Published on November 28th, 2012 |
by Daniel Mears
The Real Total War: Multiwinia, Tolstoy and Chaos
A few weeks back I suddenly felt the urge to send thousands of tiny men to their deaths. Such an urge is hardly out of the ordinary, but on this occasion it was particularly strong: I’d been reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace for quite some time (is there any other way?) and found myself immersed in the war part, so it felt rather fitting to give Napoleon: Total War a whirl.
Thoughts? It’s a good game, and a spectacular one at that. There is undoubtedly much satisfaction to be had from seeing a reckless cavalry charge come crashing into enemy artillery precious moments before it would have been shredded by a devastating canister shot. But something just didn’t match up with Tolstoy’s take on war.
Sure, the fields of Europe echoed with the boom and crackle of gunpowder and were left littered with corpses; yet in an attempt to emphasise text-book tactics, Creative Assembly missed the mark in replicating war’s true chaos.
We are still waiting for the war game where, by and large, instructions must be issued prior to engagement and may turn out to be irrelevant due to unforeseen events (so much for real-time strategy). Where orders handed over to a messenger during the heat of the battle may be struck down by a stray musket shot before they are ever received. And on the occasion when orders are received in a timely fashion, there is still the chance that your subordinates simply choose not to follow them.
A genius? Or just fortunate?
In such a turbulent context Tolstoy downplays the importance of so-called ‘military genius’. Instead he lays the potential for victory at the hands of every individual soldier. After all, it is only they who really deal with all the unpredictable variables in ‘real-time’; the battle is decided by the summation of every soldier’s efforts and fortunes.
Yet I do know one unlikely game which comes that bit closer to conveying this grandiose chaos, Multiwinia. Yes, I do know how ridiculous that sounds. Right now you’re probably seeing screenshots of digital landscapes populated by neon stick-men as you ring up the mental police, but hear me out first.
Developed by Introversion Software, Multiwinia is a real-time strategy offering quite unlike any other. In essence, Introversion took their indie hit Darwinia and tried to give it a competitive multiplayer spin. Each player starts off with a handful of those neon stick-men, or ‘Multiwinians’, and a couple of spawn points. Stop spawn points from falling into enemy hands, and they will continue to churn out the little chaps until you soon have a veritable army at your disposal.
An army made up of one basic unit. It could be a recipe for boredom were Multiwinians not such intriguing little creatures. Left to their own devices they’ll have a bit of a wander until they bump into an enemy, shit themselves and sporadically let off a laser or lob the odd grenade in his/her/its direction.
Unlike your typical RTS grunt, Multiwinians have a will of their own and evidently fight of their own accord. You can send a cowardly rabble of Multiwinians to battle in the traditional RTS manner (left click select, right click move), but each Multiwinian will decide which target to prioritise, when to shoot and whether the situation calls for a grenade. And sure enough, having reached their destination it doesn’t take long before the rabble absent-mindedly dissipates.
An officer taking charge of his subordinates
Fortunately, you can instill some discipline in your Multiwinians by promoting a couple of officers. Officers serve a couple of important functions: For one, they can issue move-orders which persistently direct all unregimented Multiwinians in a particular vicinity towards a desired location. Essentially, you want to use these to ensure there are no Multiwinians uselessly milling about your spawn points when they could be on the front-line.
Alternatively, officers can be used to gather Multiwinians into formations. Assembled in these orderly rectangles they shoot more regularly and defy their natural inclinations by showing no fear in the face of the enemy. But formations also have a number of downsides; they move more slowly than unregimented Multiwinians, are prone to being flanked and, significantly, don’t use grenades. Moreover, it turns out that sometimes fear is a good thing. While your typical Multiwinian will flee from a grenade’s blast radius, regimented troops will stand defiantly until the grenade utterly decimates its numbers.
In essence, each game of Multiwinia comes down to a couple of crucial factors: crowd control and chaos. Crowd control means making the best use of every last Multiwinian while the best generals
know have an inkling of how to organise their troops.
There are a few hard and fast rules – you ought to constantly bolster your front line, where possible you’re better off holding the high-ground, and it is always a good idea to disband a formation when a live grenade falls in its midst – but other tactics are more elusive, nay subjective. While you are free to figure out your own tactics, amongst the chaos you can rarely put your finger on how effective they actually are.
Crates. Like dice, but a tad more deadly.
In Multiwinia even the most self-assured generals are subject to the roll of the dice. Or is this just something of a misconception? As strategy gamers we expect to wield extraordinary power over our armies and brand everything outside of our purview as subject to chance. Of course, when you look at the lines of code which determine Multiwinians’ idiosyncratic behavior that probably isn’t far off, but dealing in such mathematical terms is to obfuscate from the issue.
The fact is, each Multiwinian is his own being, while I merely play the part of one of Tolstoy’s detached generals. With each tumultuous victory I am left well aware that, for all my cunning, it was my Multiwinians and their unpredictable actions which really won the day…
Them and that randomly-spawned crate. As it drifted down from the heavens I dispatched a small team to intercept it on landing, and lo it just so happened to contain a nuke. I proceeded to obliterate half of the opposing army. Yep, that’s undeniable chaos right there… possibly less fitting with Tolstoy’s vision of war, but what the hell, I’m sure he would approve.