Sim storytelling, tools and methods.

Since the single-player episodes were announced, I started thinking about the problem that the combination of the genre with the episodic format. Episodic content that keeps bringing the players back has certain requirements that have to be addressed. Simulators haven’t been structured in the past in a way that can fulfill them.

The usual flow simulators have had in the past is simple enough: Cinematic -> Briefing -> Hangar -> Game -> Debriefing. The tasks the player carries out in each of those stages is specific focused on the Game task. The challenge here is to insert the story content in such a way that this flow is preserved.

The Episodic Format

Stories told in an episodic format rely heavily on their characters; the emotional bond that the audience develops with the cast is one of the essential motivators that compel them to return to the tale for the next installment. In order to form those bonds, in order to involve the players in the tale the game is trying to tell, the player has to be immersed in the world as well as amongst the characters.

However, games of the simulation genre have to focus narrowly on the experience they’re trying to depict. While franchises like Wing Commander and Heavy Gear may tell stories, their narrative isn’t part of the main experience. If you were to break those games into an episodic format, the story would have no cogent structure. And while the discrete structure of the missions would fit neatly into the format, the unmoored storyline would result in a less compelling experience.

However, given the necessarily narrow focus that the game needs to have on the experience they’re trying to depict, simply shoe-horning the story and its structure into the game can be disruptive. The end result of a story interrupting or breaking the simulation will lead to, again, a weaker game.

How can the story to reinforce the appeal of a game in episodic format co-exist with the strict simulation that should be the true focus of the game?


Off-the-field interaction, such as what the bar was for in Wing Commander could be an answer. However, placing the story in its own container makes it a sidecar to the game, and is also detrimental to the emotional bond the episodic format needs. The story has to be an integral part of the game, engaging the players in a narrative that will bring them back when the next episode is released. The relationship that the player builds with the characters has to be front and center, rather than constrained to its own area and to non-interactive FMVs.

However, there are ways where this type of emphasis on the storyline and its characters can be made into an asset to the game’s flow rather than an interruption the mech simulation. Now that the mission briefings, gear bay and other areas that used to be menus can be part of the simulated environment, we can bring the story into the simulation in ways that were not possible before.

Manipulating the environment has been done before, but the impact with today’s tools can be much greater. Rather than simple background changes, the game’s Briefing/Hangar/Debriefing stages can exist with the simulated world. As such, they can contextualize the action by placing the player in the simulation from the moment they load the game.

This allows the player to exist in the simulated world to a greater degree than a menu-driven interface.

Pushing this idea to the extreme, it would be possible to interrupt the player while they’re in one of the other stages of the game’s flow. For example, a player could be in the hangar modifying their machine when something crashes through the far wall, making the simulation intrude into the other task and forcing the player to respond to it.

Meanwhile, the story has a much more flexible stage on which to occur, making the cast a much more tangible entity in the story.

The Cast

While working on planning missions or modifying vehicles, the other characters can wander about the player, talk about relevant subjects to the task at hand. The characters could share their stories with the player indirectly by talking to one another, or directly, if the player chooses to approach them. The work this particular type of content requires grows exponentially, according to the degree of interaction we would give the player. If, for instance, the player would be able to talk back to the characters, choosing what to say or ask, the work required to make it work grows. However, if done well, this type of content can return a huge payoff in player involvement. Well-written dialogue can prompt a player to play a genre they normally wouldn’t in order to get more dialogue and advance the story.

Dialogue is the most direct way to support an episodic format, but it’s highly dependent on design, and it can be constraining. Do you allow the game to kill the characters you’re developing? Do you save them in order to use them in scripted events throughout the campaign, either by breaking the rules of the simulation to protect them, by making their death a failure state, or by merely stating that they “ejected” or “returned to base” if their vehicle is disabled?

This isn’t a unique problem to HGA, or even computer games. The most notable example of a similar problem can be seen in the T.V. series Band of Brothers, where the emphasis to depict the horrors of war was in harmony with, and reinforced by, the story and the characters. Some of the characters out there were meant to die in the same episode in which they were introduced. This includes minor one-episode characters and hundreds of extras that may not have had a single line. With that example in mind, along with the unique advantage that the simulation focuses on the vehicles rather than on the people, there is a solution.

The main characters of the story wouldn’t have to be depicted directly; rather, they exist as part of a pool of ‘possible’ pilots for every machine that also includes all the minor characters and extras. The game can decide who was piloting a vehicle that is destroyed according to the needs of a particular episode. If the story calls for a specific character to die during the course of a mission, they will be amongst the first casualties. Otherwise, the pool of extras is tapped for fodder. This doesn’t mean that scripted events have to be discarded. Rather, they can be used sparingly so they have the most impact when they are used. The more tools the designers and writers have available to them, the better.

Determining the limits of what the player can do as far as interacting with the NPCs of the world would be a top priority as well.


Another fundamental and oft-used tool would be general pieces of text. Text can be journal entries, battle reports, letters, or news stories. All these can be accessible to the player from the main work area. If the player is interested, they can pick one of those pieces of paper and read them. The ideal approach would be to have voice-overs reading the text the player glances at; reducing the level of effort needed for the players to engage increases the likelihood they will do so, as well as the impact of the material. It’s also the easiest and least time-consuming method to develop the world and plot of the game. However, it isn’t the most compelling, or the most accessible. And, since a majority of the players ignore such material, critical aspects of the story can’t be hidden in it.

The presence of these random pieces of text does serve to hook the players who do look for that sort of material into the world. From them, the game and the franchise can gain new followers. Given the relatively low investment it takes to place these in the world, especially without voiceovers, they can be an asset used to “flesh out” the experience.

Mecha; Their history in the West.

Mecha: Short for Mechanic, derived from the term Mechanic Anime, depicting quasi-anthropomorphic machines used by human beings as vehicles. Usually very large in size, these machines are most often applied to the purpose of war.

As we are on the peak of one of those strange, bell-shaped waves that culture sometimes forms, I can get away with talking about Achilles with a lot of you, prospective readers, being completely mystified. The two ends of a very long line are touching right now. Tales of the spear and shield aren’t so distant from our minds right now. I bring up the fleet-footed Achilles, the quintessential hero, as the first name in an article about Mecha because the type of stories that are told with both are largely the same.

Anything with massive somewhat human-shaped war machines invokes Achilles’ bronze armor, because it and these monstrosities are most often the instruments of epic storytelling. But the machines themselves are never the protagonist of the tale; invariably, it’s always the pilots that get the leading role. The fleshlings that link the Mechanic to the Organic, to paraphrase a Spielberg film, are what make these stories compelling. Achilles’ tale is as much about him as it is about of his armor, and how a friend borrowed it to try to save his comrades, the Acheans. The shining bronze breastplate, shield and spear were extensions of the warrior that wield them, amplifying their ability well beyond the limitations of mere mortals in the field of Mars.

The modern iteration of this same idea is Mecha; it’s the means by which an ordinary man can become a hero. He becomes a nigh-unstoppable force fighting for his ideals, for love, for family, for cash, and everything in between. You can trace a line from the Greek warriors all the way to the warrior chaste of Clan Wolf, touching upon European knights and Japanese samurai along the way. It’s an idea that appeals to all of us, and it’s revised time and again by popular imagination, to be used as a vehicle for a plethora of anxieties across the ages.

The *BattleTech universe is one of the most prominent examples in the West of the Mecha phenomenon. It is overly pulp, similar to *Futurama’s own world, though differing from it in that it isn’t a parody of itself. *BattleTech was created in 1984 by a Chicago-based company named FASA, as an American interpretation of Japanese Mecha, namely the machines from *Macross, with themes and a mythology that appealed to its target audience at the time. Like the *Illiad, *BattleTech fiction told epic tales of pilots and their instruments of war. And, like in the *Illiad, no one bothers to explain how things work; Achilles is who he is through the magic of the gods and his own willpower. In *BattleTech, Mechs work because of vaguely defined science, more evocative than explicative. The focus of the narrative is on the character and inspiration of the pilots, not on how things work. Flash Gordon would be entirely at home in such a world. Throw terms around like “laser”, “nuclear reactor”, and “neurohelmet” and the rest will fix itself. What matters is the visceral experience of the laser-beam’s glow, piercing through tons of ferro-fibrous armor to breach the power core, much like the tip of a javelin punching a hole in a shining breastplate, stringing out the innards of a doomed hero as it runs him through. It makes for great storytelling, until it’s questioned. That is to say that if anyone tries to confront this universe and their expectations about reality, such as the fact that very large caliber guns can shoot really, really far, but that a UAC-25 can’t hit anything past an arbitrary 250 meters, then the logic behind the tabletop game collapses. To do so is, nevertheless, entirely unfair to the game.

The sentence “A realistic videogame simulating a fantastic machine, based on rules with a ‘not-on-speaking-terms’ relationship with Isaac Newton” is paradoxical in a dizzying number of ways. It also accurately describes what the *Mechwarrior series set out to do. Simulating something that blithely disregards the laws of physics, but more importantly, the laws of common sense, can be very awkward. I should note that common sense is a dynamic category in itself, as what would’ve stood up to its scrutiny five years ago simply doesn’t today. This wasn’t a particular problem for *BattleTech, it could exist on its own terms comfortably. That is, until simulating the experience of piloting a Mech struck someone as a fun idea for a game. Questions were asked, and the emperor may or may not have been dressed. Taking that game, and then trying to cater to the lowest common denominator audience with it by dressing it up as a half-hearted shooter can very easily cripple it so it appeals to no one. That mistake is born from the entirely separate intention of making money, but such are the concerns of our time.

As it turns out, dovetailing back onto the Acheans beating at the gates of Troy, simulating the experience of being something like a Greek god battling other deities is also very, very difficult. Maybe things were easier back in the day of *Mechwarrior 2 and *Populus II, when those games dealing with that subject-matter were wildly successful. Maybe players were more readily amused, and willing to overlook inconsistencies. The expectations of the audience and the financial backers of videogames changed, and that might’ve been a problem on a different scale.

*FASA, while still active, produced an innumerable amount of Mech models, as well as other vehicles, beyond the ones they copies from the Macross series. Their original creations became iconic, separate from their Japanese inspiration, and kept the *BattleTech tabletop game alive and well for two decades. With art that would be at home on the cover of any good heavy metal CD, this particular brand of Mecha is, to this day, heroically posed in the imagination of countless people on either side of the Mediterranean. The Atlas and the Timberwolf are easily identifiable as two of the most impressive *BattleMechs, surrounded by legends of their own.

Back on point; to simulate something that isn’t real you have to virtually create it first, which is a feat of the imagination that few could even attempt, let alone be successful at it. Games like *Quake Wars and *Battlefield 2142 actually ‘create’ very little; they employ established paradigms of ubiquitous machines to produce ‘futuristic’ counterparts for them. The G.I. Joe toy line does basically the same thing; the Kung Fu grip was the most original idea in it. FASA’s legacy is very well established when those games also include Mecha, in whatever form. That is proof that this type of machine is part of what we expect from the future. We expect Mecha to be real someday, and part of the reason for that is *BattleTech and its denizens, the same way flying cars that fold into suitcases once were. Completely flat escalators that would carry us nowhere special were part of those expectations, though those joined reality after all.

Some time ago, FASA ceased to exist as a meaningful entity, which is part of the reason why this article was written. Their franchises, including one titled *Classic BattleTech, have passed onto other stewardships. Now, *Mechwarrior is a franchise of its own with little relation to the videogames, past the moniker. Whether we will see it once more as an AAA videogame is a question still waiting for an answer. On the other hand, there are plenty of community-driven projects. You can turn over any rock in google and come across things like *Megamek or *Neveron. These are continuations, and sophistications, of yesteryear MUDs (Multi User Dungeons, for the luddites) that run *BattleTech’s rule set in a text-based world. That is a much kinder medium, without the pressures inherent in a blockbuster release, done for the sake of the universe itself rather than turning a profit. The short-lived *MechCommander series is closer to those projects that *Mechwarrior ever tried to be.

However, *BattleTech isn’t the only source for Mecha in the West. As the lines of communication are strengthened across the Pacific, we have access to their creations, and we respond with more salvoes of our own.

*Robot Jox! I can hear some of you demanding it already, and I couldn’t get away without mentioning the movie. I place it here for chronologic order, as this movie was released November 1990, and the next title I’ll mention comes years later. Yes, this is another example of Mecha arriving to the West with vengeance, and who could miss the quiet tribute to the source of their inspiration, having the engineer of Asian descent label the controls with Origami? The movie, at every degree of scrutiny, remits the viewer to Mecha Anime. There is also a scene in *Alien 2 that is of particular interest. As it turns out, Ripley is a Mech pilot herself, which I find pleasingly fitting.

Times change, power shifts and culture does as well, and it has to, in all of its expressions. *BattleTech was aging by the beginning of the last decade of the past millennium; there was room for something else, something new that followed the new paradigms.

Enter *Dream Pod 9, a Montreal-based outfit, stage right, wielding the Terra Nova universe with a more contemporary, self-aware brand of science fiction. *Heavy Gear, and *Heavy Gear 2, published by *Activision, came from it. *Heavy Gear is more modern than BattleTech in several key points, such as basing its machines, called Gears, on designs not so foreign to reality. Drawing inspiration from designs from the Anime “*Armored Trooper VOTOMS”, *Heavy Gear introduces us to more feasible machines in a world that isn’t so fantastically removed from our own, at least technologically. These machines are much nimbler, smaller, and versatile than the Mechs we knew. What they lack in raw power, they make up in finesse, and they’re certainly no less heroic.  Gears, to put it another way, are the D’Artagnan to the Mechs’ Achilles. They’re another sort of hero altogether, but just as inspiring and honorable.

As I mentioned before, this universe builds itself on a more believable foundation; Gears redeem Mecha in the eyes of Newton.  *DP9 also focused its energy on creating and populating a single planet, Terra Nova, with people rich in history and culture. Recently, they’ve begun to explore the other human colonies with an attention to detail that *BattleTech, in the grandness of its scheme, lacked. *Heavy Gear, the universe, hasn’t had a new videogame made in its name for almost a decade, but it’s still very much alive in the tabletop medium, amongst the people who know of it. There is a degree of polish in *Heavy Gear which makes it more consistent with its internal logic.

Looking objectively at the games representing these two franchises, there is plenty of praise and criticism to be made. I’d dare to say that neither has had a truly honest depiction of the richness of their universes, as they’ve been distorted to fit some parameters they couldn’t escape at the time, whether they were technical or administrative. Despite that, they were terrific introductions to worlds that come alive, if not on a computer screen, then around a table with friends, dice and figurines. Taking that experience to a larger audience would be a project worthy of enthusiasm, which remains from being sincerely attempted, in any genre. The simulations we’ve seen up until now are incomplete, but they come from the desire to see the numbers and lines come off the graph paper, and become tangible, become fluid. Taking another shot at it at it would certainly not be wasted effort.

In the meantime, Japanese developers churn out Mecha games regularly with varying levels of detail and success. However, their franchises don’t have permanence most of the time, and when they do they’re nowhere near as rich as our own. There are gems that don’t make it across the Pacific, perplexingly. I suspect that the effort involved in producing an export version of games like *Powerdolls isn’t seen as worthwhile, perhaps because of how the Western market for such games is perceived.

On the other hand, if we look across other games with nothing even remotely related to these titles, we’ll notice that their influence has already spawned Mecha all over the place. All it takes to do so is present a bipedal vehicle and, voilá! Mechs! What is so special about these worlds that wasn’t already done in other popular franchises like *Warhammer 40k or *Starcraft? The shape of the machines isn’t the central feature of *BattleTech and *Heavy Gear; it’s their heroic nature. Certainly, there are similar objects in other science fiction/fantasy franchises. A Goliath is a Mech, for example, there’s no denying that. *Warhammer and *Starcraft have their heroes as well, in fact, and their worlds are satisfactorily inhabited. That notwithstanding, they’re also diffuse, impersonal. Armies come and go, with little individuality, from one game to the next. One space marine is as good as another.

Pilots, however, survive. Even if they’re just a name on a sheet of paper, a set of numbers that barely shift the scales one way or the other, they weave stories by the mere suggestion of their presence. Eventually they can pick each other out across the battlefield, like the Greek heroes, and respect each other like only equals amongst warriors can. It might be a romanticized view, but it’s one that’s shared amongst the enthusiasts of the genre and those worlds. They’re the ones keeping those worlds alive, even when their creators can’t. *Mechwarrior and *Heavy Gear made pilots out of players, and there are those of us that’ll wait for as long as it takes to take our machines to the field once again.

SLDF 3rd Master Sgt. Tankero, still on patrol.