Something very bizarre and wonderful happened to me while playing Medieval 2 Total War the other night.
I should perhaps describe this game. The year is 1428 and playing as the Sicilians, I've conquered a good deal of the known world. Having pacified North Africa, I conclude that the next logical step is to retrace the steps of the Moors (a faction I had recently wiped off the map) and invade the Iberian peninsula from the south. This meant war with Spain, a minor power in my game. Through politics, tribute, and the occasional assassination I had the Catholic Church in my pocket, so most of the college of cardinals were Sicilian, as was the pope himself. Naturally inclined to see things my way, the pope excommunicated the Spanish king, isolating the Spaniards from the other kingdoms of Europe. Then at my behest a Crusade was declared against the Spanish heretics. My army, battle-tested from the campaign in North Africa and bolstered by crusading warriors hoping to absolve their sins by helping me kill some Spaniards - a Crusade can be terribly convenient for an expansionist power - crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and left devastated, scorched farmlands in their wake as they marched on Madrid.
In other words, I've been playing as a scheming manipulative bastard that would make Machiavelli proud, because that's how you win in this game. Through its flavor-setting loading screen quotations, Medieval 2 openly acknowledges its Machiavellian game mechanics. It is a depiction of a Hobbesian international order where one must conquer or be conquered. The simple imperative is expand or perish: either I acquire more territory, more taxable citizens and thus a larger army or I will become prey to my more acquisitive neighbors.
But something strange happened when the armies met at the banks of the Tagus. The two armies formed into lines and I held my men back as cannon and mortar bombarded the Spanish defensive position atop a hill. Lacking cannon of their own, the Spanish could do nothing but hold their position as my guns softened their lines in preparation for an assault. Now, some more relevant context about the game: one of the cool things about Medieval 2 is its impressive battle engine - a fully 3D depiction of a middle-ages battlefield that is capable of rendering thousands of units onscreen at once from an aerial perspective but also allows you to zoom in and see the action in all its glorious hand-to-hand detail.
The thing is, the distant, godlike aerial view is the one that's far more practical for actual command, as when in the trenches it's easy to miss broader developments on the battlefield. For this reason I hadn't actually spent much time "on the ground," which I suppose could be some kind of metaphor for the comparative wartime experience of the generals and the actual grunts. In any case, there was little else to do while my cannonballs rained down on the Spanish so I zoomed in, with some glee, to see the devastation my guns were visiting upon the enemy. This is when the bizarre event occurred.
As I watched, a mortar shell landed in the midst of the Spanish lines, throwing soldiers in all directions. Then, a few of the fallen men staggered up, shook the stars from their eyes, and found their feet. In defiance of all sane human instinct for self-preservation, the entire line formed ranks to close the gap my mortar had just created in their battle lines, stepping atop the bodies of their just-fallen comrades to do so, even as shells continued to rain down around them. Another shell landed in their ranks not far away. Again the survivors picked themselves up and closed ranks over bloodied corpses.
It was a poignant sight, the fatal drama of these hopelessly outnumbered soldiers doing their duty and constantly reforming their continually diminishing lines. With some guilt I realized that my extended artillery bombardment wasn't even necessary. My army was vastly better-trained, better-equipped, and better-manned than the Spanish citizen militia fighting to defend their homes, but I subjected them to a full barrage of guns because I am the sort of perfectionist gamer and Machiavellian schemer that seizes every possible advantage - and I wanted to watch some explosions, too. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation from too many M2TW all-nighters, but I actually felt sorry for these little polygonal warriors. Pity swelled in my chest and my shriveled Machiavellian heart ached in sympathy for the pixels.
This experience was in part so unlikely, so alien, because empathy for the enemy is such a rare experience in video games in general, and indeed may even be anathema to the whole gaming experience. It's hard to have much "fun" - which is what most people expect from a game, though I think it's an awfully limiting metric for evaluating aesthetic merit - if you're killing a whole bunch of people that you sympathize with. Instead, a game needs to create a firm boundary between "The Self" and what intellectuals like to call "The Other," which is a pithy and pretentious way of saying "something that is not at all like me and is in fact something I can define myself against (in the case of most video games, by killing lots of Them)."
When game graphics were primitive this was all relatively straightforward. Whether you were hopping on turtles in Super Mario or shooting at aliens in Space Invaders the "enemy" was pretty clearly an abstraction, a pixelated representation of something else. As game graphics have improved and the distance between the representation and the actual object collapsed, though the depersonalization becomes increasingly complicated. In Wolfenstein 3D the Nazis were crude, cartoonish and clearly not "human," in Call of Duty 3 the distinction becomes much finer.
To resolve this predicament first-person games typically rely on the same tricks to dehumanize the waves of enemies that the player kills over the course of a typical game: make them aliens, or zombies, or Nazis, or robots, or best of all some combination of the four: alien zombies (Doom 3, Halo), alien Nazis (Half-Life 2), alien zombie robots (Quake 4). Perhaps the purest manifestation of this phenomenon is Return to Castle Wolfenstein's final boss, an alien/zombie/robot/Nazi. Strategy games haven't even had to employ these conceits. Simply set the player above the battle and the little units scurrying about in response to your every will, lobotomized peons without agency, become more insect than human.
I was thinking about some of this as I watched my artillery tear apart the Spanish. I thought about my long-suffering soldiers, who had campaigned for a decade beneath the scorching skies of North Africa only to be told that the road back home to Italy led through Spain, and oh by the way could conquer it for me while you're in the neighborhood? I thought about the deluded religious fanatics in my army, who fought and died for the cross without realizing that their beloved pope was my puppet and this entire "Spanish Crusade" was but a pretext for my avaricious lust for conquest. I thought about how by letting me abandon the omnipotent perspective of most RTS games for a grunts-eye view, Medieval 2 Total War was enabling a sort of empathy, a communion, with the poor souls on both sides of the battle line.
I was thinking about some of this as I watched my artillery tear apart the Spanish. I thought about my long-suffering soldiers, who had campaigned for a decade beneath the scorching skies of North Africa only to be told that the road back home to Italy led through a hostile Spain. I thought about the deluded religious fanatics in my army, who fought and died for the cross without realizing that their beloved pope was my puppet and the "Spanish Crusade" was but a pretext for an invasion to sate my avaricious lust for conquest. I thought about how by letting me abandon the omnipotent perspective of most RTS games for a grunts-eye view, Medieval 2 Total War was enabling a sort of empathy, a communion, with the poor souls on both sides of the battle line.
Then my artillery ran out of ammunition, so I advanced my lines, executed a textbook-perfect double envelopment, sent their entire army fleeing, ran down the panicked Spanish beneath the iron-shod hooves of my cavalry so they couldn't regroup to defend Madrid, and executed all the prisoners captured in battle rather than release them to fight another day.
But I did feel kind of bad about it afterwards.
Appendix (AKA the ungainly paragraph that didn't fit gracefully anywhere else so I'm sticking here at the end):
To give full credit to the developers, Medieval 2 also has something of an antiwar - or at least a war-is-terrible - sentiment, even as its very mechanics encourage constant expansion and conquest. Quotations from the likes of Erasmus or Martin Luther on the horror of war are displayed in place of Machiavelli in some of the loading screens.