Writing on video games by Steve Hernandez

Thursday, January 3, 2019

How Advance Wars makes war lighthearted

There’s always been something odd about Advance Wars. It’s a turn-based strategy game where soldiers shoot at each other and cruisers on the sea blow copters out of the air. However, these units aren’t commanded by a hardened army general; instead, the orders are delivered by a cheerful teenager that likes mechanics and hates waking up early. War in Advance Wars is just so…lighthearted. This lightheartedness serves a purpose but creates a notably bizarre tone due to the inclusion of a story. So, how does it make such a grim subject lighthearted and how does that tone affect the game?

Advance Wars’ lighthearted tone is most notable in its presentation. The menus, maps, and even the soldiers are brightly colored. War isn’t depicted as realistic, but as colorful and clean. It is also given a layer of abstraction that is reminiscent of tabletop war games such as Risk. Miniaturized and cartoonish-looking sprites represent units such as soldiers, tanks, and copters. Movement is grid-based while symbols such as buildings, anchors, and airports represent territories the players can capture. Even capturing these is depicted in a lighthearted way. A short animation shows a soldier stomping on the territory until it belongs to their faction. How you take over these places is never explained. Do you force the citizens to join your war effort or are the cities empty? The maps in Advance Wars are not lived-in spaces. They are isolated locations that eschew civilians and wildlife that could get caught in the crossfire. Likewise, the trees, mountains, and plains are still perfectly intact after the battle is over. This abstraction helps the game appear less realistic.

The story in Advance Wars doesn’t dabble into the negative aspects of war such as death, suffering, and destruction. Instead, it has a cast of characters with positive personalities that team up to take down an antagonist that wants to destroy the world. The game takes place in Wars World consisting of continents controlled by four factions: Orange Star, Blue Moon, Yellow Comet, and Green Earth. The story begins when Blue Moon invades Orange Star’s territory for seemingly no reason. The factions eventually team up to take down the Black Hole Army led by the antagonist, Sturm, who caused infighting among the four by inciting war using a doppelgänger of Andy, an Orange Star CO. The story doesn’t explore the politics or the consequences of war. You never see how the combat impacts ordinary citizens, soldiers, or the environment. The only people that exist in this world are commanding officers and the soldiers they control. As a result, no one is protesting the war and the atrocities that occur as a result because there are none. The commanding officers rarely lament on the loss of life. They are distanced from the battlefield and only appear during conversations and splash screens before and after missions. Even if a CO loses all of their units or has their headquarters captured, they shrug their shoulders and live to fight another day. By making units identical and mute blank slates, they become more like pieces on a game board rather than human beings. The game’s ranking system seems to care more about the units than the commanding officers. After completing a mission, the player is scored based on speed, power, and technique. Speed is determined by how many days the player takes to win, power determines how many enemy units you can destroy in a turn, and technique determines how many units the player loses. To achieve S-rank, the game’s highest rank, the player must complete a mission in the shortest amount of days while keeping the casualties to a minimum. Since the player acts as an advisor to the other commanding officers in the campaign mode, it’s as if getting an S-rank is showing them the smarter way to achieve victory. Be quick, be aggressive, and keep as many of your troops alive as you can. In a way, not only is Advance Wars’ campaign about allies trying to take down a single threat, but it’s also about the player joining the Orange Star army and having their work cut out for them. From field training to the final battle, the player must participate in and win every single mission by ruthlessly wiping out armies belonging to different nations. If Nell gave out war medals, the player would no doubt get so many that the weight of them all would cause them to fall over.
Another way Advance Wars makes war lighthearted is how it approaches violence. The only real violence in the game occurs when enemy units fire at each other. This is depicted with a short animation that plays when two enemy units engage. Here, soldiers don’t keel over in pain and die, nor do they bleed when shot at; instead, they are flicked off the screen. The commanding officers also get brief animations depicting their reactions toward the combat. A grin and a chuckle by Andy after a successful attack or a sense of disappointment followed by a bead of sweat after defeat. An option in-game allows you to turn off these battle animations. Not only does this speed up the play, but it also hides the only bit of violence that exists in this world of wars. Actually, perhaps the most violent thing in the game is when a unit explodes after losing all of its hit points.

Advance Wars is so lighthearted about war that it creates a tone implying that war is just a fun game with no consequences. This isn’t new, plenty of games have done this, and there’s even a trope for it. This is understandable since the prevailing train of thought of the video game medium is that games should be fun. However, I can see this tone being something hard for some players to separate. For others, it may come across as too childish.
A story can give context to the gameplay and justify the action happening onscreen. Advance Wars’ story justifies the fact that each faction fights each other due to being manipulated by the villain. On the other hand, the story is unable to provide a reason why the commanding officers trivialize the lives of their units and gloss over their apparent deaths. This creates a type of dissonance that makes it seem like the COs view their soldiers as expendable toys that are replaceable. This is perfectly encapsulated in the 22nd mission called Rivals! After defeating Sturm, Eagle—a CO from Green Earth—challenges Andy to a battle. Why? For fun. The two COs duke it out by pitting their armies against each other despite the fact they were allies in the previous mission. With that said, this lighthearted approach to war has been a part of the series since it began in 1988 with the release of Famicom Wars. However, the dissonance is even more notable in Advance Wars because of its inclusion of a story. The Famicom Wars games didn’t have to worry about this because they never had plots or characters; they were just the video game equivalent of tabletop wargames.

Intelligent Systems could’ve addressed this dissonance in several ways. The story could imply that the COs are controlling units that aren’t human. Instead of soldiers being flicked off the screen and tanks exploding—things that hint at death—a defeated unit could’ve waved a white flag to indicate surrender. Perhaps the story could’ve been revealed to be just one big war game. Warbits—a mobile game that is heavily inspired by Advance Wars—solves this dissonance through a simple conceit. The units are all robots in a simulator called Warbits used to settle disputes. If Advance Wars did something similar, then the premise of cheerful teenagers sending soldiers to their doom without acknowledging it wouldn’t seem strange.

Warbits(Risky Labs) Screenshot from PocketGamer

Dissonance aside, the way Intelligent Systems handled this ultimately works because it allows them to depict warfare without it making it seem too violent. This is evidenced by the fact that “Mild Violence” is the only category labeled by the ESRB. Likewise, by making units seem like blank slates, the player won’t feel too bad when their units are destroyed. If Advance Wars attempted to depict combat in a violent way while retaining the overall lightheartedness the game has, then this would feel too extreme and would go against the game’s lighthearted tone. Similarly, if the soldiers were given too much characterization, then the negligence of them by the commanding officers would perhaps stick out even more.

Advance Wars’ lighthearted approach to war may seem odd, but it definitely has a purpose. It gives the game a personality that allows it to stand out among other turn-based strategy games. Likewise, the game’s presentation emphasizes the fact that the game is accessible enough that anyone can play. Intelligent Systems set out to make a turn-based strategy game that players new to the genre could enjoy without feeling overwhelmed. By making it not complex, giving it a lighthearted story, and making war as abstract as a tabletop war game, Intelligent Systems created a game that everyone can play despite it being based on one of the worst things in human history: war.

1 comment

  1. >The maps in Advance Wars are not lived-in spaces. They are isolated locations that eschew civilians and wildlife that could get caught in the crossfire.

    I've never even thought of that! That's a big contrast to Fire Emblem, where you can go to villages and the villagers give you extra supplies or something.


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