How Mercenaries and Gun Culture Shaped One of the Best Strategy Games Ever Made
Released in 1999, "Jagged Alliance 2" was inspired by a wider range of topics than you might expect.
Image: Jagged Alliance 2, courtesy Darius Kazemi
Released in 1999, Jagged Alliance 2 is considered by many to be one of the best turn-based strategy video games ever produced, and features a storyline that feels familiar: Foreign guns-for-hire lead a local insurgency against an entrenched monarchy with the help of a wide variety of firepower.
Darius Kazemi, a game developer who previously spoke with Motherboard about his Random Shopper experiment, just published a book detailing the development of the game, which was inspired by a wider range of topics than you might expect. Kazemi offered to share the excerpt below, which focuses on the curious relationship between semi-fictional mercenary culture, "macho adventure" magazine Soldier of Fortune, and gun-toting video games. — Derek Mead
Soldiers for hire have been part of human warfare since at least the Classical Greek era, but historical soldiers for hire are a far cry from the mercenaries we see in modern pop culture. Pop culture mercenaries are freewheeling, independent special-ops combatants. In the 1980s and 90s they were Vietnam vets; more recently they're Desert Storm vets. The pop culture mercenary brings to mind colorful characters like Firefly's Jayne Cobb, The A-Team's B. A. Baracus, or perhaps one of the action hero has-beens of The Expendables.
This is in stark contrast to real-life mercenary forces. Beginning in the mid-1990s, these groups have taken to calling themselves "private military companies" or "civilian contractors." They apply neoliberal economic theory to the military: In a 2007 Congressional hearing, Erik Prince, founder of the infamous Blackwater USA, said, "We are trying to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did for the Postal Service."
Real mercenaries are terrifying private-sector military consultants, while fantasy mercenaries are modern-day swashbuckling scoundrels. We can trace this fantasy back to cowboy- and pirate-themed pulp adventures, and surely further back than that. But the direct progenitor of our image of the modern mercenary is Soldier of Fortune (SOF) magazine.
Established in 1975, SOF traded on fantasy as much as reality. It was filled with exotic accounts of armed conflict, jingoistic editorial content, conspiracy theories, firearms reviews, and, most infamously, advertisements for hired guns which led to many lawsuits and a handful of actual murders. Fred Reed was a writer for the magazine in its early 1980s heyday, and wrote about his experience in the March 1984 issue of Playboy:
Popular myth notwithstanding, there aren't any mercenaries today in the accepted sense of the word: small bands of hired white men who take over backward countries and fight real, if small, wars for pay. The reason is that any nation, even a bush country consisting of only a patch of jungle and a colonel, has an army too big for mercs to handle. The pay is lousy, the world being full of bored former soldiers.
True, there are shadowy categories of men who might be called mercenaries, but the word is hard to pin down. Are the hit men and cocaine pilots of South America mercs? Are the Americans who joined the Rhodesian army and served with native Rhodesians? Men working under contract for the CIA?
So who reads SOF? Marines, Rangers, and unhappy men, mostly blue-collar, who are weary of the unimportance of their lives. What the magazine sells is a hard-core smell, a dismal significance, a view of life as a jungle where the brutal stand tall against the sunset and the weak perish. SOF may be the only one-hand magazine whose readers hold a surplus-store bayonet in the other hand.
And according to Reed, at the height of its popularity, "this den of caricatures [was] selling more than 170,000 magazines a month at three dollars a copy."
In a 1986 article, People Magazine referred to SOF as "a macho-adventure monthly," drawing a direct line to the "men's adventure" genre of pulp magazine. In the 1950s, publications like Argosy, Man's Life, and For Men Only would publish "true" stories, usually about men battling the forces of nature–or each other. These stories were like a mid-century version of reality television, and shared with reality TV its loose basis in reality. There is truth somewhere in the stories, but not without a lot of editing to make it palatable to a wide audience seeking entertainment. Founded four months after the fall of Saigon, SOF carried on the men's adventure tradition but updated it for the post-Vietnam War era.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as Americans learned to live with the psychic aftershock of the Vietnam War, Hollywood released a flood of films about mercenaries. As Robert Sirotek puts it, by the time the initial pitches were happening for JA1 in 1991, mercenaries had "this certain sex appeal we were looking for. We were way ahead of the curve with that decision. Who knew that [the United States] would end up in so many wars?"
Shaun Lyng, Co-Designer:
[It was mercenary themed] from the first time we talked about it. I remember the genesis was Ian being able to get four guys walking around his computer simultaneously. I think mercenaries came up pretty quick and shooting came up pretty quick. Something involving a crew of people with guns. And it went from there.
Ian Currie, Co-Designer:
For some reason, and I don't know why, I sort of latched on to a more military type of situation. I didn't think of the fantasy thing where you can have magic and the various classes. I think that was my lack of experience, to be honest. I hadn't played that many RPGs. I'd only played Eye of the Beholder at this time. But I remember thinking, you'll have grenades for your spells, and you'll have ranged [attacks], and some melee stuff.
After JA1 was released, the team realized very quickly that the game they had built appealed to a core audience of gun enthusiasts and self-styled survivalists. In the development of JA2, they tried to appeal to this audience by populating the world with a massive roster of "realistically" modeled guns. Programmer Chris Camfield was in charge of implementing the tactical layer battle mechanics. A lifelong player of pencil-and-paper role-playing games as well as strategy board games, Camfield instinctively turned to RPG sourcebooks (tomes of information compiled to assist role players in creating more vibrant worlds) for more detail, taking advantage of the meticulous research published by other designers.
Chris Camfield. Programmer (JA2):
There was a difference between the fan culture and the developer culture. When Shaun and Ian and Alex made JA1, they didn't know a lot about guns. That said, neither did I—just some things I'd read in books. I remember looking at the JA1 code and the way that the gun damage was defined was your basic gun did 10 damage, the next gun did 12, then 14, 16, 18, 20 and so on. [...] Ian and Shaun were really approaching it more from the point of view of trying to translate the experience of an 80s action movie into computer game format.
I used a couple of pen-and-paper RPG books about different guns to make it more realistic: Palladium Books' The Compendium of Contemporary Weapons [by Maryann Siembieda], and the other one was from R. Talsorian games, called Compendium of Modern Firearms [by Kevin Dockery]. Now that I think about it, there may have been numbers in there that listed rate of fire, cartridge type, and bullet grams. I think I tried initially to estimate the damage value of a gun based on the listed muzzle velocity of the gun and the weight of the bullet. [Compendium of Modern Firearms] also has all these different ranges of probabilities of hitting a target of a certain size or how wide the spread would be for bullets for a particular gun. That probably got factored into accuracy values. But those numbers still had to go through kind of a pass to make the progression better.
But there were still fans who were like, "Everything the developers did was crap with regard to weapons, the numbers should be like this and I'm going to go in and make it all right!"
Ian Currie, Co-Designer:
We'd get mail from people saying, "Oh man, I loved your game," and there'd be a photo of the guy's computer with a .45 caliber handgun leaning up against the keyboard. We realized that we had all these gun enthusiasts who loved our game, which was so ironic because none of us had ever even touched a gun!
The realism of games is precisely the realism of Soldier of Fortune magazine: Both JA2 and SOF attempt to give their audience the feeling of what they imagine being a mercenary is like. Generally speaking, war-themed video games are perceived as being realistic, yet there are always three different factors at play: The reality of war, the fantasy of the video game, and the fantasy of war that is manufactured by the military, the entertainment industry, and the media. No matter what a war-themed video game claims to do, it inevitably simulates the cultural fantasy of war and never war itself.
The JA team was always trying to simulate "the experience of an 80s action movie," as Camfield says. One game system where this intent is laid bare is the game's crafting system. Oddly enough, the entire crafting system is an Easter egg that is available in the game but only obliquely hinted at by user interface clues. There's not a special menu for crafting. Rather, JA2 teaches you that it's possible to combine, say, two half-full ammunition cartridges into a full cartridge by dragging one item onto another. You can use this mechanic (borrowed from point-and-click adventure games) to combine certain special items and create new equipment. Most items you run across in the game are strictly utilitarian like armor, weapons, ammunition, and medkits. But every now and then you find "junk" items, like an aluminum rod, duct tape, or a rusty old spring.
These items do nothing on their own, but if you're familiar with the 1985-1992 television series MacGyver, you might get some ideas about what you should do with them. The show's hero is famous for solving problems using little more than household junk. In a typical example, he "mixes pesticide, soap flakes and tile cleaner in a hot pan to create a smokescreen distraction." In a clear homage to MacGyver (whose protagonist works for a Blackwater-style private military think tank), JA2 lets you combine a rumble pack for a video game controller, an x-ray tube, a pack of gum, a portable game console, and copper wire to create an x-ray device that can tell you the positions of enemies behind walls.
There was another, far more personal tie between the Jagged Alliance team and mercenary culture. JA2 contains an in-game history of Jagged Alliance's fictional Association of International Mercenaries, which debuted in the first game:
In a Montreal subterranean bunker in 1991, three men, known only by their aliases Colonel Mohanned, Commander Spice and The White Asian, found themselves in the heat of an armed struggle without enough access to manpower to end the hostilities. With great effort, they secured financing and located the people they needed to put an end to the conflict.
This text references the origins of JA1 in a Montreal basement in 1991, along with the core team of Mohanned Mansour, Ian Currie, and Shaun Lyng. In a couple of sentences, they managed to describe their origins as in-over-their-heads game developers working on a very large game, eventually gaining the financial backing of Sir-tech USA to help them expand their team and finish the project.
It's not hard to see the parallels between the fantasy of mercenary life and the reality of being a contractor in the video game industry. Contract game developers will often refer to themselves as "guns for hire." They are motivated primarily by money, working for whomever is paying—although many game developers take pride in their work regardless, much like the action hero mercenary with a heart of gold.
Despite core Jagged Alliance fans clamoring for "realism" in the lead-up to JA2, Ian Currie was already growing tired of its constraints.
Ian Currie, Co-Designer:
For JA2 we said we'd [be more realistic], but at the same time I was already yearning for a little more escapism in the game. JA1 wasn't a runaway success, nowhere close to X-COM, and I thought maybe it's because there's not enough escapism in the game. You come home from work and you want to play fantasy or sci-fi, right? Who wants to see anything realistic? I mean, playing mercenaries is an escape from your real life. But I got convinced that I needed more escapism, and that's what was behind the sci-fi mode.
Currie and his team added a series of quests to JA2 that introduced the Crepitus, a race of giant insect monsters biologically engineered by Queen Deidranna that bear more than a passing resemblance to H. R. Giger's design for the alien in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). These quests require a significantly different play style from the rest of the game. The Crepitus navigate by smell instead of by sight and sound, meaning that stealth becomes a matter of masking one's scent. The game's scent-based artificial intelligence is complex enough that a player can instruct one mercenary to stab another, and send the stabbed merc to leave a trail of blood to lure the Crepitus into a desired location. The Crepitus' high armor values and frontal attack style give the player a reason to set their weapons to fully automatic and let loose a hail of gunfire—a stark contrast to the usual mechanics of sneaking, hunkering down, and firing pot shots at a mostly concealed enemy.
By adding these monsters to the game, the team hoped to provide a refreshing change of pace to the JA2 experience. When the team released the demo of JA2 almost a year before the full game's release, the Crepitus were included in a secret basement area. Fan response was not positive, and in the end Currie decided to convert the entire set of Crepitus-related quests, enemies, items, dialogue, and NPCs into a "Sci Fi" mode that can be toggled on or off at the start of the game.
In a parallel move, the team looked at the full weapon list Camfield had created for JA2, and decided that there were so many weapons that most players would be overwhelmed by the choices available. To combat this problem, they added a "Tons of Guns" mode, which like the Sci Fi mode could be toggled at the outset of a new game.
The team dealt with the tension between hardcore gun enthusiast culture and broader fan culture by allowing the player to enable or disable a large percentage of the content of JA2. This would never fly at most game studios, but it will soon become clear that Sir-tech was not like most game studios.