How do you tell a story in an authentic military game like Arma?
There are many narrative devices. The most obvious of these comes from the personal experiences of principle characters. It’s a perfect way to show unique points of view but does pose certain limitations when it comes to exploring a bigger picture. Despite featuring many interesting protagonists, from David Armstrong in the original Operation Flashpoint to Nathan McDade in Arma 3 Laws of War, the game has never really been about them. Arma is not a game about individuals, but rather of armies, factions, nations, and their conflicts.
Exposition of such complex themes can be challenging, and over the years we have tried many different methods: simple titles on a black background, pictures with a voiceover, conversations between team-mates, officers giving briefings in front of a screen. They all work, but in the end, they are not really how we engage with real wars, at least for the majority of us who have not actively participated in any such conflict. Our perception of combat comes only from secondary sources: books, films, games, documentaries and, most importantly, from news coverage.
Scenes of a night battle, with tracers lighting up the sky, the distorted voice of a war correspondent describing the events, BREAKING NEWS flashing up on the TV, with a news ticker running along the bottom of the screen; we are all familiar with these images, as we’ve seen them so many times. It is through the lens of the media then, that the viewer has been able to observe most modern conflicts. But this does not necessarily reflect how events look from the perspective of the people on the ground.
News is a universal narrative device. Within one minute, you can introduce different locations, factions and time frames. Throw in some maps and quotes and add intentional misinformation and bias as a cherry on the top. It can feel impersonal and detached, but for Arma, a game which seeks to portray war without too much bravado and heroism, it fits perfectly.
More than a decade ago, we created AAN World News, a fictional media organization which helped us to tell stories across multiple projects. It started modestly, but eventually went on to become a major part of the interconnected Armaverse, producing news articles, video reports, press conferences and interviews, both in the games and outside of them. Now I’d like to tell its story.
The history of AAN starts with the release of Arma: Armed Assault, but this wasn’t the first time that Bohemia Interactive decided to utilize this particular mechanism for presenting information – a website for the never released Operation Flashpoint 2 also adopted a news broadcast-like appearance. The timing is no coincidence – the year was 2004, the Iraq War was still in its infancy, and the media was full of war coverage.
Arma: Armed Assault went much further, creating AAN to link missions of the main campaign together. There wasn’t really any central protagonist, and playable characters didn’t have names or biographies. The missions lacked a comprehensive storyline, so without AAN cutscenes telling the player what’s happening, there would be little narrative structure.
It is little known that the disconnect between what the player sees, and what information the media provided, was one of the pillars of the original campaign’s concepts. However, numerous cuts and redesigns watered down the original vision, and we ended up with a news station that had no meaningful news to report.
AAN’s golden age began with Arma 2. Set in the fictional country of Chernarus, the game has a complex political story involving six factions, and each of them was to receive its own trailer before release. As opposed to conventional game trailers, these videos were shot “in-universe”, showcasing both the new assets and the storyline.
The first one, dedicated to the US Marine Corps, was a simple TV segment about military forces doing their military forces thing. It went without commentary, something a TV network would use when it needs to fill the time between main programs. When designing visuals for the video, Jan Pražák, then PR manager at Bohemia and author of the videos, made a choice and picked the already established AAN.
The next video, about the civilians, followed the AAN style although this time with a commentary. Two others, about the local army and nationalist guerrillas respectively, were also produced as TV reports, but were “broadcast” on the Chernarrusian station ČERT (ČERnaruská Televize) and were voiced in Czech (which happens to be the language of Chernarus) to give them a more regional flavor.
Great care was given to recreating the visual style used in real news broadcasts. The camera position is fixed, unlike cameras in films, which can be moved on rails or cranes. The view is normally either static or panning to the side and is often shaking due to the camera being hand-held. Zooming in is rare, and when it does happen, it’s to focus on an unexpected target. Most importantly, there is only one camera recording the scene; it’s not possible to cut to an alternate angle captured by a second or third camera. Simple rules, but if broken, the video wouldn’t feel right.
Arma 2 was released in June 2009, though the story takes place in October of the same year. To refresh the interest of players while they were waiting for the upcoming expansion, the idea of following the events of the conflict as they evolved in real-time on the fictional AAN website was born. We registered the domain aan-online.com, and started filling it with news about growing unrest in Chernarus. The website is now dead, but for the purpose of this article I recreated it at aan.moricky.com.
We made sure that the website wasn’t affiliated with Bohemia in any way, therefore making it appear quite mysterious, in the hope it would some spark viral attention. Marek Španěl, CEO of Bohemia, defined the rules this way:
“Most importantly, AAN Online sits above and beyond one particular game… AAN Online should not contain any direct reference to any game or product page. But any product page can refer to material from AAN or directly to AAN as it feels suitable.”
This was important in the long term, as it helped to maintain a sense of authenticity, as if you were reading genuine news. In fact, we mixed news feeds from major outlets like BBC or CNN together with our news, to make the site appear more credible. This created unintentional irony; just as the real headlines ran with Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, we wrote about US forces invading Chernarus.
AAN articles didn’t follow the whole Arma 2 story; the last article is written right before a major plot twist occurs and leads to US forces withdrawing from the country. We didn’t want to spoil the storyline, even though the game had been released for several months already. In retrospect, this may not have been the best decision, as the twist – a terrorist attack in Moscow caused by the Chernarussian guerrillas – was underexplained in the game itself and providing extra info about it on the website may have been appreciated by players interested in this campaign.
After AAN became such a staple part of Arma promotion, there was a desire to return it back into the game itself. Designers took this idea to heart, resulting in the campaign opening with AAN coverage of the US invasion of Takistan. AAN reporters, Joe Harris and Ann Baker, play pivotal roles in the story when they are captured by a local militia. Moreover, the end cutscene is a press conference where a commanding officer summarizes the story based on the player’s choices. The credits of the expansion also appear as an AAN broadcast, and we even discussed redesigning the main menu to match this style, at least until we realized how much work this would take!
This was the first time I was personally involved in the AAN development. I configured all in-game graphics, and since I come from the modding community, I made sure that the news overlay can be easily used and tweaked by modders. They embraced war journalism enthusiastically, adding custom AAN news and playable reporters in their missions. This remains true even today, and multiplayer scenarios where one or more players can be seen running around with a camera in their hands, instead of a gun, is not out of the ordinary.
To tease of the upcoming expansion, we brought the AAN Online website back to life. This time the news was written by Jay Crowe, a newly hired environmental artist, who started receiving more and more marketing duties due to being only native speaker in the Mníšek studio. The timing posed a bit of a challenge – Arrowhead‘s story takes place in 2013, but the year was 2010. Reporting about campaign events was out of the question, as we wanted to follow the established rules. Instead, the articles were to introduce the new map of Takistan, and its factions and relations with neighboring Chernarus.
After the expansion was released, the focus shifted to planned DLCs. The first one, British Armed Forces, we had hinted about even prior to Operation Arrowhead‘s release. Later, we followed it up with a story revealing its new map, Shapur. Private Military Company DLC received similar attention, with a piece about how the “mercenary” company rebranded itself, indicating the theme. The last DLC, Army of the Czech Republic, had a troubled development. We were designing it together with Jay, and naturally we had inserted a teaser for players, regarding its story, in an AAN article. However, the project was shelved, and we moved on to develop PMC afterwards. It wasn’t until years later that the project was brought back and finished by a different team. Due to design changes, the column published on AAN no longer matches the events in the DLC.
The rule about AAN Online releasing news strictly in real-time was untouchable. On a few occasions, we wanted to report about events happening alongside the game’s story, technically in the future. For this purpose, despite appearing exactly like AAN reports, any news items had to be published on official Arma 2 channels in the form of articles and videos. Consistency was the key, but it wasn’t to remain for long.
After PMC, Jay and I said goodbye to Arma 2 development and moved on to create Take On Helicopters. Meanwhile, Arma 3 was in its early stages of development and there were plans to announce it using Augmented Reality Game (ARG). It would be reported that Bohemia’s websites had been hacked, and AAN was to write about this, confirming that it was not a random event, and would throw in some clues in the process. This deviated from the rule about not acknowledging Arma, most likely because the people behind the ARG were unaware of this protocol. After all, the website was treated as unofficial, and internal documentation was sketchy.
This is the last time the AAN Online web was updated, and it remained unchanged until the domain expired and was lost. When restoring it, I intentionally omitted articles covering the ARG, as they don’t really fit into the universe. You can still preview them in archived version if you’re interested.
The website may have been abandoned, but AAN lived on. When Mníšek team took over Arma 3‘s campaign development, it didn’t take long before AAN resurfaced again, although in a less intensive form than before – snippets of TV reports open both Arma 3 and Arma 3 Apex‘s campaigns, but that’s it. Times have changed. Nowadays, more and more people get their news online rather than from traditional TV channels, so the framing device is no longer as attractive as it used to be. Unless you adapt it.
Laws of War
The pilot project of the newly established Amsterdam studio, where I now work, was a DLC for Arma 3. Our original concept focused on the role of war photographers; We didn’t want people to just watch the news, we wanted them to create it. In a role of a journalist, players would be shaping the “truth” of an AAN photo essay by deciding what to photograph, and what to omit. Unfortunately, we had to cancel this concept because of limited resources, and move on to our second-best idea – Laws of War.
We knew from the beginning we wanted a story-rich singleplayer experience showing the point of view of multiple factions, though for quite some time we struggled with tying the narrative together. It’s only logical that after so many years of giving AAN a merely supportive role, we would finally grant it the leading role it deserved. In Remnants of War, the DLC’s campaign, AAN is the driving force for the whole plot. The story is told through an interview between Nathan McDade, the protagonist, and Kate Bishop, a journalist who’s gathering information for a piece she’s writing. At the end, players are rewarded with the finished article, and it differs based on decisions they made during the playthrough.
It’s the topic of the article that binds everything together, a tale of how the war ravaged one town, and how each warring party was involved in its destruction. After all, Arma is not a game about individuals, but rather of armies, factions, nations, and their conflicts.
For now, Laws of War is the last story we told with the aid of AAN. Mini-campaigns in DLCs that followed employed different kind of narrative devices, and it’s unclear how or if we’re going to bring the fictional news station back, in Arma 3 or otherwise. One thing is clear – for AAN World News to continue, there first must be some news to inform about.
Thanks Lee Alsworth for proofreading and editing.