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Exploring The Rhetoric Of War: A Turning Point Interview

Gamasutra sat down with Spark Unlimited CEO Craig Allen to discuss the concepts behind the upcoming Turning Point: Fall Of Liberty, an alternate history WWII title which asks some surprisingly potent social questions about government and conflict.

As the video game medium (and its audience) matures, it's only natural that designers would start to leave the realm of pure fantasy and want to explore current real life issues in their games. Haze, Army of Two or the recently released BlackSite: Area 51 have all been socially or politically conscious to various degrees.

Another such title that has received little attention so far is Turning Point: Fall Of Liberty. Developed quietly by a team of veterans from the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series, the game orchestrates a fictional invasion of America by Nazi Germany -- a powerful and thought-provoking setup.

Recently, Gamasutra had the opportunity to talk to Craig Allen, CEO of Southern California-based studio Spark Unlimited, developer of Turning Point. Throughout the interview, he discussed the grey nature of war and the importance of choices simple citizens have to make, drew parallels to events current and past such as 9/11, and, despite clear hesitations to describe the title as a political game, confessed his hope to make a difference through the video game medium.

My first thought when I saw the poster for the game was, do we need another World War II game? So, do we, really?

Well, we wouldn't really describe it as a World War II game. It's an alternate history game that leads to a conflict in 1953. So in our timeline, World War II never really happened. What we're dealing with is an extrapolation of historical events from a turning point in 1931 and really saying, what if America never got involved in the war in Europe? What if a united Nazi Germany basically attacked America in 1950 at the height of a kind of an American isolationism?

How that plays out may, at first blush, kind of look like a World War II game, but you can see that there is a lot of new evolved weaponry and a lot of contrast between who you play in our world and who you would normally play in a typical World War II game, where you're part of maybe a big military organization entrenched in taking on another military organization. This is really about the underdog and trying to, in kind of a personal way, fight for the ideals you believe in for your country.

Did you try to be historically accurate at all?

The key is extrapolating realistically from the history and trying to find out where things could have gone. There are certainly a lot of World War II games and, over the last few years, it's been a genre that really multiplied, and I do think people are kind of tired of playing the same historical engagement over and over again in these titles.

But what it's done is that it's created a whole audience that is very familiar with history. And if you study history, if you do research, one of the things that you naturally want to do next is play "what if?" games.

What if Germany had attacked England instead of Russia, which was a critically flawed endeavor? What if the decision was tactically to go one way instead of another, where would that have led? That's really the heart of Turning Point on a macro level. How do these big events change the course of the world of History in a realistic way and then on a personal level? How do the decisions you make in life kinda tip, cause change and affect the world you live in?


Are you a pretty new studio?

We've been around since 2002, and we started with a group that had done Medal of Honor, Medal of Honor: Underground, Medal of Honor: Frontline at EALA. We started the group in 2002 and our first title was Call of Duty: Finest Hour for Activision. Since then, we've been working on Turning Point and on another unannounced project as well.

Is it then fair to say that Turning Point could be seen as a way for you to stay in familiar territory but, at the same time, to try something new, kind of a stepping stone?

I think it's certainly a stepping stone for the team. I mean, I think every passionate creative group wants to learn new things. And if all you're doing is kind of recreating the worlds you've done before, you're not really growing as an artist.

And for our team, having spent a lot of time doing WWII games... Medal of Honor was really exploring what it means to be a hero in war. Call of Duty was exploring what is that kind of personal role that somebody plays as part of a team or a squad... Maybe there's honor, maybe there's glory, but you really want to get out alive with your buddies... survival.

So with Turning Point, it was exploring what the personal choices a citizen makes due to engaged conflict and also having some fun with exploring alternate weaponries, find out where technology would have evolved with the Nazis if we hadn't interrupted their progress. How would the conflict dynamics have changed if America stayed isolated and didn't build a war machine?

How would it feel to be an underdog -- because we live in a time when countries make broad sweeping decisions about how they move on the world stage -- and the individuals in that conflict have to make choices? What prompts those kinds of choices, what prompts those kinds of decisions and actions? And ultimately, what do you fight for when you fight in a war? What do you fight for when you fight for liberty or democracy?

You said something about wanting to explore the rhetoric of war and propaganda in that game. What did you mean by that?

Basically, the idea is that when one country moves in – like in our game – with an incredible amount of power and sets up shop, they don't do it to conquer the other country. They do it with a certain kind of rhetoric, with a certain kind of spin, to justify their actions and try to form an alliance with the people. So in our game, the Germans are not conquering America so much as they are, in their words, liberating America.

When they come in, they are to bring America into the new global world order. And so for example, when the Nazis take over the White House and start broadcasting from there, their message is, "Don't fight, your leaders have misled you, we're here to unite you with a stronger Germany, we're here to really liberate you from your leaders who have been holding you back."

And so as an individual, as a citizen, you have to make a choice on who you listen to. What do you believe? What do you think is right, what do you think is wrong? Because whatever government is in power is going to have their own story for why they're there and what they're doing and how the means justify the ends.


Do I see a metaphor here?

(He smiles, seems to hesitate) Well, I think that the political events that we live in right now certainly... Again, as any artist working in a craft, you want to explore issues that are relevant to you. And I think that we can't be blind to things that happen on the world stage and not want to incorporate that into our work in a form that allows us to explore those issues and ask ourselves: when you fight for America, you know, what are you fighting for?

The first sequence that was shown during the presentation, with huge zeppelins towering over New York and destroying buildings, brought on shades of 9/11 to me. Was that intentional?

Well... yes! Again, we want to make an action game, we want to make a fun game, we want to make a thrilling experience, but if you want to dig underneath that, you'll find out what the underlying idea is, the core of what we're exploring. You think about something like 9/11, a horrific event that changed the course of politics, of priorities for countries, of how we talk about those events.

But whatever went into that event, all that plotting and all that planning, came down to a guy in a cockpit of an airplane. A single individual that was the final link in a chain of actions. And in that moment, he was the turning point for the world stage. Had he chosen a different path, we might live in a different world today but by carrying through that action, the world changed. And those are the moments that we want to explore in this game.

Do you think that video games are good vehicles for those kinds of messages? I remember talking about this very subject with Harvey Smith, and --

Oh, absolutely! You have a medium that allows for exploration and interactivity in a way that action has cause and effect. Every other medium -- books, films, music -- they're primarily passive. You might enjoy them as part of a social event. You can see movies together, you can talk about them together.

But what you see on the screen has been crafted and is presented in one format. With games, and this is part of what we're trying to do with Turning Point, you can actually present options, you can present choices and explore those choices and, much like we do in life, we hopefully find new meaning depending on the outcome of those decisions.

What is your approach with Turning Point? Are you trying to make a clear political statement through the game or, as with Army of Two for example, do you want to just give the player the information and let him form his own opinion?

The fact that we can even have that kind of discussion around the content to me is very exciting. Because certainly there's going to be a lot of people that will play the game and just want the thrill and experience of fighting Nazis in America, in that broad stroke "what if?" scenario.

However, I think some other people might want to take away some ideas to discuss, or dig in and do some research or do some thinking about current political events and really explore what the game means in terms of what you fight for when you fight for your country, what the rhetoric of war is, and how you evaluate your choices. I love that that is something that is part of what we can discuss with the product at a deeper level.


People would argue that we do have a clear cut bad guy here, though. Even if there are choices and even if you're hinting at the grayish nature of conflict, you're probably not going to side with the Nazis, right?

Well, I wouldn't think so, but yes, we do have a simpler war and conflict that we're engaged in, and part of that was also a choice to go back to the 1950s America, at kind of the height of our pure kind of pop culture ideology, where it was happy days, right? It was Chubby Checker, it was sock hops and soda pops. To say OK, in this kind of pure ideology of the American spirit, against kind of the black German Nazi movement, how do those forces come together as kind of a stark dramatic line?

But it was also about really going back to the essence of America. Right now, it's easy for a superpower like America to go out and, you know, maybe kind of forget its roots, maybe kind of exert its influence.

Maybe it's easy for people to join into the military and serve America's interests without really pausing to wonder what's at the heart and the core of the country. What are the values we should really be fighting for and what really are the things that we should be prioritizing in terms of our politics, in terms of our focus, in terms of what matters to us as a country and as a people.

Does it bother you that some people might play and not notice or care about any of that?

We think there's a pretty good startling ending that we don't want to reveal just yet. But again, the power of that individual at one moment, to make a dramatic difference for the world is certainly at the heart of what we're trying to talk about.

If you look at most of the WWII shooters out there, the war really goes on around you, with or without you. So it's just a matter of you marking position to get to your objectives. We really wanted to look at that in a different way.

Do you hope to make a difference?

Absolutely! I think that you only have time, that's all you have. We're at an incredible time in kind of the progress of the modern human capabilities, in terms of communication and interaction and ability to affect change in many different ways, and I think that if as artists, you're not striving to talk about either what it means to be human or what it means to be part of a global community, you're not really answering the potential you have when you create to have impact. So in our way, while we want to be mass market and create a game that a lot of people will enjoy, we certainly want to have that impact. We certainly seek to do that.

Would you want, at some point, try to make a game that tackles these subjects head on, in a realistic manner, without having to use metaphors and allegories? David Jaffe, talking about his canceled game Heartland, which was really about the invasion of America by China, famously stated that there's "no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow" for these kinds of games right now.

You know, again, I think it's all steps. I mean, we're still a relatively young medium. If you were to compare it to film, that's been around for a 100 years, we're still starting to grow in terms of having an audience that is sophisticated enough to be receptive to deeper themes, to deeper, more complex issues and to the presentation of more complex material.

Our average age group at our shop is probably 27 to 32, so, you know, our group is aging and what keeps us interested in making games are things that we're dealing with in our own life. And I think that as the industry matures, it's going to be natural that we start to explore those things. And hopefully the audience will support that.

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