Am I Happy or in Misery?
Bernard Grzybowski’s Purple Haze, currently funding on Gamefound for the next day or so, claims to be “an immersive story-creation campaign game for 1 to 4 players that drops you into the heart of darkness: Vietnam, 1967.”
As buzzwordy an introduction as that is, it’s all true on a technical level. It’s a game. It’s immersive. It openly asks its players to take its icon-laden framework and breathe the life of a personal story into its vacant lungs. Yes, smart-ass, it plays with 1 to 4 players.
More than that, though, as I’ve been playing it over the past couple of weeks, I can’t help but think there’s a better descriptor. Purple Haze is all of those things. It is also a neon-lit warning sign about how difficult it can be to make a game about serious subject matter.
First, the game.
Purple Haze has three layers. At its highest resolution, this is a story about a squad of U.S. Marines in Vietnam in 1967. Over the course of its campaign, your men will learn the ropes of combat and survival. They will adopt specializations and preferred tools. Some will learn the local language. Others will stick to conversing with bullets and grenades. Nobody will leave without scars. Purple Hearts will be awarded for those that are evident on the body; less visible hurts will cause less visible damage, but often with equally dire consequences. Over time, you may develop an attachment to these boys. From their first moments in-country as “cherries” (ew) to hardened specialists with thousand-yard stares, you’ll manage their equipment, proficiencies, and well-being.
Zoom in a little bit. Every scenario opens with a briefing. Your squad is delivered to a point on the map and given a task. Perhaps they’re meant to patrol a local village, run down some hot intel, or hump back to base after their Huey is lanced out of the sky. At this resolution, Purple Haze is a game about managing fatigue, time, danger, and health. Your squad travels across the map, making decisions about whether to move orthogonally or diagonally, an abstraction that translates to moving safely or quickly. Everything drains your stamina and sees daylight bleeding into the horizon. Periodic breaks are necessary, but no less dangerous, encouraging you to bring along booby traps to demolish enemy patrols before they can creep up on you. Should you survive into the night, you’ll quickly discover why it’s a bad idea to be caught out after sundown.
Another layer. Combat only occurs a few times per scenario, but it’s hard-hitting and full of tough decisions. There’s even a raw-boned viscerality to the process. Viet Cong soldiers are represented by dice on tarot-sized combat cards and their attacks are abstracted as chits drawn from a bag, but they strike fast and hard, wilt in the face of your superior training and firepower, and then disappear again into the foliage, often leaving both sides smarting and wondering who got better out of the engagement. If you weren’t so busy patching up your wounds, you might even discern that they’re just as terrified as you are.
Now stitch those layers together and you have one hell of a game. I’ll give one example. After a firefight, it isn’t uncommon to find yourself hurting. Small wounds accumulate until they become serious injuries that leave your Marines impaired. After my squad survived one such exchange, two of our boys were barely able to stand. Even a scrape might tip them over the edge. We’d used up most of our ammunition and all of our M79 grenades. Sunset was fast approaching. When we called in our report on the radio, our commanding officer congratulated us on a successful action. Oh, but he had one more thing: reports of a POW held at an insurgent camp not far from our position. Could we handle it? Or did we need immediate extraction?
Just like that, the layers came together. A round of combat had gone south and left us in pieces. The longer we stayed out, the tougher our boys would become. We could save a fellow Marine. But the harder we pressed, the greater the odds that some of us wouldn’t be coming home at all. Which would it be? Return to safety now, or take a risk that might be our last?
That combination of short- and long-term considerations on an open map, the constant feeling of pressing our luck, the careful management of resources and stamina and even time, it adds up to intoxicating effect. The closest comparison — and this will sound strange — is Ryan Laukat’s Sleeping Gods, right down to the choose-your-own-adventure storybook with multiple choice decisions and excessive skill checks. They’re even similar in terms of complexity and weight.
Tonally, of course, they couldn’t be further apart.
Now, the immersion.
I’ve only played a handful of scenarios — the prototype only features the first three — but so far, Purple Haze doesn’t seem any more preoccupied with the politics of nations than its soldiers would have been. They’re stuck here, they’d like to survive, they have ephemeral needs like fulfilling their duty and retaining their honor, therefore the righteousness of this war is a distant thought compared to the minute-to-minute business of putting one foot in front of the other and hoping it doesn’t land them in danger.
But while the politics of nations are distant, the politics of personal behavior are close at hand. In one scenario, our soldiers were confronted with the consequences of friendly fire. This left one of them traumatized, a parallel system to the injuries they can sustain. Smartly, this system is just as ever-present as the threat of physical harm, aches piling up until a Marine receives a mental injury card. Like physical injuries, these are abstractions; in the version I played, they weren’t even titled, instead describing only the effects of the harm rather than venturing a diagnosis. Worse aim. Refusing to carry any equipment. Wandering out into the line of fire. Minor but life-altering adjustments that are every bit as present as a broken leg or a bullet hole.
Another situation saw our Marines canvassing a local village. When we requested intel from the headman, he wasn’t forthcoming. One of our men had learned Vietnamese. Looking over our options in the storybook, one jumped off the page: we could force the headman to cooperate by threatening to rape the village’s young women.
Stop a moment. You’re probably thinking something right now. Take hold of it. Because whatever it is, it’s a legitimate response to the sentence you just read.
I’ve written before that I have a cast-iron stomach for fiction. That’s true. Furthermore, I believe that we have yet to witness the many narratives and situations, the adult conundrums, the atrocities and intimacies, the range, of what board games can handle.
I haven’t yet been convinced that Purple Haze can do it.
Why? That’s harder to pin down. Maybe it’s nothing more eventful than timing. Maybe it takes years and decades for a medium’s culture to reach that point, like Rhett Butler’s 1939 “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” and Lucille Ball smooching Ricky Ricardo in 1951. Maybe I’m stuck with an expectation that board games must be simple things with black-and-white morality. Or even white-and-white morality. Another option is that Purple Haze isn’t written nearly well enough, at least as a rough draft, to earn such a moment. Somewhere between the repeated sentences, the stilted descriptions of jungle greenery, the very accurate but also very distracting ease of “fuck” as a carry-all term, I wasn’t expecting Purple Haze to confront me with this. It isn’t that I want the actions of my soldiers whitewashed or valorized. I’m not looking for mere heroism. I’m not even looking for “fun.” But that threat reached off the table and slugged me in the nose. If this were a Tim O’Brien novel, I would give myself over to his care completely, so deep would be my trust in his ability to reveal something true or senseless or both. In Purple Haze, my Marines threatened rape to compel a village headman to cooperate, and the consequence was that we had better intel when at last we crept up on an enemy camp. In game terms, that meant ignoring a combat card’s special ability.
Can a board game communicate that horror? The horror, perhaps, of the lack of horror on my soldiers’ part? The mundane reality of such a threat? The ease with which my soldiers offer violence not only to combatants, but also to the unarmed inhabitants of a village? The argument for the inclusion of such a threat can be made either way. I don’t want to see it because rape isn’t something I want to see. But I do want to see it because it’s a reflection of real-world horror, and if anything shouldn’t be sanitized it’s the Vietnam War. But I don’t want to see it because I’m not convinced the game can live up to the promise it has now brokered with the player. But I do want to see it because even the existence of such a promise is a fantasy.
I don’t have an easy answer. Purple Haze surprised me first by providing an engrossing play experience, then again by confronting me with genuine discomfort rather than the usual well-washed parade of Bad War Things. Whether it did so for shock value or for the sake of some as-yet unrevealed commentary or artistic statement, it’s impossible to tell until the game actually materializes. Best of luck, Bernard. I’ll be watching with great interest.
A prototype copy was provided.