Very recently, I’ve been playing through Mordheim: City of the Damned, a video game adaptation of the tabletop game simply called Mordheim. To summarise both the game and the tabletop it’s basically classic Warhammer in its most preferred comfort zone: really bloody grim.
Several hundred years before things really go to hell in the Warhammer universe, a city by the name of Mordheim appears to become a safe haven amidst a disastrous civil war. You have to understand how impressive this is; even before things really get screwed, the Warhammer universe is still a land where being ripped apart by chaos demons is not uncommon. Mordheim became a shining jewel for the humans of the world, a sign that it was possible to make a home in the eye of the civil war and to live actually decent lives. Unfortunately, they may have let things get a little bit too comfortable. In the span of only a few years, the city started to buckle under the girth of its own hedonism and faithlessness, and started to slide into a state of complacency. Prophets warned that their actions were angering the gods, and even directly stated that a suspicious twin-tailed comet could be seen in the sky. Naturally, no one paid any attention until the comet came crashing down onto Mordheim, in a cataclysmic event that devastated the city and turned it into a hideous breeding ground for chaos and evil. For you see, the comet was made entirely out of a rare mineral that is both highly dangerous and highly valuable: this ‘Wyrdstone’ attracts demonic energy and causes all kinds of horrible effects, but it is also an amazingly useful ingredient in magic and alchemy. Now, in a show that the god’s have an odd sense of humour, Mordheim finds itself still considered a place where riches and wealth can be found even after being turned into a hellscape, since the comet exploded it’s valuable cargo all over the city.
This is the premise of both the tabletop and the video game. You take control of a Warband of fools and misfits from various factions who, for varying reasons, want to gather as much Wyrdstone as possible. The issue, beyond the city being a place where demons and death haunt every street, is that many other Warbands have exactly the same objective, and no one is willing to share. To that end, your Warband is going to be have a pretty aggressive turn-over rate of new recruits, since falling just once in battle can lead to a unit being turned into a corpse, or worse (for you) a burden. Having any hopes, or indeed, any kind of love for your Warband is just factually asking for trouble.
And yet, despite all of that, you’ll fall into the same trap that every one of these kinds of games makes you trip into. You’ll grow attached to this greedy, zealous, often unlucky party of idiots.
This is a phenomenon that can be seen all over the gaming world, in basically any game where you have to control a continuous group over the course of an entire game. This is the same story for Xcom, Fire Emblem, any number of indie games such as Darkest Dungeon, and so on and so on. In all of these games, there are two common threads: 1), the RNG of any given situation can and will screw you over, because you were clearly having too good of a day, and 2) you’ll grow a sense of attachment to the poor sods under your command.
There is a pragmatic side to this, certainly. If a unit dies, then they take all of the time and resources that you spent on them to the grave alongside them, and thus become nothing more than a drain on your efforts. It’s perfectly understandable that you wouldn’t want them to die simply because their deaths will do nothing but make the game more difficult, and any game that features perma-death is almost certainly going to be difficult enough already. In this essence, you can get attached to a character in a similar way a craftsmen gets attached to a particular tool; it’s not necessarily a ‘personal’ attachment, but there is a fondness underneath it all, and definitely a desire to not see that ‘tool’ become a puddle of wasted efforts after getting their heads sniped off.
However, I reckon there’s also a case to be made for the personal attachment a player can make to the characters under their command. This can come from various points: does the RNG seem to favour a particular character, and you’ve witnessed them make some insanely great moments? Has a particular unit been with you since the beginning of the game and, despite the odds, managed to stay alive through it all? Does a unit have a funny name? All of this and more can be grounds for you to start to get attached to the characters under your command, just because these small things are somewhat memorable, and make the characters stand out amongst their peers. This is all without even mentioning the games where each character comes with actually visibly different personalities and characterisation (ie, Fire Emblem, The Last Remnant, etc.), wherein it’s possible to get attached to a character just because they’re likeable.
What interests me is that this personal sense of an attachment doesn’t seem to necessarily require the characters in question to have too much…well, character. Take the Mordheim example: while your Warband’s members is going to look pretty visually different thanks to the simple but oddly effective character customisation system the game has in addition to the almost hilariously extensive wounds they can rack up, each unit isn’t going to act much differently. While each faction has a pretty huge guff of differences, each unit in that faction is going to be similar to each other, even after getting upgraded. Despite that, you’ll be getting attached to the sods under your command, even if the only differences between each man/woman/rat in it is what kind of weapon they wield and what odd colour pallet you used when customising them. And this applies to most of the games I’ve mentioned, and however many other games that I didn’t. I think this ultimately comes down to the fact that, at the end of the day, all of these guys and gals do have the one character trait that matters: they’re your guys and gals.
It doesn’t matter what group you’re leading, what you’re leading it for, or how much difference each character has in personality or visuals, at the end of the day they’re your group. They make hundreds of mistakes thanks to the RNG, will screw you over at least a couple of times across the course of the game, and might have the personality of a brick, but they’re also your loyal troops. They’re going to be the reason you eventually succeed, and make up for their mistakes with each victory, both large and small. Their stories are only going to be formed through the random events that they get involved with in the battle field, and the only continuity between each is if they live or die through it, but sometimes those kinds of stories are the most interesting. Is a tale not ten times tenser when the main character can randomly miss an attack they had 90% on, and then immediately die for their mistake?
This idea that a group is infinitely more lovable simply because they’re your own group has been around for a while, long enough to get its own page on 1d4chan (which is a hilarious if slightly crude site, for those not in the know, in addition to slightly NSFW). Hell, I think this kind of thinking is why a lot of the games we’ve mentioned have had a high degree of random chance. There’s a MUCH bigger argument to discuss on the nature of random elements in turn-based games, especially ones where you can be screwed over pretty handily by a single bad dice roll, but that’s a discussion for another time. The main point is that, thanks to every action having a heavy amount of weight to them thanks to the fact that each one can screw up, it makes the characters making their actions much more memorable for either succeeding or failing them. Likewise, it takes the player’s control away from the outcome just enough to keep things interesting, which in turn makes it feel like the character making the action is more responsible for said failure or success.
And thus, we come to the point of the title. The fact that games take so much time and effort to make you appreciate and get attached to these louts is, in one essence, mighty cruel. Because while it’s possible to get through a game without losing a unit via the use of very precise and immaculate strategy (or if you’re like me, save-scrumming like a demon), it’s pretty likely that you’ll be seeing at least a few of these gits get taken out right before your eyes. And the game knows that. The whole reason it wants you to get attached is so losing these units actually has an impact, beyond just the loss of the time and resources you poured into them.
I think these kinds of designs and systems for games are one of the reasons I’m so fond of turn-based strategy games, because they tend to have a strong emphasis on personalising a group or unit. I’ve talked before on the whole matter of the advantages and disadvantages of having a large cast of playable characters before, and one of the points I finally concluded with to myself is that I can actually appreciate a group even if the individuals within it don’t have a huge amount of depth or nuance. It might be possible to have a collective of characters with a kind of group identity to make up for a lack of depth for each individual within it, though that’s likely something each player is going to have to decide for themselves.
Additionally, these kinds of games lend themselves well to players who can/like to make up their own interpretations or miniature stories throughout a game. It’s the reason why games like Xcom and Mordheim allow you to write out mini-biographies for characters under your command, even though you’re pretty much the only one who can view them (ie, Mordheim doesn’t show these bios to other players in the versus mode, even though you can examine most other features of your opponents Warband). Coming up with back stories and characterisation for units that ultimately don’t serve much other purpose than fighting and dying seems like an odd activity, but you end up caring a lot more about characters that you ultimately designed. I think one of the nicer parts of gaming as a whole is the small ways it can encourage a player to get a little more creative or imaginative, even if said creation/imagination only means a unit under your command has a different back-story to his friend, who just got his head blown clean off.
In any case, this was just a little subject I ended up thinking about after playing through Mordheim: City of The Damned. It’s definitely a fun little title, one of the few cases of Early Access actually being a success, and a game that is actually super faithful to its source material. Take a gander at if you like the idea of a table-top game, but the frankly nightmarish price for entry (not unreasonably) turns you off.
[Apologises that these last couple of updates have been late coming out. Factors beyond anyone’s control have delayed matters on my end, though hopefully things should not only be calming down, but there might be some additional content coming in the future, as long as things pan out. We’ll have to see how it goes.]