For The A.V. Club’s Cold War Week, Samantha Nelson pulled out a special edition of Gameological Unplugged that took a look at games based on the decades-long conflict. Naturally, the headliner was Twilight Struggle, a beloved game that uses a lot of real Cold War history in its various components. CNightwing explained how it captured the paranoia of the time:
Twilight Struggle absolutely deserved it’s long reign at the top of the BoardGameGeek chart. (It was recently ousted by Pandemic Legacy.) It’s not an easy game to learn and is quite hard to become good at, but nothing invokes Cold War paranoia in quite the same way than having to play an opponent’s card, knowing you’ve run out of options, and you’re about to hand over Egypt or Vietnam to tip the balance of those regions into enemy hands. Sure, you get to use those operations somewhere, maybe you can even counteract the event, but for the most part you just have to accept your lot and get on with it.
I love Twilight Struggle, but I would say it teaches less about the Cold War as it actually transpired, and more about the Cold War as imagined by containment theorists. The actual Cold War wasn’t a two-player game, but you did have an awful lot of people (especially on the American side) trying to play Twilight Struggle.
And r00k33 filled us in on a couple of follow-ups from Twilight Struggle’s creators:
Once you dive down the Twilight Struggle hole, there are two games from GMT that are worth looking at as follow-ups:
The first is thematically tied. 1989: Dawn Of Freedom directly mimics most of Twilight’s mechanics, but instead of pitting two major superpowers against each other, the game details the fall of the Iron Curtain by having one person represent the liberal and democratic forces within the Eastern Bloc and the other player represent Moscow trying to hold on to its European stranglehold. Scoring works a bit differently and there are definitely more sacrifices of theme in favor of gameplay, but it’s still a great alternate experience to vanilla TS.
The second is probably the better game: Labyrinth: The War On Terror. This game is also global, and lets one player represent the U.S. and its allies and the other player represent the global force of terrorism. The game is respectful, tight, and tense, and there are enough differences in the mechanics for it to feel notably distinct from Twilight Struggle.
I still think Twilight is the best of the three, but if one tickles your fancy, the others certainly will, too.
Tim Mierzejewski had another recommendation:
One of my favorites is only loosely based on the Cold War, despite its cover art: Confusion: Espionage And Deception In The Cold War. It’s a fairly simple game where you’re each trying to get your spy pieces to the “Top Secret” briefcase in the center of the board and take it to the homeland, but the kicker is that you don’t know what moves are legal for your pieces to make. You try to move one of your pieces, and your opponent tells you whether that was a legal move or not. There’s a good deal of deduction and wishful thinking throughout the whole game. It’s a fun, if uneven, two-player game from 1992, but it saw a reprint a few years back. I recommend giving it a shot!
Earlier today, Drew Toal dropped some thoughts on Quantum Break, the shooter game-meets-TV-show project from Remedy Entertainment. Drew argued that the game never quite brought its two halves together, and while he found its live-action interludes entertaining enough, they ended up feeling like anachronistic reminders of a particularly embarrassing era in video game history—the time of FMV games. Wolfman Jew wondered if there could be a more experimental approach for this sort of dual-medium storytelling:
I’ve been thinking recently about the possibility of games that use “different” or contrasting media to present information. Think something like Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, but using live-action footage or an entirely different graphical engine. The story could even be something along the lines of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where your protagonist tries to investigate some things that just don’t look “right” in the world. Instead of segregating it to cutscenes maybe a developer could use the idea to deliberately exploit the players’ feelings and senses?
There could also be a space for surreal comedy. I’m thinking a weird mixture of Night Trap with stuff like the Stanley Parable, Eternal Darkness, and even Sex House, where it starts off familiar and rote as you watch people in an environment until it slowly descends into increasingly insane madness. So as the game goes on, you control minor things that cause reactions from a small cast, who then respond in heightened and disturbing ways. Obviously there are huge limits to this; even without the live-action cast you’d never get the amount of responses you might find in something like Goat Simulator. But if the Red Alert cutscenes have taught me anything, it’s that live-action segments in video games do carry this touch of the ethereal (or more cynically, the carny) and that might give this premise more of a kick.
I get that using real footage is chintzy at best, and even Her Story—the only thing that’s ever used it to a degree of critical respect and “elegance”—still tries to distance itself from those Sega 32X games.
That’ll do it for this week, Gameologitrons. Thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week!