Becoming Dragon: Race and the War Machine in Battle for Wesnoth's “Flight to Freedom”

Well, its been months, rather than the “week” I projected after my last post, but that's life in Graduate school. This post also wound up needing to be much longer (three times as long) despite having a much narrower focus. Also, I haven't added anchors to make the footnotes work. Oh well - I'll try to make time to do so tomorrow. As this post involves a critique of the conventions of Fantasy as a genre, including J.R.R. Tolkien's classic Lord of the Rings (LotR), I hope to to draw at least as many hostile posts as I did with “Muslim Massacre, Roach Toaster and Iji.” We'll see.

Before I can get into Battle for Wesnoth (Wesnoth) specifically, I need to establish a baseline for racial and postcolonial issues in fantasy fiction, including games. This is the part that would be least controversial in a purely academic setting, but that I expect will be most controversial on-line.

The short version is this: fantasy, and especially the subgenre of “Epic” or High Fantasy, contains colonial, racial and eugenic assumptions, and Tolkien's work is no exception: quite the opposite, it is the prototype for other Fantasy in terms of race relations just as it is in terms of everything else.

Lord of the Rings

There is an absolute notion of racial superiority in LotR: Elves are superior in every way, Hobbits are morally superior to Humans, themselves divided into a variety of races from the superior High Men of old to the debased (and Orientalized) Southrons, Dwarves are literally children of a lesser god,(1) and Orcs, the descendents of corrupted Elves, are intellectually and morally impovrished. Dungeons and Dragons (DnD), which shifted over time from imitating Tolkien's oeuvre to competing with Middle Earth for the role of standardbearer for the genre, obscures this “great chain of being”(2) in the name of game balance. On a tangent, MMORPGs like Everquest and World of Warcraft (WoW) are now competing with DnD for the role, as is evidenced by the MMORPG-like DnD 4.0.

One of the most important, and generally unquestioned, assumptions of Fantasy is in the word “race.” In Science Fiction, most “aliens” are, implicitly or explicitly, a different species, a modern scientific term that presumes an independent origin and genetic incompatibility. This is not the case in fantasy, where “race” means very nearly the same thing it did in colonial English: it describes different “human” peoples, who are (mostly) sexually compatible and capable of producing offspring and differentiated by bloodline or pedigree rather than heterogynous origin. Good breeding retains its old meaning: capability and manners are inherited and can be diluted though mixing with inferior bloodlines. One potential is determined by one's breeding: Aragon is of the lineage of Kings, whereas Boromir and his father, Denethor, are stewards and the descendants of stewards – when they seek to rise above their station, they become corrupt.

As noted, Tolkien's Dwarves, derived from the Dwarves of Teutonic legend, have an explicitly separate origin from Humans and Elves and thus may be a different “species,” but fantasy and especially DnD abounds with Half-Elves and other mestizo races such as Half-Orcs and Half-Dragons. Tolkien's Orcs are explicitly of Elvish stock, an idea which Peter Jackson explicitly worked into his adaptation of the books (3). Also in accordance with the old racial and eugenic model, it is possible to fall (there is no shortage of evil or low men in Middle Earth, and Elves and even the semi-divine Wizards are not immune to tempatation; but it is not possible to rise. There are no redeemed Orcs in Middle Earth, nor even any Southrons who see the light. Virtue as well as strength is in the breeding, and while it can be lost, it cannot be regained.

This is the root of a certain illogic that persists in Fantasy Gaming: Orcs, and other sentient but debased creatures are explicitly not “people” and are generally killed on sight by players, often preemptively. Even in games like the Warcraft games, where Humans and Orcs are balanced and equally playable, they are morally opposed, and it is the Humans who are associated with virtue. You can play the bad guys, but an Orc can't be a good guy, almost without exception.

The importance of all this can be summed up in a simple question: who (not what) is an Orc? In Jackson's movies, Orcs are primative, bestial, tribal, simple-minded, easily fooled, ferocious, even fearless in battle but also cowardly, treasonous and feckless. Visually, they have sloped foreheads, jutting jaws, irregualar but sharp teeth, narrow eyes, wide slits for nostrils, pointed ears (their only Elf-like feature) dark braided or dreadlocked hair, and dark skin. Jackson resisted the displacement (common in games) of giving them green skin, which makes the parallel to the colonial view of indiginous peoples, especially Africans, more obvious. Except for their High Fantasy weapons and armor, they are the very picture of the native savage: subhuman, apelike and dangerous, but obviously no match for the white adventurer.

Saruman's “perfected” Orcs, the Urok-Hai, die like flies at the white hands of Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and even Boromir, at the climax of The Fellowship of the Ring. They are marked with another white hand, that of Sarumon, whom they obey slavishly. In The Two Towers, the Elf and Dwarf make a game of war by competing for the most Orcish kills at Helm's Deep, anticipating deathmatch computer games like Quake and Halo by over fourty years.

After my last post, I was criticized for pointing out that, in Roach Toaster, all of the player's soldiers are white and the enemy is uniformly black or brown – black anthropomorphic cockroaches in Roach Toaster, brown giant roaches in the sequel. In Middle Earth, and in most fantasy, everyone is Caucasian in complexion except for the Orcs and other inherently evil races. The only non-white Humans we see in Jackson's films are the composite “Oriental” Southrons, who combine a Carthaginian military (in the form of their trained “Oilaphants”), Moorish North African complexion and dress, and a peppering of far eastern style. The are the very picture of Edward Said's Orientalized other: exotic and intriguing while also morally debased and decontextualized. There is more wiggle room between the words of Tolkein's original descriptions of these low men, but not much.

The broader conclusion one can draw from this is that, in Tolkienesque fantasy, Orcs acquire all the traits that colonial Europe projected onto native peoples. Perhaps the visual power of Peter Jackson's Orcs is derived from the pan-Australian (Jackson being from New Zealand) cultural imagination of the aboriginal peoples of the region. In any case, he creates an almost Shaka Zulu-like figure in the Uruk-Hai general, who becomes more of a character in his own right than any of the Orcs in Tolkien's text, though no effort is made to make him sympathetic.

Battle for Wesnoth

Wesnoth is an open-source Fantasy strategy game. The standard scenarios that come with the game fall loosely into the racialization described above, though there is an Orcish campaign that is much more Warcraft-like than Tolkienesque in its racialization, viewing Orcs and Humans as in constant and perhaps necessary conflict, but with the humans being clearly more civilized and less bloodthirsty than the Orcs, who enjoy fighting and are Machiavellian in their politics. That said, I haven't played very far into the “standard” Orcish campaign, “The Son of Black-Eye,” so it may yet surprise me. If so, I'll make a follow-up post on the topic.

For now, I want to consider to user-created scenarios that make a radical break with fantasy racialization. Each of these scenarios has an primary creator, but, unlike the single-creator games I considered in my last post, creation of an original campaign for Wesnoth tends to be highly collaborative, with many contributors who do everything from playtesting to creating original art to suggesting major changes to plot or level design. All the more reason to consider these campaigns (and of Wesnoth as a whole) in terms of their content alone, without regard to authorial intent (my general methodology, and standard practice in most literary study).

From here on, this post gets more scholarly and theoretical. I will explain the terminology as I go, but non-academics may need to refer to Wikipedia or even a dictionary of philosophy.

“Flight to Freedom”

Like nearly everything else in the open-source Wesnoth, the creation of “Flight to Freedom” was made possible by voluntary, unpaid collaboration. That said, “Flight to Freedom” was originated by MadMax (forum handle), who is also the principle creator and designer of the campaign.

The protagonists in “Flight to Freedom” are Drakes, flying lizard men who are most similar to DnD's Draconians. Their racialization in “Flight to Freedom” is that of the colonized native people, though in a symapthetic “postcolonial” sense, as they are neither the intellectual nor moral inferiors of the Knights of Wesnoth, and their vulnerability to invasion, enslavement and literal colonization is a result of the greed of humans and not a failing of the Drakes. Even as they are treated sympathetically, they are not idealized, to the campaign's credit: the “noble savage” is just as colonized a figure as the slave and the headhunter.

The basic premise for “Flight to Freedom” is a shock: in the opening narrative of the campaign, humans land on the Drakes' island, and a tribal leader, Malakar, sends his daughter to parley with them. She is killed out of hand, and the first scenario consists of the humans overwhelming the player-controlled Drakes. The player is expected to lose, though a campaign fork allows the player to retreat into the swamp and ally with another tribe, which only postpones defeat – the humans always conquer the Drakes.

Either way, the surviving Drakes are captured and sold into slavery, their young held captive to ensure their compliance. When Malakar leads a slave revolt (this occurs in the second scenario of the original campaign) the young Drakes are whipped and, if the player does not move quickly enough, killed.

By this point, anyone familiar with High Fantasy can see a few familiar tropes, and a number of departures. As many posters on the forum for the campaign noted, the deposed king or surviving heir who must recover his (nearly always his) kingdom is a common theme in Fantasy, being, for example, the plot of “Heir to the Throne,” a classic Wesnoth campaign to which others are inevitably compared. Being sold into slavery, usually in the Romanesque form of gladiatorial or galley slavery, is also a common theme in pulp fantasy like that of Edgar Rice Burrows and Robert E. Howard.

However, the narrative of “Flight to Freedom” undermines the individualism and egocentrism of that scenario. The figure of the rightful heir to the throne is not only mediaeval, it is fundamentally patriarchal and oedipal: his battle cry is “my people need me” which is just a reformulation of “le etat c'est moi.” The “people” are infantilized and oedipalized by this claim: only the great man of state can save them. The absolute war of these scenarios amounts to a scorched earth campaign: “if I can't be king, no one can,” a notion so selfish that it can only be justified by the demonization of the enemy (the party in power). In High Fantasy, the false king is usually literally demonized as a figure of supernatural evil. In LotR this is true, if one degree removed: it is the diabolical evil of Sauron that forces Aragorn to reclaim the throne of Gondor from its inferior Stewards.

“Flight to Freedom” deviates from this model: Malakar is neither deposed nor separated from his tribe. His status as chieftain is not only of no concern to the Knights of Wesnoth, it is impercerptible: they see all Drakes as interchangeable. In fact, they are semi-interchangeable, with Malakar serving less as the exceptional Drake than as an “icon” of Drake life (3). The collective identity of the Drakes is singularized (made into a single instance) in him. When Malakar broods over the murder of his daughter, that is our window onto the loss of family that all of his tribe has suffered. His slow coming to acceptance of the human pirate, Kogw, is analogous to the Drakes' experience of a suddenly broader world, one that can never resume its precolonial shape. This analogy is not complete, as it suggests that, if Malakar were to die ,another Drake would take his place, whereas, if Malakar unit dies in a scenario, it's game over (in the Wesnoth engine, this is normal).

The experience of the Drakes in “Flight to Freedom” is almost unheard-of in fantasy: they are captured en-masse and shipped oversea to serve as plantation slaves. In early posts to the campaign forum, there is concern that plantation slavery is “inappropriate” and some posters complain that the scenerio is “un-Wesnothish.” This discomfort may have its roots in the “Human”-centric thinking common to High Fantasy (albeit absent in LotR, where the “English” Hobbits steal the show). Early in “Flight to Freedom's” development, turin posts: “Wesnoth belongs to the humans. Drakes should not take over wesnoth.”(4) Wesnoth's Humans are typical fantasy Humans: that is to say that they are are a white, feudal, “Arthurian” race. Dark skin is reserved for non-human races, as are non-european styles, such as curved swords and loincloths. After a while, these concerns cease to be points of debate and the parallels between the campaign and American history (and thus an implicit rejection of the norms of High Fantasy) are generally accepted.

Forum poster DavidByron is the first to justify the campaign in terms of American history: “Slave revolts are an interesting feature of US history. They usually don't go well because the ruling class has all the advantages. As I understand from reading the comments in this thread you have the Drakes becoming something of a criminal mob, (beating up a caravan, teaming up with pirates) as they attempt to flee back towards home -- a basically sound approach to an impossible dream. What else could they do indeed?”(5). This kind of reasoning makes the text narrative of “Flight to Freedom” morally complex, with Malakar's decisions more often pragmatic than noble.

It is not merely the scripted story of Flight to Freedom that is atypical: the nomadism,(6) morality, and pragmatism of the Drakes are reflected in gameplay (“ludology”). In general, war games are about taking and holding territory, and this is built into the Wesnoth engine: units are recruited at “camps” or “castles” by a singular “leader” and conquer “villages” to increase a player's income. A typical scenario for the game pits two or more players in a “war of all against all”(7) to conquer all of the villages and kill all other leaders. Though some of the scenarios in “Flight to Freedom” follow this model, in many of them the goal is simply travel: a pure nomadology, a line of flight.(8)

The Drakes are well-equipped for this: almost all of their units can literally fly. In-game, this smooths out the striation of space created by different kinds of terrain. This metaphor is carried through ludologically: when the Drakes are enslaved, they loose the ability to fly, and they only regain this ability after they kill their master. Impeded travel scenarios are the most common challenge in “Flight to Freedom.” The organized retreat is a strategy game trope, but it is usually used sparingly and early on in fantasy games, the prelude to a triumphal conquest. In “Flight to Freedom” there are no classic fighting retreats (e.g. “hold line X for Y turns, then fall back to Z”), but the player must do all the following: flee superior forces, escape from a flanked position, fall back on one front while advancing on another, contain (rather than destroy) enemy forces, and maneuver through dangerous and/or hostile territory as unobtrusively as possible.

In one scenario, while at sea with a pirate flotilla, the player must pass through pea-soup fog (literalized fog of war) and evade sea serpents and other monsters. It is impossible to win by fighting though: instead, careful exploration and maneuvering and the judicious sacrifice of your ships is necessary to get your flagship through. Much later in the campaign, you have to sail though someone else's warzone. Both sides will attack you, given a chance, and you can't hold against either side, let alone both, so you must slip through. But the most interesting scenario, and the one both most commented on and most hated on the forum, was “River of Skulls.”

The scenario is this: the Drakes are forced to flee undergound, pursued by the Knights of Wesnoth, with no idea of where to go from there. The Dwarves who live in the caves react with anger, and the player must survive while trying to figure out what to do. Game mechanics make it impossible to negotiate with the Dwarves, but narrative text makes it clear that the goal of the scenario is to find an exit, not to annhiliate the Dwarves, and defeating all “enemy” groups, though possible, is not sufficient to win the game (unlike most strategy games, where more specific goals can be ignored if one wipes out the opposition). As escape is the goal of many of “Flight to Freedom's” scenarios, “River of Skulls”isn't unusual in that aspect.

What makes “River of Skulls” unique is that, to a degree unequaled in any other scenario in the campaign, the Drakes' freedom of movement is negated. Not only is the map a set of twisty little passages (9), but the Drakes cannot fly in these small spaces, so their movement is reduced greatly. The only advantage they derive from having wings is that they can cross the occasional rift or pit in the cave floor. In DeleuzoGuattarian terms, this is a highly striated space (10). Striation is not evenhanded: in the caves, the Drakes and Dwarves alike can only move along existing “paths,” but the Drakes do so slowly and awkwardly (11), whereas the archetypically slow Dwarves negotiate the caves with ease (perhaps because they are too short to hit their heads on the stalactites) and enjoy a high defense (dodge) rate. The final injury is that the Drakes get a bonus at day and a penalty at night, and in the caves it always counts as night. As a result, fighting through the Dwarves is slow and difficult, bottleneck to bottleneck, with every unexplored passage a risk of being flanked and every open space a risk of encirclement.

The goal of “River of Skulls,” when it is eventually revealed, is to move Malakar to a position on the bottom of the map, so the “default” tactic for most strategy games (and nearly all RTS games) of gradual expansion and resource accumulation doesn't work. Nova, a poster who became a major contributor to “Flight to Freedom” says of this part of the campaign that “These next couple of missions are a Drake deathmarch.”(12) This comment evokes the Bataan deathmarch and, more interestingly, the trail of tears.(13) While the Drakes are going home rather than being forced from it, playing “River of Skulls” confirms the narrative and ludological truth of this.

To successfully navigate the “River of Skulls,” the player must recognize that that this scenario rewrites rules of the game, as played up to this point. Instead of fighting against the restrictions imposed by this highly striated space, one must figure out how to take advantage of them. One possible strategy is to use the bottlenecks to contain and bypass the Dwarven Lords and their soldiers, rather than besieging them. This requires two changes in the player's behavior, however. The first is the shift from thinking of the Drakes as highly mobile, tough (high HP) units to thinking of them as slow and vulnerable. The second, more difficult shift requires that the player choose not to explore and conquer the entire map. The second shift in thinking is the true “line of flight” for the Drake war machine, because exploration and conquest are basic components of Wesnoth and the entire genre of strategy gaming. Deterritorializing strategy gaming in this way necessarily throws the other conventions of the genre into question. The ludological feeds back into the narrative, giving new meaning to the game text in which Malakar claims that the Dwarves are not his people's enemies and that the Drakes should only fight them where necessary.

As a result, “River of Skulls” raises the question of whether we, as players, should take pride in wiping out the enemy in any videogame. This question of in-game violence, usually raised only by the mainstrean media and only in terms of graphic 3-d violence, is a nonstarter with most gamers. The common response is “it's just a game.” And it is just a game, but I am far from the first to suggest that we are trying to have our cake and eat it too: if nothing one does in a game matters outside the game, then games cannot be meaningful or useful in any way; but if games can be meaningful, their meaning can be objectionable.(14) In my last post, I praised Remar's Iji for offering narrative rewards for keeping one's body count low in a genre (platform shooter) when carnage is the norm. There is no narrative reward for sparing the Dwarves in “Flight to Freedom,” but there are several strategic rewards: a “contain and bypass” strategy not only speeds up play, but it allows the Drakes to gain experience and level up (necessary to success in future scenarios) with less risk of getting pinned down and killed.

A slower, but viable and more conventional strategy is to work cave-to-cave, keeping one's strongest units close together, putting low-level (expendable) units first when entering open areas, and making sure that no Dwarves, and especially no Dwarven Lords (who can recruit new units) are left in one's wake. This leave-no-survivors strategy makes the turn counter one's real opponent: extermination is easy, but extermination in a hurry is hard. The image of one Drakes scouring the Dwarves' subterranean home their fire breath evokes unpleasant images of 20th century brushfire wars and ethnic cleansings. Of course, “ethnic cleansing” is the goal of many strategy games and CRPGs, whether one is cleaning out a cave full of Orcs or nuking a Zerg hive. At the same time, the “bypass” strategy I've described is similar to the Rumsfeld gambit in the drive to Baghdad. It might be a good way to pass through a hostile space, but its a lousy way to start an occupation.

The darkest part of “Flight to Freedom's” narrative unfolds after“River of Skulls.” The “river” is of lava, and following it's path is too much even for the descendants of Dragons. We are told that many Drakes die in the journey, but all of your soldier units survive. This may be a concession to playability, but it also makes a sad kind of narrative sense: soldiers may die in battle, but civilians are more likely to die of hunger, disease or exposure resulting from shortages war damage and the necessity of procuring for the soldiers. This tragedy prepares the player for the first scenario after the Drakes finally return to the surface. As soon as they are out in the open air, Malakar's chief lieutenant, Theracar, rebels. The player is forced to put down the uprising in an easy scenario: apparently, all of one's experienced units remain loyal, and fighting Theracar's low-level rebels feels less like a battle than a purge. That ugly aftermath of colonial rule, ethnic cleansing, lurks under the surface of this scenario as well as in “River of Skulls.” The horror is mitigated by narrative text telling us that Malakar forgives the surviving rebels after Theracar's death.

In military terms, Theracar commits mutiny, but the Drakes are a tribe, and the rebellion is an issue of tribal identity: the Drakes had to flee underground because they refused to give Kogw up to the Elves, who promised safe passage away from the Wesnothians in exchange for the pirate (15). Malakar justifies this decision by adopting Kogw into the tribe. As all members of a Drake tribe are Drakes, this also makes Kogw a Drake. Theracar claims that he has a legitimate claim to challenge Malakar not only because of the deaths of tribe members, but because Malakar broke the law in admitting Kogw to the tribe. His case is that Kogw is not a Drake, so his admission to the tribe was not just a mistake but an abomination.

This is more complex than it seems. Once again, it is important to remember that this is fantasy and that Drakes, like Humans and Elves, are races. The concept of species does not exist in this contex. Since before history, human tribes, nations and family groups have adopted individuals of other ethnic groups into their society. A slave captured in battle may remain an outsider, but someone (almost always a woman) who marries in becomes a member of that group in every way. This was certainly true in colonial America, where white women were sometimes taken captive by Native Americans in raids: some were ransomed, but others married into the tribe, becoming members not just of that family group but also of that nation. In this context, Theracar is saying that Kogw cannot be a member of the tribe because of the color of his skin (and his lack of scales). The most morphologically distinctive traits of Drakes, wings and the ability to breathe fire, are not possessed by all Drakes, and so cannot be considered integral. We do not even know if Drakes and Humans are sexually incompatible: if the anthropomophic Drakes are “half-Dragons,” the other “half” is implicitly human.

Thoughout the campaign, Kogw is engaged in a “becoming” Drake,(16) a motion that can never reach it's goal. In The Ritual Process, anthropologist Victor Turner described rites of passage as involving a period of “liminality,” in which one's former status is lost but no new status has been established. When Deleuze and Guattari speak of becoming (becoming animal, becoming woman, becoming imperceptible), they are talking about something similar, but entirely “positive,” which is not to say entirely good, merely that, like a line of flight it is a motion towards, not a motion away from. Considered this way, some of the apparent contractitions resolve themselves: Kogw never ceases to be Human, he is just moving towards a Drake identity, which never requires him to grow scales or breathe fire precisely because it is never complete. In short, Kogw's becoming Drake is like Turner's state of ritual liminality, only without its defining characteristic, as the previous state is never (fully) lost, and the “result” is never fully achieved.

Similarly, as Drake units level up, they are engaged in a becoming Dragon, which reaches its highest degree in the Armageddon Drake, the most powerful Drakish unit, described in-game as follows: “Were it not for the armor they wear, some drakes might be indistinguishable from true dragons.” What marks them as still (and forever) becoming rather than being Dragon is a matter of clothing: a “human” trait (in the general rather than the High Fantasy sense), the icon of that which they cannot leave behind . In “River of Skulls” there is a more unexpected becoming Dragon: there is a statue of a Drake, and when one moves a unit in front of it, that unit is lost only to be replaced by a Skeleton Dragon.(17) Narrative text explains that the unit died in a rockfall which woke the undead Dragon, but the gameplay effect is one of becoming. Even here, the process of becoming Dragon is not complete, though perhaps in the opposite direction: the the Skeleton Dragon is not a complete Dragon (lacking organs and skin) because it is becoming dead: that is to say, it cannot fully die.

In a scenario that comes shortly after the defeat of Theracar's rebels, Kogw convinces Malakar that the Drakes must destroy the Gate of Storms, a supernatural portal whose opening threatens the entire world. This influence is made possible by Kogw's status as an (incomplete) Drake and a member of the tribe, an shift singularized in Malakar opening up to Kogw for the first time. By this point, the Drakes' efforts to return home have earned them the emnity not only of the Knights of Wesnoth, but also of the Elven, Dwarven and Oricsh nations.

Narratively speaking, the Drakes don't have to lift a taloned finger: there are four other armies in the area who could be left to deal with the problem. Moreover, as those armies are hostile and in pursuit of the Drakes, this would be strategically practical. Instead, the Drakes give their pursuers a chance to catch up by stopping to fight the storm demons and destroy the gate. One might expect the campaign to end here, with the other races thanking the Drakes for saving them, but “Flight to Freedom” is not so melodramatic. Upon completion of this scenario, nothing changes. Not only are the Drakes are not honored as heroes, but their good deed goes not only unrewarded but apparently unnoticed. This strikes another postcolonial note: as the Drakes are a “lesser” race, their accomplishments are below the notice of the “civilized” Elves and Wesnothians. This makes them subaltern in Gayatri Spivak's sense of the word (18), albeit not fully, as the player sees things from the Drakes' perspective.

When Malakar's Drakes get home, they find that their island has literally been colonized, and the rest of the Drakes enslaved and forced to work in mines. There is even a new unit representing the children of the slaves, described as “suffer[ing] from stunted growth and other deformations.” Metaphorically, these “Cave Drakes” read as the victims of malnourishment and child labor, physically and psychically scarred: “their internal fire never burns as intensely” as it should.

In the end, “Flight to Freedom,” is nuanced and “realistic” enough that there is no possibility of justice and no point in retribution. However, it would be wrong for me to conclude by giving the impression that this campaign is intended to be didactic or depressing: gameplay is challenging and enjoyable even as it breaks with High Fantasy conventions and raises doubts about the in-game good of in-game violence. Doubtless some players will feel that I am “reading too much into it,” the perennial argument against attention to detail. To them I can only say that it is not my goal to set MadMax or anyone else up as a hero, or to demonize Tolkien, Wesnoth or High Fantasy: these things are what they are. It is merely important to recognize the history and assumptions that undergird any work of any genre, especially those we consider to be “innocent,” “escapist” or “fantasy.” “Flight to Freedom” seems to be more aware of its own “ancestry” than most games, and to do more with it. Minimally, it injects a little ethical decision making and moral complexity into a typically ruthless genre, and, contrary to the conventional wisdom, that makes it more, not less, fun.

I may follow this post up with one considering another user-designed campaign for Wesnoth, “Ooze Mini Campaign,” which upends the concept of “monster” in a way somewhat like “Flight to Freedom” does to fantasy “Races.”

(1) JRR Tolkien, The Silmarilion.

(2) The “great chain of being” is connected to the mediaeval Christian justification of the “divine right” of kings to rule: the basic idea is that there is an absolute hierarchy to reality, with angels above kings, kings above nobles, above commoners etc. This is a common theme in Shakespeare.

(3) In Peircian semiotics, an “icon” is a sign that represents something else by possessing the same traits as the thing it represents: computer icons are not icons in the Peircian sense.

(4) “Flight to Freedom” Forum, p. 1

(5) “Flight to Freedom” Forum, p. 24

(6) I take the term “nomadism” from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, along with several other key terms used here. In A Thousand Plateaus, the nomad and the war machine are associated, as both operate by ignoring or overcoming “territorialization” - that is, they do not respect boundaries. The “war machine” in this context is separated from the military organization (army) of a nation-state, as the latter is a structure designed to direct and contain the functioning of the war machine. The state operates by capture and negotiation, which create boundaries: e.g. “territorialization.” The war machine de-territiorializes, breaking boundaries. Thus, being arrested by the police for trespassing is illustrative of the behavior of state power, whereas being swept away by a flash flood is illustrative of the operation of the war machine.

(7) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

(8) A line of flight is an escape from control: an act of “deterritorialization” (see note 6). In A Thousand Plateaus, lines of flight are associated with thought that reaches for the unthinkable: this is most emphatically not “thinking outside the box” because that presupposes an already known inside and outside: a simple dichotomy of confinement and freedom. A line of flight is not an escape from something (it is not reactionary), but an escape to something, that is, an act of discovery. All lines of flight, if successful, end in reterritorializations, that is in reestablish a new set of boundaries and norms (the Drakes' flight is aimed at the impossible: the recovery of the past; but that is not to say that it is unsuccessful as a “line of flight”).

(9) Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort is the definitive work on interactive fiction (IF), or “text adventure” games. The relevance of this to Wesnoth is twofold: one, that it shares a common ancestor with IF in DnD; and two, that, from my perspective, the narratology/ludology divide in games is useful but also a false dichotomy and that videogame narrative is produced by the process of play. This may be the subject of a later post.

(10) In “The Smooth and the Striated” from a Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari describe how a space (physical, social, or psychological) can be relatively smooth or striated. These are not opposites: one might speak of perfect smoothness as a striation “value” of zero, and absolute striation as having an infinite value. To the degree that a space is striated, it resists lines of flight (new ideas or unexpected behavior). Moreover, what is not permitted is, to some degree, unthinkable (moving through the cave wall, for example, or “up” off the map and off the computer screen). In a purely smooth space, any motion would be a line of flight.

(11) In this context, “awkward” means unable to dodge attacks.

(12) “Flight to Freedom” Forum, p. 33

(13) The trail of tears refers the forced march of several Native American nations to reservations west of the Mississippi in the 1830s, especially the particularly brutal treatment of the Cherokee, about a third of whom died in concentration camps or along the way.

(14) For example, Mitch Dyer voices a similar concern in his “To the Front Lines” (from The Escapist issue 167: “Boot Camp”)

(15) The player knows, though Malakar does not, that the Elves do not intend to honor the deal, because the Drakes are monsters – e.g., they are not “people.” The denigration of a race, ethnicity or culture as sub-human or savage has been the justification for everything from the breaking of treaties with indiginous peoples to the horror of the Holocaust.

(16) “becoming” specifically in the DeleuzoGuattarian sense (explained in-text)

(17) In an earlier version of the game, the Skeleton Dragon was hostile.

(18) Deleuze and Guattari write about “becoming imperceptible” in much the same way they write about “becoming woman” - in both cases, it is motion toward something that is not “supposed to be” part of middle-class, white, male, western identity. The Drakes, as a colonized people, have been made imperceptible: individual Drakes do not matter to the Wesnothians, and everything they do will be read in terms of their perceived inferiority. In Spivak's sense of the subaltern, the truly oppressed are those who are denied the opportunity for self-definition or even to speak against how they are defined by others. From the player's perspective, the Drakes are anything but subaltern: one experiences them in their own words, but if one imagines a Wesnothian perspective on the Drakes, they are fully defined before they do or say anything, and, as a result, anything they do or say will be interpreted as conforming to that definition.

Fascinating read, Tof. Your

Fascinating read, Tof. Your attention to detail and (especially) the integration of this game's ludic and representational elements provide a great model for close reading of any videogame.

I also plan on borrowing your succinct response to the "it's just a game" dismissal:

if nothing one does in a game matters outside the game, then games cannot be meaningful or useful in any way; but if games can be meaningful, their meaning can be objectionable.

Your interpretation of the themes expressed by these campaign scenarios has me thinking about the rhetorical capabilities of game genres. Ian Bogost argues in Persuasive Games that one of the things videogames can do better than other expressive art forms is simulate systems, making arguments about how they work by having players procedurally interact with them. Because strategy games pit the player in the perspective of god/general, commanding groups of game characters, they're uniquely able to provide system-level stories/arguments. Essentially, you show that the capabilities of a ludic genre (strategy games) have allowed Wesnoth's scenario designers to meddle with the traditional tropes of a narrative genre (fantasy): instead of ethnic cleansing, players get to procedurally experience colonization, slave revolt, flight from persecution. Role-playing games - especially MMORPGs - are also enamored of the fantasy narrative genre, and are consequently just as susceptible to its problematic racial coding (for a great read on this, see Tanner Higgin's just-published "Blackless Fantasy: The Disappearance of Race in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games" in Games and Culture). My question is: how would these scenarios in Wesnoth work if Wesnoth was an RPG instead of a strategy game?

The narrative is the easy part. It' entirely possible that an RPG could subvert traditional fantasy tropes through its narratives just as easily as a strategy game could. But their main difference is perspective: strategy games let you manage a system (or part of it), but RPGs put you in a system: you are typically controlling only one character, and your character is interacting with other individual characters. What, then, would be the rhetorical effect of this change in perspective? How would the story change if a player was acting as a single member of the Drakes as they escaped the Dwarves rather than acting as the manager of the whole group of Drakes?

Furthermore, would the arguments Wesnoth makes even be possible in an MMORPG? Even as an individual , a player-character in a single-player RPG can exert a lot of influence over the gameworld (see Fallout 3, or FarCry 2. But in an MMORPG, the system goes on around you, more or less oblivious to what you're doing to it.

the beginning of a reply...

Thanks, Chris.

Good questions, all of them. I've been thinking about this, and I have a few provisional answers to offer.

Taking the last question first, I don't think that a comparable experience could be offered in any truly massive MMORPG. The inability of any player to make a lasting impression on anything is essential to these games: if one were to create a MMORPG where all the NPCs can be killed (a common trait) and in which NPC death was irrevocable (which is never done), one would shortly wind up with a world full of corpses.

I am almost surprised that there hasn't yet been a "realistic" career-building MMORPG (something perhaps a little like being a Sim in The Sims, but more like Sierra's old life-sim Jones in the Fast Lane). I say "almost" because that would give away the game: MMORPGs are fantasies of the Protestant Work Ethic, in which, as long as you keep punching the clock (punching Orcs, Dragons, etc.) you will get promoted/level up.

I think that the lack of correlation between effort and reward in the contemporary workplace makes a game where effort is always, albeit very slowly, rewarded appealing. The only way you can go wrong is to get too big for your britches (e.g., try to play in zones beyond your level) or to not play by the rules of the game (such as by spending too much time actually roleplaying and not enough leveling).

Furthermore, the social complexity that emerges in these games, is, it seems to me, to be made possible by the very stability and predictability of the game world. Getting killed on the job means, at worst, losing some XP and maybe even hard-won treasure. If you buy a house/fort/dungeon/secret base, it's not going to be permanently destroyed by a flood or because the Horde broke through Alliance lines and raided your village.

These kind of things can and do happen all the time in single-player RPGs for story reasons (the old sage/mentor always buys the farm, and a peaceful hometown is just asking for it) and can happen at any time for procedural reasons in multiplayer strategy games. No-one develops an involved social life for the boys in their experienced anti-tank unit, because they might get rolled over by too many units of enemy armor any time.

I don't wish to seem completely down on MMORPGs - there is a ludologically interesting aspect to their gameplay that strikes me as being a lot like the early '90s movie Groundhog Day. Every morning when Bill Murry's character wakes up, it's Groundhog Day, and everything is the same as it was yesterday. No-one remembers that it was Groundhog Day yesterday, except for Bill. He remembers everything. Eventually he knows all the habits and secrets of everyone in town, he's read, if not every book in the library, at least all of those that he cares to, and he's mastered skills as diverse as jazz piano, ice sculpting, and the heimlich maneuver. If he dies, he wakes up next morning and it's Groundhog Day again. Eventually, he reaches level fifty and can go to through the Gate of Doom to Anti-Punxatony where all of the townspeople are replaced by Dire Liches and the "groundhog" is a twenty-foot tall "Groundmammoth."

Ok, I made that last one up, but you see where I'm going with this. A stable, predictable world has its own set of narrative and ludological possibilities, even if they are absolutely repetitious.


Ugh...because I was carelessly typing this into the webpage and only “saved” half of it as a text file, I just lost the other half of my post when I accidentally hit backspace while in my browser.

Chris, I'll try to reconstruct what I was saying and post an reply answering your primary questions soon, but I'm definitely not going to do it tonight.

...and here's the rest.

think that the biggest difficulty that a CRPG (as opposed to a pencil and paper RPG) with a scenario similar to that of “Flight to Freedom” would encounter is the invisible wall between narrative and gameplay (especially in terms of ethics) that is often taken for granted in that genre. Examples of this include the ubiquitous J-RPG (that is “Japanese” or “console” style CRPG) phenomena of rummaging around in strangers houses (and those of friends) and taking everything you can find, and the advantages inherent in killing (or letting monsters kill) friendly NPCs in “American” style (1st person, real time) CRPGs. Some games are famous for their attempts to incorporate meaningful ethics: Ultima IV (a game I really should play someday) for example.

DnD, with it's kill-centric XP system and rigid alignment system, may be largely to blame, but in CRPGs, players tend to expect that the only consequences of killing a hostile monster or person is positive (XP and hopefully treasure). The kill count of the hero/PC in a single-player CRPG is usually astronomical (that of a seasoned veteran in a MMORPG perhaps literally so), and I've never played a RPG where this takes a toll on anyone. The only Fantasy CRPG I can think of that encourages you not to kill your enemies is, ironically, the CRPG-FPS hybrid Thief, where you aren't assumed to be the “good guy.”

An even more intractable problem is the solipsism that most “American” CRPGs tend to engender: NPCs tend to be boring, and, if they have tactical value, they're disposable. This is almost necessitated by the near-impossibility of protecting another character, let alone an entire town, camp or tribe. Your information and options, as presented and restricted by the format, tend to make the survival of the PC more important than anything else (it's that or game-over), whereas NPC death isn't just hard to avoid, it's usually without consequence (though I understand that the recent Elder Scrolls games actually have a complex social system), and often enough an opportunity to loot the bodies.

I have a mental image of what “River of Skulls” would be like as a CRPG of this type, and what comes to mind is, if done well, jumpy survival horror (taking full advantage of the isolating effects of 1st person perspective with low visibility, cramped spaces, blind turns and pervasive echoes). The effect of this would be nearly anti-social, as the PC would want to use other Drakes as “canaries,” and, again, personal survival would be more important than any social or group dynamic. Also, game balance would be a nightmare in a game where the player has little or no control over the strategic deployment of the other Drakes: if they stay put, they're useless, and if they move independently, they're sure to get isolated and hacked to pieces if the Dwarves are tough enough to be any real challenge. Either case encourages the player to “solo” it.

A problem of nearly opposite nature tends to be the case in J-RPGs: the characters are complete in themselves and the story is entirely beyond the player's influence. The player's relationship to “his” or “her” characters is one of externality rather than identification. I would argue that this doesn't make these games “bad:” one faces challenges to “unlock” more of the story. Arguably, these games approach abstraction from the other side: they are so narratively dominant that their ludological elements come free of any notion of processual narrative and establish themselves as “pure” play. I offer Puzzle Quest as an interesting example of what gets when a game embraces the non-relationship of RPG plot to RPG gameplay (resource accumulation / management and “contest” seeming to be the only necessary elements). I think it would be exceptionally difficult to incorporate the ludo-narratological themes of “Flight to Freedom” into a J-RPG model.

Having said all that, I think that there certainly could be some interesting approaches to the post-colonial themes of “Flight to Freedom” through the mode of the CRPG. One that occurs to me is the nearly-abandoned mode of the 1st-Person, turn-based, party CRPG, as with the venerable Wizardry series. If, instead of determining the actions of four to six heroes, the party was the tribe, with an average of one to two dozen soldiers, including “special” characters, and at least twice that many “civilians” (the young, old, injured and fatigued). If character death is permanent, but party/tribe growth possible (perhaps through both recruitment and the training of the young as they come of age), the collective feel that struck me about “Flight to Freedom” could be maintained while (possibly) creating the more intimate experience of being “in the system” to paraphrase your words. The result might be something a little like “The Bard's Oregon Trail of Tears” if that isn't to flip a description.

A few counter points

Interesting points, and I do find the standard "kill all the people not your race" of many fantasy games and books both boring and a bit wierd. But at the same time, I think these criticisms are very often more about people looking for racism and colonialism than anything to do with the game. For example:

What colour could orcs be? If you want them to look different to the protagonist's group, which is necessary to allow easy identification in the game despite differences in equipment, then they have to be some colour. The protagonists are white because a) it's easy to have one colour b) wesnoth is based on medieval europe where most people were white c) possibly most contributors and the target audience are white (although this may be completely untrue). So the enemies have to be a non-white colour, but what colour could they be that could not be construed as relating to a real world race? Yellow=east asian, red=american indian, brown or black=african, purple=dark version of pink so again it implies dark skin. Basically you are left with green or blue. Both of which are darker than white and so open to accusations of racism.

Tolkien's "races" do seem to be species despite him using the term races, but then he was an old english and norse expert, not a biologist. The only interbreeding possible seems to be between humans and elves, so presumably all others are seperate species. And orcs are what would possibly now be explained as "genetically engineered bioweapons" that happen to be sentient, designed by what is effectively an evil god. With that perspective, why should you expect there to be good orcs? This is only an issue if you already see orcs as representing a race of humans in this world- in fantasy or sci fi you can have genuinely evil races where not a single individual is good.

I completely agree that games with more realistic morals are good, and some of the best games have done this (deus ex for example). But the flaw in your reasoning is that "if nothing one does in a game matters outside the game, then games cannot be meaningful or useful in any way; but if games can be meaningful, their meaning can be objectionable." doesn't imply that all games have to be meaningful or useful. What is the point of Wesnoth? Entertainment, puzzle solving, but that's about it. Not every game has to educate or make you think about hard moral choices, just as not every film has to be schindler's list. And with that, I'm off to watch the Kung Fu Hustle!

I feel I should acknowledge

I feel I should acknowledge this post, but I really have nothing to say to it. Again, we've hit the wall of authorial intent. To be clear, I do not care what the creator intended to represent, only for what is actually there, in the game (book, movie, etc).

It isn't that TommyP is wrong, but we're talking past each other. His point is that not all games are or have to be didactic (that is, educational or moralistic). This is true, but it has no bearing whatsoever on my argument.

Thanks for the reply Tof.

Thanks for the reply Tof. However, I'm generally not talking about authorial intent, I'm talking about the different perspectives of players (readers, viewers etc).

If I see orcs in Lord of the Rings as "genetically engineered weapons designed to be evil" and you see them as a representation of racist attitudes towards non-whites, then neither of those views is what is "actually there, in the game (book, movie, etc)"? The traits are written in the book, or visible in a game, but it's only our individual interpretations that say they are racist or not. You say "orcs are dark coloured, that is racist" I say "orcs are dark coloured, that is not racist". Colour differences between factions in games is a fact, what that means is an interpretation.

Fundamentally, I do not accept that if you see something as racist then that makes it racist.

We don't have to agree

...but I have two objections to your last post. First, you elide the difference between argumentation based on evidence and opinion. You are more than welcome to find the evidence I presented in my original post to be insufficient to support my claim, but please don't confuse that with a matter of opinion. It is my opinion that Ian McKellen was awesome as Gandalf in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings – it is my argument that the legacy of colonialism has influenced the genre of fantasy, including JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings.

My other objection is to the false choice you posit between my argument about the role of Orcs as colonized "savages" and the idea that they are bioweapons. In fact, it seems to me that both of these things are true, on different levels of analysis. In Jackson's The Two Towers, Saurumon's monologue to the Uruk-hai general as much as states that they were created, or at least altered, to be soldiers and have no other reason to exist. Thus, they are literally and diegetically magico-biologically engineered weapons. In no way is that incompatible with their debased existence reflecting colonialist ideas about the inferiority of “primitive” peoples: many of the details that describe the subhuman Orcs are the same as those that have been used as evidence of the inferiority of native peoples (see my original post). Diegetically, we are told that they are evil. At the same time, Jackson's Uruk-hai aren't just dark-skinned: they also have broad, flat noses, dreadlocked hair, and heavy, sloping "neanderthal" brows. The first two tend to be African traits, and the latter has long been used to indicate stupidity and atavism in caricatures of ethnic others.

In short, I'm not describing the plot of Lord of the Rings, I'm considering what the specific details that make up the book (movie, etc.) might signify: the context, implications and subtext of the work. Note the “might signify” - I'm making an argument based on observations, not stating a fact. If you're not convinced by my argument, that's fine. But please don't reduce it to personal opinion.

not convinced yet...

I think I was over hasty in my last post- I probably misunderstood what you meant when you wrote "what is actually there". It seemed arrogant to me, assuming that your interpretation was what was there, but I see what you meant now.

Although in a way that is my point: I can interpret what you wrote in a number of ways depending the assumptions I bring to them. I think the same is true for seeing racism in a lot of computer games and literature. For example, you list orcs in the Fellowship of the Ring movie as "primative, bestial, tribal, simple-minded, easily fooled, ferocious, even fearless in battle but also cowardly, treasonous and feckless. Visually, they have sloped foreheads, jutting jaws, irregualar but sharp teeth, narrow eyes, wide slits for nostrils, pointed ears (their only Elf-like feature) dark braided or dreadlocked hair, and dark skin" and say that that makes them the colonial European view of Africans.

But a hell of a lot of those traits have been used historically to describe enemies from a huge number of places- certainly the British during the Napoleonic war accused the French of having many of these traits, and even more so the Spanish during the 16th century (hell, the English, or possibly the Scots, hanged a shipwrecked monkey thinking it was a French sailor- that story might not be true, but that it was believed still says a lot). I think you could more or less accurately claim the Brits at times accused them of being "simple-minded, easily fooled, ferocious, even fearless in battle but also cowardly, treasonous and feckless. Visually, they have sloped foreheads, jutting jaws, narrow eyes, and dark skin". If anything I would say that these things are pretty archetypal, probably in use before North Europeans came into any real contact with Africans. I'm not sure how the Romans described the ancient Britons and the Goths, but I bet they used many of these traits. I can't remember where I read it, but I think the Zulu used to say similar stuff about the Bushmen. And certainly old descriptions of goblins and ghouls and vampires also use many of these traits.

My point is that there are archetypal traits for baddies in European culture. They have been used for a lot of enemies throughout history. Recently they were used to describe Africans. If the same archetypes are used for the baddies in a game or a film, does that make the baddies effectively Africans? I'm not at all convinced it does.

Thanks Tof for the very

Thanks Tof for the very interesting review of the "Flight To Freedom" and more importantly, your analysis of how games mimic, or represent some of the historical assumptions made ( depending on your POV) of course. The debate between you and TommyP was also refreshing. I had no idea that this much thought and consideration goes into the themes that surround video games, and it was a smart discussion....I wonder if many of the actual gamers out there see the same things?

@TommyP, I guess you do have a good point, I don't think necessarily the baddies are Africans, but I can see how one could assume so....


Just discovered - great blog

Just wanted to leave you a note that I just came across your blog for the first time. This piece was very thoughtful and intelligent. Will definitely continue reading. Keep up the good work.

A great read, thanks for writing!

A great post on racial politics in the fantasy genre & ethics of in-game violence as found in one #wesnoth campaign: