Developers Behind a Wargame About People, Not Weapons
'Burden of Command' looks at a familiar battlefield from an new and novel angle.
All images courtesy Green Tree Games
Take a quick look at your average World War II-themed game and you’re likely to find a heavy emphasis on weapons. Whether it’s loot crates full of skins for BARs and M1 Garands raining down on the beaches of Normandy in Call of Duty: WW2 or the Panzer variants featured in Company of Heroes, games about war are often games about firearms and tanks, and much less about the people who fought in the hedgerows and trenches. A developer named Luke Hughes aims to change that with the forthcoming Burden of Command .
“How do people react to these severe things, like fighting in the trenches of World War 1? I’m extremely interested in how people respond [to these situations] morally, spiritually, and emotionally,” Hughes said. He’s particularly fascinated with how these experiences forge leaders, and the goal of Burden of Command is to teach players something about leadership.
While it’s set in World War II and involves a healthy dose of battlefield tactics, Hughes is emphatic that Burden of Command is not a wargame, at least not in the traditional sense. The keyword for Green Tree Games, where he’s the project lead for Burden of Command, is leadership. As he describes it, Burden of Command is a “leadership role-playing game.”
There’s a weird paucity of titles that actually dig into the idea of what it means to be a leader. Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard is a kind of leader by dint of the series’ story, but the decisions you make as Shepard tend to be personal, and the outcomes of those choices only color the path you take through the predetermined narrative. Wargames try to recreate the complexity and scale of battle, but in the process individual soldiers disappear into abstract unit counters. For all the games we have about commanders and tactics, few of them ever try to say anything about leadership. Because it turns out that leadership is difficult to simulate.
“Eisenhower said, strikingly, that one of the few things that can be learned is leadership,” said Hughes, whose own academic background includes a PhD in AI from Yale and a master’s degree in neurophysiology and psychology from Oxford.
Modern militaries tend to agree with him: The U.S. Army’s set of core values is summed up with the mnemonic LDRSHIP (for loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage). Junior officers and cadets go through training that routinely assigns them more to do than they can feasibly accomplish with available time and resources, forcing them to learn how to make tough choices and triage priorities. Sergeants take lengthy leadership courses at every stage of promotion.
Hughes said they’re taking inspiration from what he calls “psychological games,” titles like This War of Mine, Crusader Kings II, and Darkest Dungeon—games that all prominently feature permadeath of characters. Burden of Command is using that mechanic to underscore the fact that leaders bear the responsibility for the lives of the soldiers they command.
“Look, there’s been enough games that have gone, ‘It’s tough to go to war,’ and This War of Mine does a lovely job of the emotional and psychological experience of being in a conflict zone,” he said. “But very few games have covered what it’s like to be responsible for people’s lives in that situation, which is an extra and unusual burden.”
Burden of Command follows a historical company of U.S. soldiers, part of the Army’s 7th Infantry Regiment “Cottonbalers,” through some of the now-familiar beats of World War II. And even though if you squint a bit the game might look like a familiar wargame complete with hexes and unit counters, its focus is on relationships rather than rounds of ammunition and armor levels.
For Hughes, empathy and what he calls “emotional authenticity” are the focal points for the design of Burden of Command. The studio has set out a rather prickly design problem: synthesizing battlefield tactics and doctrine with moral decisions about how to respond to the needs of your men in a way that’s both historically accurate and engaging on a deep level. And to do this, they’ve shifted their focus away from rounds per minute statistics and onto the psychological concept of suppression—which is, essentially, the tactical application of fear.
“Most games treat firepower as the essence—I mean, pick a shooter. It’s all about landing those bullets, that’s how you win. Wargames too, for that matter, focus on firepower,” Hughes explained. “In our game, it’s all about fear of death. So when you fire at the enemy, you probably don’t kill them. If they’re not fools and running around in the open, they’re probably down on the ground, behind some cover, and you’re not going to hit them.”
Estimates vary, but during World War II it took something on the order of 8,000 rounds of ammunition to inflict a single enemy casualty. Keeping enemy soldiers pinned down with rifle and machine gun fire was often much more important than actually scoring hits for most infantry operations, and as Hughes explains, making that final push toward the enemy required not only courage but also an incredible amount of trust in leadership. It came down to a leader’s ability to inspire his troops for them to make that charge over the berm and—hopefully—secure a surrender or retreat from the suppressed enemy troops on the opposite side of the line.
In Burden of Command, whether soldiers listen to you will depend heavily on how they perceive you as a leader; whether you’ve shown yourself willing to take fire alongside them, whether you’ve generally made good decisions, and whether you’ve shown yourself to be empathetic and understanding during the long periods of quiet in between firefights. Dynamic story events will have players choosing whether to call in mortars on houses holding both civilians and German soldiers, and the men under your command will remember how you conducted yourself during these “crucibles.” The decisions you make at these pivotal moments will determine not only who lives and who dies, but also the kind of leader you ultimately become.
“You’re going to have to decide, will you be Eisenhower? Will you be Rommel? Will you be a Patton-type? What style are you going to adopt?” Hughes said. “What’s the journey for you as a player, and as a leader?” In Burden of Command, there are multiple possible approaches to the core issue: convincing people to do things they would categorically refuse to do under normal circumstances.
Accuracy is important to Huges, he says, because it’s part of having respect for the subject matter and for the people who were there. As he puts it, there’s history in his blood—his father, Thomas Parke Hughes, was not only a World War II veteran himself but also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history. His wife was in the Air Force and his son is currently serving in the same branch.
But he’s not taking on the historicity of Burden of Command on his own. Green Tree Games enlisted the help of John McManus, a professor of history and author of several books on war and U.S. military history, including a definitive account of the Cottonbalers, dating back to 1812. They’ve hired on an archivist to scour the National Archives for never-before-published photos and accounts of the Cottonbalers, and where they’ve found solid information on the men in the regiment, they’ve used it to help flesh out the characters in the game: real people who really fought, and sometimes died, in World War II.
But it’s the work of Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes that Hughes cites as one of the main inspirations for Burden of Command. As the commander of a platoon of Marines, Marlantes felt his experiences in Vietnam were profoundly spiritual, although not in the strictly positive way the term is usually understood.
“Mystical or religious experiences have four common components: constant awareness of one’s own inevitable death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people’s lives above one’s own, and and being part of a larger religious community such as the Sangha, ummah, or church,” he wrote in his 2011 memoir, What It Is Like To Go To War. “All four of these exist in combat. The big difference is that the mystic sees heaven and the warrior sees hell.”
For Marlantes, war was transformational and sacred, and he called it “The Temple of Mars”—a place where rituals were performed and human lives offered up as sacrifice.
Sacrifice was quite literal for line officers in World War 2. The survival rate for young lieutenants during their first 24 to 72 hours in combat action was terrifyingly low, and the threat of permadeath in Burden of Command is meant to be a reminder that even with the game’s focal shift away from bullets and weapons, the stakes for the men involved could not be higher, and that fear was the rational state of mind for anyone who found themselves in the Temple of Mars.
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Games deal with bullets and numbers because that’s an easy job for them to do. The first computers, such as ENIAC, were purpose-built for the U.S. Army’s Ballistics Research Laboratory to process complex artillery firing tables faster than humans could do it by hand. It makes some sense that it’s still easier to teach a computer how to figure out bullet drop over 200 meters from the muzzle of an M-14 than how to handle squishier, more penumbral ideas like the fear and loathing someone feels when they’re squeezing the trigger.
To help overcome this problem of representing human emotions in a game environment, Hughes approached some established game designers and writers early in the Burden of Command development process. In addition to historians like McManus, the project’s “brain trust” also brought onboard noted game designer/writer Chris Avellone and Sunless Sea and Fallen London developer Alexis Kennedy, who has also written for BioWare, Paradox, and Telltale.
Rather than try to design around the issue, Kennedy said he prefers approaching it head on.
“There’s always fundamentally going to be numbers beneath the surface of every single game, even if those numbers are the paragraph numbers you turn to in a choice-based narrative,” he said. “I’m all for making the numbers visible in some way rather than pretending they’re not there.”
Kennedy believes that everything a game tracks should be a considered design choice, and that being frank about your approach creates a valuable rapport between players and designers.
“If you and the designer have agreed to terms up-front to describe the kind of things that are going on… then the game layer becomes something more like a poetic form into which the narrative layer can fit, or with which it can align, rather than being something that the writer feels embarrassed about,” he said.
Kennedy’s discussions with Hughes in the early phases of design focused on the leadership traits, which they’ve called “mindsets,” that the game uses instead of the standard slate of strength, charisma, and dexterity stats. Burden of Command measures leadership based on ideas like “doctrine,” “cunning,” “professionalism,” and “discipline.” These are morality-agnostic: It’s not about min-maxing a character build or finding the “correct” path through the narrative, but rather about learning about the kind of leader you are through the choices you make. And very often, those choices aren’t between a clearly defined right and wrong, but rather between preserving lives and accomplishing a mission. As Hughes said, it’s a role-playing game.
Kennedy said he was excited by the prospect of setting out to be one kind of leader and finding yourself becoming someone else entirely.
“There’s a problem in interactive narrative very often where you decide who you’re going to be, how you’re going to be a ‘renegade’ early on, and that’s your decision made all the way through the game,” he said. “I would think the most interesting choice designs are those that cause you to revisit your conclusions.”
It remains to be seen how well Luke Hughes and the team at Green Tree Games are ultimately able to weave together these ideas. It’s not hard to talk to a developer in the midst of a passion project and feel that motivating passion bleed into you through conversational osmosis. It’s a great idea, but it’s something that has yet to be fully pulled off: the marriage of strategy, emotional investment, and historical verisimilitude.
Hughes has set up his own benchmark for success, though
“We will fail if you don’t feel personally engaged in that battlefield,” he said. “It’s you out there, and your men, and the guys that you have developed a bond with.”
The question that Burden of Command wants to answer is, what kind of leader are you, really? It’s easy to leaf through history books and find military leaders who have ascended to the status of mythic legend, and we get the chance to take to the field as Ulysses S. Grant or Boudica or Omar Bradley, retracing their steps and imagining ourselves in their boots in any number of games. But we aren’t those people, and neither are the countless thousands of officers and NCOs who have found themselves in Marlantes’ Temple of Mars, the crucible of war in which they’re changed from one kind of person into another. It’s not always easy to predict the kind of person you emerge as from a crisis, and in many cases the result is someone very different than the one we had imagined ourselves being.
“Eisenhower said there aren’t ‘born leaders.’ You learn,” Hughes said. “Which I hope is one of the things Burden of Command will do for you, is give you a learning experience. You have a journey where you learn to cope, and you learn to lead.”
You can read more about Burden of Command by following the game’s official developer blogs. It’s due out sometime this year.