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So after playing SCMRPG! and enjoying playing & reviewing that (well, enjoying the reflection that the game inspires while playing, obviously not a lot of “fun” was necessarily had), I went looking through Manifesto’s and Game Tunnel’s lists of games for something that might be similarly thought provoking.

Wow, was that ever depressing… I probably spent about an hour wading through all the clones – Diablo clones, space shooters, match-3’s, etc. The best or most intriguing games were the very polished genre entries, which had enough of their own style and well-thought out perspectives on established genre gameplay (so far all I downloaded was Mr. Robot, and I know I still need to get to Defcon). Still, not quiter what I’m looking to play at the moment.

Not a whole lot out there to satisfy this particular gaming fix – something that makes me think (think-think, and not strategize, I mean), and is something I can play for a half hour to an hour just once or more than once, depending on how compelling it is). I did remember reading about Peacemaker (you play either the Israeli prime minister or Palestinian president). The free demo only allows 8 turns so i just went ahead and bought it.

On my playthroughs I typically get ousted by lack of public support, even if I’m making progress towards peace or world opinion of me is high. The game does a great job of pointing out how overconstrained the problem is. As Israeli leader you can have people signing petitions to take down security walls, but the army may just refuse to do it. Settlers may ignore your order to freeze construction of settlements. You can spend money on domestic social or economic initiatives, but that earns the criticism of the hawkish parts of the government.

I’d say the Palestinian leader is at least somewhat more fucked – you have to get aid before you can do anything to improve the domestic situation, and you have to negotiate with both Fatah and Hamas. You can’t increase law and order without pissing off Fatah and Hamas, you can’t really effectively do anything to reduce their power without pissing off the public, and you can’t get aid from non-Arab states if Fatah and Hamas are very active.

So naturally, while you the game leaves you with a picture of how screwed the situation is, it also highlights the hopelessness of it. I mean, you already feel powerless as a regular person to do anything, but when most of your choices as a leader don’t really do anything either, you realize both leaders are also sort of powerless to do anything effective about it. You try to think of what you could do differently about the situation, but none of the choices available to you have much impact (what you need is to get cooperation from every party, and you can’t do that).

The game steadfastly avoids numbers – as the Palestinian leader you have to request aid before you can build infrastructure, but you don’t really know if it’s enough or if the action will even go through. It also avoids any tactical picture – you can choose to remove or add military forces, but not from any particular area (although the game shows you where there are hotspots of violence).

Some of these things are clearly done to give the view of the problem they want to – a president isn’t really making tactical decisions, and you shouldn’t be focusing on numbers (like the amount of money in the bank) or troop locations but instead on the parties involved and how you’ll have to influence them to reach your goal. So while I think it definitely achieves it’s goals and is pretty interesting to play, it does make me want to analyze some of those design patterns a little more (so you’re forewarned, the review-y-ness this entry may be taking a backseat, and it’s heading straight for silly design prognostication).

When you make a decision you’re typically never clear whether the action will succeed (you have these poll and opinion numbers, but any relationship with the success of a single action is largely unclear), and you’re definitely not clear whether the effect of action will be the desired one (ie even you take down a portion of security fences, will that improve relations, public opinion, or reduce violence?). Making both unclear across the board on decisions does focus on the hopelessness of the situation, but also makes playing the game a pretty difficult affair – I can’t wonder if there’s a way to get at the same feeling while compelling the player a little more.

Would more variety on that achieve that goal better? If there were certain actions which you’re very clear whether or not the action itself will succeed but don’t know if the action will help meet your goal vs. sometimes you know the action will help your goal, but you’re not sure if it will succeed. Doing both all the time is somewhat simplistic – maybe a good thing for a game trying to reach a very broad audience, but the game already has a lot of complexity in the different meters of public opinion – you’re just never sure of their effects.

Relatedly, there’s no feedback when choosing actions as to what their purpose is – Once you choose an action and are presented with more options the advisors (a hawk and a dove) do a good job of telling you the different perspectives, but when you’re initially choosing between military force vs. police force, it’s not super clear immediately what the difference might be. You sort of figure it out eventually, after trying all of them multiple times, but a little tooltip can go a long damn way.

Throwing a little mix of these mechanics & feedback might make it a bit easier to get into. So your action in one turn may succeed (so you’re not immediately put off), but you still have to perform many more actions to reach your goal. Once you reach your goal, maybe then it turns out the goal wasn’t as effective as you thought and you should have been spending your time elsewhere. So you’re trying (as Israeli leader) to convince Israeli settlers to scale back –  you increase security to make them feel better, you give in to some other demands here or there, get them to agree to pull back (so having the information that asking them to pull back at any point up till know is crucial feedback to to properly planning how to solve your goal).

When you do get them to pull back though, maybe the Palestinians have become angry at the increased security, and other outbreaks of violence have lessened public opinion of you. So the frustration you feel after one action failing is spread out along your whole path of achieving your higher level goal. I would think the payback of having the player realize how difficult the conflicting demands on their attention are is increased by making the scope of the failed decision bigger/longer, while decreasing the momentary frustration of not having any feedback on your action’s success or failure.

Also interesting is telling the player of the payoff to their goal (eg. getting settlers to pull back will decrease violence by X, increase Palestinians positive attitude towards Israelis by Y). You’re left trying different actions, many of which fail until one finally gets you to your goal. All the minor frustrations along the way are offset by the clear feedback on your higher level path – and it gives you some perspective on the difficulty the leaders have in choosing what approaches they use to solve their problems, and in roder to succeed you have to try many different takes on the problem, which can lead you to spending too much time on any one issue (admittedly, the reflective payoff of having the player realize this is somewhat lessened by focusing them on the carrot of what their goal will achieve).

I really liked (back to review-y-ness) the take on the media – the news titles for events that come up are wonderfully spun towards each biased perspective. Play both and it really becomes apparent what effect this can have. You also have the ability to give speeches on various topics. What you want to talk about is arguing for a specific policy change to improve a certain problem that you know is part of the greater whole (like reducing settlements or security forces in an area), but youronly options are to talk about vacuous things like the peace process, arguing for or against violence, and making very general demands on the other side or the world. Because even if you did have a specific plan to solve small problems that would move towards larger ones, that’s not what people want to hear or will remember.

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