Friday, 3 May 2013

Divine Knowledge: The Victory of Joan of Arc

I haven't actually played The Victory of Joan of Arc. I want to, but this month I bought Relic, and then the Deadzone Kickstarter happened and basically my gaming budget got eaten up for a while. What this means is that I can't tell you exactly how and to what extent the concepts under discussion manifest in actual gameplay, but can only analyse their existence within the rules, which are available here. While the intention of the mechanics of a rule-set and the instances of their interpretation in actual play may vary, sometimes wildly, in focus, for my current purposes intention is the most important aspect for analysis.

Turning Point Simulations is a specialist historical wargames publisher producing a range of games based on specific key battles. They produce the kind of tight, detailed games that model specific situations and then leave it up to the player to make strategic choices within those confines - differing from the more open rules of, say, skirmish games which model individuals or groups of individuals and ask the player to manage and direct these in the hope that their larger strategy will be realised. The use of randomness is generally much larger as the scale of the battle becomes smaller. It is much more likely that an individual soldier will be unable or unwilling to complete a task than it is for an entire battalion, hence the tendency for skirmish games to be very dice heavy. When you get to the larger scale, where strategy is much more central to the model, randomness tends to be confined and constrained in it's influence as well as its extent. This means not only fewer dice, but also limits to the impact of those rolls, limiting the effects to essentially surprise reversal of fortunes, or the uncertainty of risky manoeuvres.

In this framework you can see that making an event random, especially making one truly random as opposed to a stacked set of probabilities, has a certain semantic power. That is to say that it has a meaning attached to it; in fact it is imbued with meaning by the context of the game and the design decisions made when the game's reality-model was devised.

In general, randomness in game design is about taking things out of the players' control. There is a big question in terms of games-as-games as to how much randomness should be included. This often includes questions about reliability of simulations as well as player enjoyment, participation and skill and is a fascinating and rich area of study and discussion, but isn't what I'm going to look at here. What I'm interested in is games-as-representations. Randomness within player actions obviously indicates what is out of their control, but it also suggests what is not pre-ordained; i.e. that which does not (or in the case of historical simulations, did not) have to happen. Applying this to the story of Joan of Arc points to what I think are some very interesting conclusions about madness and divine inspiration.

Joan of Arc considered herself divinely inspired, and considered her victories proof  that she was an agent of God's will. Although it is easier to trace destiny and teleology in completed events it remains pretty undisputed that she had a positive effect for France on the breaking of the Siege of Orl√©ans. If this effect was the result of special knowledge one would normally expect it to be modelled by providing the French with a strategically optimal path, or by weighting the game in their favour, but this is not the case.

Instead, Joan's voices are modelled in the game as a random events table. This does two things; firstly it suggests that her instructions were not direct from God, a position supported (regardless of your religious view on the matter) by evidence that the French prevailed despite their commanders ignoring her advice on a number of occasions, basically using her as a figurehead rather than a tactician. Secondly it suggests that her instructions were unreasoned, as even if the reasoning she employed was inscrutable or so heavily dense or obfuscated as to be functionally unknowable you would still expect them to be modelled as absolute.

The game suggests (although interestingly not explicitly), and then attempts to model, Joan of Arc as mad, in a sort of general sense; and this is unsurprising as it is the usual modern reading of hearing voices. But, by modelling this madness as randomness it enacts and embodies a common view of madness as essentially unknowable and capricious - as reacting not to what is there but to something else or by some hidden mechanism. It suggests that voices, even when not divine, are still essentially external and uncontrolled rather than a mechanism of the internal processing and presentation of ideas and conclusions, despite evidence that there are large numbers of people for whom voices do not equate to either mental distress or a psychiatric diagnosis.

Having said all of this however, it would be remiss of me not to mention a final possible reading: that Joan of Arc is being modelled as an unknowable and uncontrollable force to the French commanders. That is to say that, as a headstrong leader with her own ideas she was not always interested in following the proper chain of command, and in fact that tactical challenge is what immediately interested me in the game - just a little extra unpredictability to keep the players on their toes. But, while that still looks to be the way the game functions, I think that the implications remain as above. Joan of Arc is the title character, the leader who's decisions the player is most closely being asked to pit themselves against, which ultimately is the main draw of historical games such as this: the ever present question, 'could you do better than Napoleon?'