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.

Trekking back to base after a heli crash.

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.

Our squad.

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.

Breathe.

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.

Combat is pretty dang good, actually.

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.

 

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A prototype copy was provided.

Posted on February 13, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Love your review. I considered backing it early on but was put off by how poorly written / beholden to cliches it seemed to be – “stay frosty”‘ and all that kind of junk. I’ll think I’ll stick with Fire in the Lake for now.

  2. I have backed it, but find myself a bit taken aback by the brutal honesty in what the designer’s trying to portray.
    It reminds me of This War of Mine with the depressing grind of merely surviving, with mere flickers of humanity to lighten the gloom.
    I don’t doubt such things happened, and I won’t be retracting my support, but I’ll certainly approach this ‘game’ experience with a bit more respect.
    Thanks for the review. Top notch, as ever.

  3. Christian van Someren

    Thanks for the insightful review. Portraying historical events in board games is certainly a difficulty line to walk. I was taken aback when I read this line in your review, but now I am questioning if it would have disingenuous to omit such details, which do reflect historical events. Certainly something to think about.

  4. Cardboard rape doesn’t hurt or get you pregnant. But it is not fun. I understand that from a storytelling perspective you have to give players an incentive for Vietnam style atrocities to ram the message home, but rape won’t give you intel. We still have the protocols from the 15th century of victims of torture admitting to riding a broomstick around the spire.

    • What you’re talking about (“torture doesn’t work”) isn’t analogous to occupied civilians being threatened for intelligence. We’ve sadly seen that populations will often sell out their companions for even slight extensions to their own survival or comfort. Of course, the reliability of any such information is suspect, as is most intel in a wartime scenario.

      Portrayal isn’t advocacy — although hopefully it will still be handled with care.

  5. Fantastic review- thanks for sharing it.

    It is one I intend to back.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

  6. Dan, thanks for the review that raises some vital questions about the limits of what games can portray. Reading it the first thing I thought of was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which has a crucial scene in it that deals with something similar. One of the main characters, a kid who as a reader you’ve come to sympathize with for a few hundred pages, is pressed into military service during the Biafran war as a child soldier and becomes complicit in a gang rape. It’s an absolutely shocking moment to be present at as a reader. That moment fascinated me as an attempt by a female author to focalize on this particular horror through a male perspective (and she pays very specific attention to the girl’s reaction as seen and later often recalled by the boy), and her method could be instructive for this case here too. Ugwu is never in control of the situation, and can only hate himself for having participated ever after. And he is of course guilty, and this guilt haunts him for the rest of the story, but his guilt is not a willful guilt. Which makes it in no way better, but it makes it possible to understand his violence as a part of a systemic structure of violence that far exceeds him.

    A novel can do that because an author can set up the situation such that the violence is in excess of a character’s choices, but this is precisely something that goes against gaming if gaming puts “the art of agency” center stage, to use C. Thi Nguyen’s term. So the problem might just go to the heart of what games can and cannot represent. Maybe then the “solution” – if there is one – is not only in terms of having better writing, but also a very different ludic structure – maybe such events can only be portrayed as existing outside of player choice? It would be just as confronting and really unpleasant, maybe even more so, but maybe also more adequate? Open questions for me, I don’t have a beginning of an answer, but in any case it seems like a really important occasion for thought.

    (BTW it’s interesting that it’s specifically sexual violence that elicits such discomfort and thinking, when of course so many of the games we play feature violence that is just as gruesome, just not sexual in nature, as their bread and butter.)

  7. My first reaction was to compare this to how you wrote about narrative in Sleeping Gods. If later on there’s a callback to this story event, it could lead to something interesting, instead of just being a shocking one-off. Maybe a recurring theme of relying on this character for survival despite their lack of morality. But boardgames have difficulty programming a story this way, unlike a videogame or roleplaying game. If the callback feels too scripted, or random and arbitrary, the effect is blunted on the player.

    Though I’m guessing Purple Haze isn’t trying for that personal horror perspective, if it felt this jarring. It sounds like clumsy writing, but I guess we’ll see.

    • Right, it’s entirely possible. Certain events ask you to note keywords that may be referred to later — less developed but functionally identical to how narrative callbacks worked in Sleeping Gods. Since I can’t see past the first few scenarios (and since the writing is a rough draft), I have no idea how your decisions come back to benefit or haunt you down the line.

  8. If it was fiction, such a threat would be a seed for conflict between the soldiers in the unit, and there would be fallout one way or the other.

    • A great deal of writing about war focuses on war’s senselessness and the absence of just outcomes, so I wouldn’t be so sure.

      • You mean like Apocalypse Now? Can you give some other examples (more mainstream) that I might be familiar with? I dont doubt youre correct, but I wonder what system you could use to integrate that kind of content into a game? Having characters that represent different attitudes to war come into conflict when certain situations arise seems like it could work

      • Tim O’Brien is well known for his writing on the Vietnam War, but I would especially recommend The Things They Carried. Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn is also supernal. Those are the two highest-rated “Vietnam War Fiction” books on GoodReads for a reason. If we’re stepping away from Vietnam specifically, the film Fury makes an enormous misstep leading into its final act (and keeps on being terrible), but its first half is absent of easy moralizing and includes casual references to rape.

        The point isn’t that rape or threats of rape are acceptable. It’s that war has a way of warping our moral compass until the unthinkable becomes commonplace, and that it’s nigh-impossible to stand up to the soldiers on your side when you’ve been drilled to regard the enemy as subhuman. Hugh Thompson Jr. is considered a hero because his intervention in the Mỹ Lai Massacre was an exceptional act, not an ordinary one.

        I agree, though, including characters with different attitudes toward the war would be fascinating. So would using keywords to possibly examine how certain actions lead to longer-term problems. Even absent those, however, I suspect a board game could make a point about the moral bankruptcy about war without soft-pedaling its topic. Is that game Purple Haze? I have my doubts, but I’m reserving judgement for now.

  9. It sounds like this situation is an outlier for this game. If there were many similar situations tied into some sub system to handle them, you could say it was appropriate. But if its a ‘one of’ not really connected to anything , then…nah

  10. Thanks Dan,
    Im working on an anti-war game myslf and I am naturally curious of how other designers approach the subject. I think the problem here is that reducing the effect of such a crass element to a very mechanical game effect drives a wedge between the players and the narrative. It makes it easier to dismiss the narrative as “just a game”. IfI understand your review correctly, the game doesnt offer the players anything to help create something more meanigful than “we talked about it and rape is bad”. Choosing rape doesnt have any bad real-Life (or even ingame?) consequences, so its easy to remove yourself from responsibility.

    • I don’t know if opting to threaten the villagers with rape has negative consequences; it does have one positive consequence. It’s possible that the keyword you earn, “Force,” comes back to bite you later.

      But my concern isn’t that despicable acts need to be punished. War is notably absent of justice. To pretend otherwise is to valorize war, albeit from a different direction from the “rah rah war is great” angle. My concern has more to do with how the moment is presented, how it’s written, how it folds into the surrounding game — things like that.

      • In Apocalypse now, we have Kilgore who treats war as a game and seems to regret that ‘someday the war is going to end’ and Kurtz who admires the will to cut off children’s vaccinated arms. Both are nuts in their own way, and you assume that neither arrived in Vietnam in the state that Willard finds them.

        So as a soldier, whats my goal? Survival for sure. Kilgore and Kurtz have survived, but have they ‘won’? Did they ‘score well’? Maybe they had to become what they did in order to survive?

        Perhaps what the game needs is not to abstract ‘mental injuries’ but to be highly specific about them.

  11. @peer
    War erodes morality. If you want to picture that, you have to give players ingame incentives for behaving badly. Otherwise your game will be just another clean war game.

  12. Samuel Vriezen’s comment is terrific.

    Why do we play wargames so much? I think (suggest) it is because war has turned out to be so capable of being turned into fascinating games – not because we are specially interested in war. I am more interested in politics than war, but political games don’t seem to capture politics like wargames (including politics-infused ones) capture war. I am currently in the middle of a game of Here I Stand where there is too much peace. It is much less satisfying than if we were fighting.

    • Whenever Samuel comments, I know I’m about to read something very well considered.

      Another point I’d add to yours, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is that battles and wars are surprisingly *easy* to turn into games. Unlike politics, wars often have discrete beginnings and ends, bookended by invasions and treaties; battles often conclude with one side winning; armies, as long as their civilian interactions are removed, “know what they’re getting into,” with battle casualties functioning as an exemption to even religious imperatives against murder, which makes them morally secure. Compared to the long and ambiguous slog of politics, these make for rather straightforward dynamics, perfect fodder for gamification.

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