Played through Global Conflict: Palestine this weekend. A lot of reviewers these days complain about the simplicity of moral choices in games like Bioshock – well, the words simplicity, moral, and choice have probably never been used in the same sentence with respect to Palestine. And only rarely the word game…
You play a journalist, collecting quotes from people to write your articles. Generally the game plays like a Bioware-style RPG. Run around, talk to people, advance some plot, collect some things. In fact, I almost wish the team had actually made it as a Neverwinter Nights mod. Of course they probably couldn’t have sold it, but it would have solved a lot of simple polish issues with the game, as it’s pretty rough.
I’m not talking about the way people disappear in cutscenes or cars that turn in 45 degree increments, but basic interface problems. There’s no save ability during a scenario as far as I could tell. Failing to find an option in the menu, I decided to try and quit to see if maybe it would prompt me to save. This would be the first of several, serious, soul searching moments where I would contemplate not continuing the game (or also the risk of slamming my keyboard into my glass desktop).
This shit may sound nitpicky, but you’d be suprised how much it can detract from the experience. The M key opens the map screen, but you actually have to click the close button to close (instead of, say, hitting M again). You can’t hold down the mouse button in a direction to keep your character walking – as your character progress along the screen, you have to keep clicking otherwise he/she will stop. You often have to travel long distances, so you’ll be spending entire minutes of gameplay clicking at 2 second intervals (the time it takes your character to get to the edge of the screen and stop) to get your character to walk in a straight line. If this is what Ian Bogost means when he says games have to be more boring, well that’s just (fill in buzzer noise) WRONG.
Then there’s some stuff that just seems out of place. The ability to select your name when you start – despite the seriousness of the topic, it was still tough to overcome the natural instinct to enter “Bitchy McBitch” (although I managed). The side quests are bizzarre. You have a couple contacts for which you can run errands for, to “help your standing” the Israeli/Palestinian community. It’s probably one of the more narratively out of place justification for fedex quests I’ve seen, but hey, it’s not like I even understand the story of Halo 3 yet, so whatever.
I did like the journalist mechanics – they’re simple but compelling. You can take a quote of most dialog given by NPCs, and store it in a 15 quote inventory. You can only delete quotes outside of conversation, so you have to make sure you have enough space going into a conversation. The 15 quote limit is a little artificial (you only have one piece of paper left on your notepad?) but it works.
At the start of each scenario you pick which paper you will be writing for: an Israeli paper, a European/global paper, or a Palestinian paper. Each paper is looking for a different perspective, and your article will be judged by different standards. Besides capturing the way different media outlets portray the same events, it also allows you to take on the interesting goal of trying to place a story that includes the perspective you think is valuable while at the same time potentially conflicting with the paper’s outlook. (Although for a game that is trying to convey a theme about media bias, it seemed like most of the eyewitness accounts at the end of each scenario were from a Palestinian perspective.)
At the end of the scenario, you choose three of the quotes to put in your article (in various positions, although I couldn’t precisely determine if the positions varied the effects of the quote). You also choose from one of three headlines (usually a pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, & neutral headline), and one of several real-life related pictures. It’s too bad in-game photo taking mechanics were probably too complex for the game, they would integrate very well.
As you make changes to the article you see the resulting score changes. There’s a measure of news-worthiness, how much your reporter ranking will increase, and how aligned the article is to Israeli and Pelstinian causes. Interestingly, they don’t make those two alignments conflict on one scale, you can in theory be aligned to both sides. Since you can see the results as you make changes, you spend a bit of time trying to maximize your point score vs. the position you want to take & the elements you want to include.
The dual alignments are also a nice way of squeezing a little more complexity out of some of the decisions in game. As a practical matter, they often have to be in favor of one side, but now you can have 4 distinct variants (pro-Israeli+antiPalestinian and vice versa, and then decisions in favor of one side without detrimenting your alignment to the other side). Obviously, two sliders aren’t the most nuanced way of capturing moral complexity, but it’s better than one slider! Twice as good, even.
The plot threads & structure generally work well, the way characters are introduced and fill roles in later missions to give you a sense of connection to the series of events. There’s a good ongoing plot thread involving the family of a man who is arrested in the first mission for possession of weapons, their family is attacked by settlers & persecuted by the IDF, and at least one of the sons turns to violence. A character who works for B’tselem (an Israeli human rights organization) first serves as a purely “tell us some real-life facts about issue x” – except for the fact that she has only one arm. When tasked with doing a story on suicide bombing, she becomes one of your interviewees. Your editor, who’s been giving you advice along the way, is later killed by a suicide bomber in that same scenario.
The actual dialog, however, isn’t that great. While the characters each do bring a unique perspective (giving you good choices for how to spin your article), the character voices are generally pretty bland. The branching is occasionally dumb-founding. Sometimes you can lie about which paper you’re working for to help get someone to talk. Other times you just can’t, even if it would seem helpful.
At one point, I had talked to a Palestinian farmer about to lose his land to Israeli settlers. For a number of reasons I had decided to side with the farmer over the settlers (like them throwing stones at both me and the farmer), but I had gotten the leader of the settlers to give me the paperwork to finalize the taking of the land from the farmer (naturally, I had to deliver it somewhere). My last dialog choice basically involved declaring my intent to talk to the farmer first or go straight to deliver it. Of course, if my plan is to “misplace” the paperwork, I’m not going to tell him I’m going to talk to the farmer – but as soon as I had picked the second option, the farmer was removed from my map as an option of someone to go talk to. Instead of letting me talk (lie) and act separately, the game had instantly forced me into picking the side I did not want. Given the game’s focus on how differing perspectives can be portrayed to influence people, you’d figure they’d do a better job of being able to present different perspectives of your own in dialog.
I did actually learn a thing or two along the way. I hadn’t know that a Shahid (martyr/suicide bomber) doesn’t just go to Paradise being absolved of sin, but they get to pick 70 of their family members to go with him. (Hmm… I wonder if anybody ever plays that up – better be nice to me or I’ll pick some other family members to take with me to Heaven after I go die in a suicide attack.)
Still though, the game approaches such differing perspectives stiffly. The characters explain the various concepts involved in jihad and why suicide bombers do what they do, but the game, hampered by the dialog, is often stilted when trying to anything emotional to connect you to that perspective. At one point you’re kidnapped by Palestinians who are out of work and desparate for someone to tell their story – they manage to come across as dumb more than as deserving of pity or connection.
But, it’s a tough problem. You want to make a game that explores this conflict in a way that gets each side really considering the other’s perspective, but you just can’t take an issue like suicide bombings and try and deal with it in this relativist “oh everybody’s got a different but valid perspective” sort of way, because the topic instantly polarizes each side, rightly so.
I think I’d make two games. One would maybe be similar in structure to this, but from a distinctly Israeli perspective, having to deal with the constant threat of bombings, friends and family being killed. The other, you’d be an out of work Palestinian, growing increasingly frustrated, having to scrounge for ways to support your family, living in the fear of Israeli attacks, until you choose to become a Shahid. The epiphany of understanding that escapes most of us, why someone would strap a bomb to their chest to kill, is an epiphany that cannot come from a book or a movie. It can only come in game form – if ever.