When my brother Lewis and I were little we used to play ‘army’ a lot. It turned out that other kids called it ‘war’. We had a grandad with a shed full of wood-working tools and it wasn’t unusual for him to kit us out with wooden guns, swords and shields to act out our pretend fighting (I even got him to make a wooden brick once — yeah I know, I have no idea either). At some point we also got a load of military hats, enough to dole out to our friends, and on them we wrote in permanent marker ‘Sharpe’s Rifles’. Well that’s what I wrote anyway, nobody believed me when I told them ‘rifle’ was spelt with a single ‘f’.
War (or ‘army’) was one of the ways we used to enjoy ourselves, to us it was just a game — and this was before we had realised our favourite electronic past-time was our favourite electronic past-time. It was also before we knew what real war actually was. All I knew of real war were the images of burning oil fields in the Gulf and a mustacheoed man by the name of Saddam emitting from the TV at my grandparents. I didn’t understand it and truth be told my little brain didn’t want to either. To me and my brother, war was a disconnected but innocent role-play where we got to fictitiously shoot each other for fun.
When I was at uni I remember my flatmate saying that he wasn’t a fan of war games because he felt that they trivialised some of humanity’s darkest and saddest moments. I never forgot this sentiment but at the same time never gave it the thought that it really deserved. It was only recently when I was looking to purchase Arma II: Combined Ops that Armand from Bits ‘n’ Bytes Gaming said a similar thing, and this time it got me thinking.
Should war ever be fun? Much like mine and Lewis’ play fighting many years ago, with war games there’s a disconnect; a gap between the action and the very real things that make the prospect of war so terrifying to any sane individual. Gaming is a mechanical medium, so understandably war games tend to focus primarily on the physical, mechanical, action-oriented side of conflict, with only a fleeting secondary glance at the emotional. They’re about the weapons, the shooting, the killing, the blowing shit up, the taking cover, staying alive and being victorious. It’s not necessarily the action that’s at fault — after all many of these things could easily take place in any other action game — it’s the dish that it’s served on. For example, Company of Heroes or Call of Duty could, for all intents and purposes, be set in far flung sci-fi worlds without losing the essence of what they are really about (think along the lines of Dawn of War or Halo, in fact, just look at Battlefield 2142: essentially the same as any other Battlefield game but in a different time period and setting).
So what purpose do real-world theatres of war settings serve if not to draw criticism for their host games making light of them? Is it to offer some form of insight into these periods of time by cleverly tapping into history? Or perhaps to act as a lens to magnify a specific message? Or is it just a cynical and effortless way of shifting more units and/or bringing the game closer to home in a bid to give it more emotional clout without necessarily having to work to elicit it?
From my limited experience, a real-world theatre of war setting is often nothing more than window dressing for another po-faced, if cinematic and highly polished, shooter with little or nothing to really say. And I think that’s where the problem lies: war games that have nothing to say other than DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA; glamourous guns and glory porn for role-playing children, forumite sig dick-swingers and firearm freaks. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a cathartic slice of DAKKA pie as much as the next person, but in most war games it has a tendency to feel carelessly estranged from its source inspiration, like it’s missing the point. War is atrocious and tragic but war games rarely communicate this and if they do it often comes across as trite and glib. (Ahh, I’ve been wanting to use that word ever since I discovered it amidst the feedback for my final essay at university.)
Anyway, the long and short of this is that I just want to talk about Sensible Software’s Cannon Fodder, a misunderstood and unlikely anti-war war game that was, bizarrely, as fun as it was eloquent and touching. I’d go as far to say that it is one of, if not, the most important war game this medium has ever had, and it’s nearly 18 years old. It was way ahead of its time. A black comedy war game with a message ingrained in nearly all of its assets; it was in the title, the imagery, the music and in the very mechanics of the game itself. Cannon Fodder wasn’t set in any real-world theatre of war and had no great aspirations of recreating one either. It cherry picked the elements that would serve its message; the mortality of the soldiers, their identities, honouring them in life and death, eager replacements, collateral damage, mercy killing. What made Cannon Fodder such a controversial title however, was its approach. On the surface it seemed a brash and irreverent shooter that glorified war and violence but beneath that was a clever and composed game that too few truly engaged with. Here was its biggest problem:
The red poppy, a symbol of remembrance for the millions that fought and lost their lives during World War I and part of the logo for the Royal British Legion (a charity that provides support to members or former-members of the British Armed Forces), was planned to feature on the box art as part of the game’s logo. Needless to say this didn’t go down well with the Royal British Legion, the media or anybody else with a knee to jerk, and after mounting pressure the box art was redesigned before release without the poppy. The original logo remains in the game (as seen above) but is preceded by a disclaimer saying ‘This game is not in any way endorsed by the Royal British Legion’. Then there was the game’s tag line and theme tune (sung and composed by Jon Hare with the help of Richard Joseph):
‘War has never been so much fun.’
First impressions would tar this as crude marketing sludge, not unlike War Inc. Battlezone’s ‘War is big business and business is good’ (feel free to facepalm), but on the contrary; ‘War has never been so much fun’ was a satire on the glorification of war itself. The song went on to say:
‘Go to your brother
Kill him with your gun
Leave him lying in his uniform
Dying in the sun’
Even the box’s rear cover, a place typically adorned with screenshots and bullet points listing the game’s features, was featureless and simply said:
‘Don’t wait ‘til you see the whites of their eyes…
Don’t kid yourself it will be over by Christmas…
Don’t try to shut out the screams…
And don’t forget to wash your hands afterwards…’
Like the image of the poppy sandwiched between the words ‘Cannon’ and ‘Fodder’, it wasn’t exactly subtle but it was wry, unflinching, sharp and progressive, at least for a game. It was a potent and controversial mix, which probably explains why the media, in the wake of the poppy debacle, and like a chimp absent-mindedly scratching its balls, demonised the game without attempting to understand it or engage with it in any way. No surprises there then.
Cannon Fodder started with a seemingly innocuous green mound called ‘Boot Hill’ skirted by cutesy recruits lining up ready to enlist. This was the main ‘hub’ screen which punctuated missions and allowed you to load and save your progress. The recruits were your lives, both in traditional gaming terms but also as lives to command on the battlefield. Ironically, in Cannon Fodder the soldiers were treated as anything but cannon fodder; each recruit had a name and would be promoted for each successful mission they carried out, or alternatively commemorated on their death. The first few recruits were actually named after the developers themselves: Julian ‘Jools’ Jameson, Jon ‘Jops’ Hare, Stuart ‘Stoo’ Campbell and the late Richard ‘RJ’ Joseph. They were always the first ones to enlist and almost always the first ones to die.
At the top of the screen were home and away game scores showing how many soldiers you’d lost ‘away’ and how many you’d killed or scored ‘home’. This intentional terminology only served to reinforce the game’s satire. As you lost soldiers the hill would slowly fill up with gravestones and as missions came and went, more recruits would arrive. The juxtaposition between the home and away scores, the clusters of poppies lining the road, the gravestones gradually covering the entire hill, and the endless queue of recruits obliviously lining up in front of it, trailing off into the distance, eagerly waiting to replace the fallen, all with Richard Joseph’s melancholic ‘Recruits’ playing over the top, was perhaps the game’s crowning achievement. The Boot Hill screen was a summation and stark reminder of your actions, and as more and more soldiers were killed (both allies and enemies) it became a poignant image depicting the senselessness and tragedy of war, and even now remains every bit as affecting.
Playing similarly to Commando, and with a strangely appropriate resemblance to Lemmings, Cannon Fodder was a solid top-down, almost arcade, squad-based shooter. Each mission was divided into sections or ‘phases’, each with their own quirky title often referencing popular culture. Briefings were usually along the lines of ‘kill all enemy’, ‘destroy enemy buildings’, ‘rescue all hostages’, ‘kidnap enemy leader’ etc. Only when a mission was complete could progress be saved, so mid-mission deaths were likely to be permanent unless you wanted to load a previous save. The problem with reloading was that missions were often made up of several lengthy and dangerous phases so it wasn’t always a convenient option to start the whole lot again.
Over time each of your soldiers became a valued individual as they steadily progressed through the ranks and when you were several phases deep with an unscathed squad of veterans who’d survived against the odds, you were careful to keep them that way. Cannon Fodder was also unforgiving in that it only took a single bullet, explosion or stray piece of debris to kill a man, so death was never far away. This was especially true when destroying buildings because they had a tendency of throwing doors and rooftops your way after exploding. On occasion soldiers would also get injured and lie there bleeding, continuously screaming out in agony until you mercy killed them yourself or left them to die. There were also moments where you’d stumble across innocent and harmless locals and, while they often served no tangible purpose within the mission itself, I can’t help but feel as though they were put there as bait for the trigger happy and as symbols of collateral damage.
When all is said and done however, Cannon Fodder was a game, and a tremendously fun one to boot. I suspect many players were so busy enjoying themselves that they missed the game’s message amidst the fog of war. It wasn’t a message with a game lazily tacked on or a game with a message shoehorned in, each of its components elegantly supported one another in a way rarely seen in games.
How Cannon Fodder compares to its peers in other more developed media is up for debate — I say this on the back of recently watching the excellent Band of Brothers for the first time — but as a game, it’s the most meaningful, respectful and consequently mature war game I’ve ever played. Cannon Fodder was bold, unique and an important step for the medium, it’s just a shame so few seemed to notice.
From the instruction manual:
‘And on a more serious note: don’t try playing this at home, kids, because war is not a game – war, as Cannon Fodder demonstrates in its own quirky little way, is a senseless waste of human resources and lives. We hope that you never have to find out the hard way.’
If you intend on playing Cannon Fodder I highly recommend checking out the Amiga version using the fantastic WinUAE because the DOS version uses woefully inadequate MIDI to reproduce the sterling soundtrack.
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