Many video games glorify war. A few attempt to make vague proclamations about how war is very, very bad while at the same time rewarding the player for killing as much as possible. Very few games have been able to make any meaningful commentary on war. The exceptions to this are the first two games in the Ogre Battle series, originally created by Quest and later Squarenix. Rumor has it that the series was inspired by director Yasumi Matsuno’s fascination with the Yugoslav Wars of the early 90s. While ostensibly a fantasy war simulation with a familiar story of heroic rebels and an evil empire, the gameplay features several interesting curves that raise the series above its contemporaries in terms of artful commentaries on war.
The original Ogre Battle (titled March of the Black Queen due to Matsuno’s obsession with the rock band Queen), has you fighting a war from a slightly removed perspective. While you can tell your units of knights and wizards where to go and give them very simple instructions on how to fight (ie only target weak enemies or focus on unit leaders) the characters themselves act on their own. They follow a very simple formula based on their position in the unit and the vague tactics you gave them. This means that in practice you basically do have direct control over what actions they take, but because of the atmosphere and separation from direct control there is still the feeling that you are merely giving them orders rather than controlling them the way you do an average video game character. The hardware of the Super Nintendo was never powerful enough to produce anything more than the illusion of agency for its AI, but its enough remind the player that they are pretending to lead an army of individuals, not just a super avatar for the player themselves.
Like many RPGs, the main gameplay of Ogre Battle revolves around numbers. Your fantasy troops have numbers assigned to various abilities (Strength, Defense, Magic, etc) and the bigger numbers will usually succeed in reducing the Health number to zero. Unlike most RPGs, Ogre Battle has an additional two numbers: Alignment and Reputation. Alignment represents “good and evil” in a vague sense. Alignment changes as you play through the game. Fighting opponents of a higher level (ie more numbers) is brave and virtuous, and upon defeating them you will gain alignment. Fighting opponents of a lower level is much easier, but is also bullying. Killing swathes of weaker enemies is a sure-fire way of reducing alignment to zero. Since most of your army starts out alignment neutral, the kind of units you can promote them to is largely dependent on how they’ve been fighting the war. High alignment troops get promoted to knights and priests and can hire angels and fairies. Low alignment units become wizards and ninjas and can hire demons.
Unlike Alignment, which is a variable unique for each unit, Reputation represents the public perception of your entire army. Reputation is changed at various points in the game by making simple moral choices (ie if you choose to forgive a murderous witch in exchange for her power the people will generally not approve), but that is not the main force that affects Reputation. Scattered across the world are cities and towns belonging to the Evil Empire(™). Conquering these cities brings you income and a safe haven for your soldiers, but each city is also home to civilians who may or may not approve of your war efforts. If the unit used to capture the city is of high alignment then the city is “liberated” and you may gain reputation, but sending an “evil” unit results in the city being “captured” and your reputation dropping.
In most similar games, you are rewarded for “grinding” levels to make your characters as powerful as possible. Doing so in Ogre Battle makes the game much easier, but then you quickly end up with extremely powerful evil units, which means your reputation will drop dramatically each time you conquer a city. Playing through Ogre Battle the same way you would play through any strategy games or RPGs that came before is guaranteed to end with the world hating you and an ending where your war hero becomes a despot and is dethroned in yet another brutal war. Most players will then make the logical assumption that the best way to play the game is to maintain an army of high-alignment “good” characters. However, this makes the game significantly more difficult, since your characters will generally be underpowered and have lower numbers than your opponent.
Many players eventually learn that it doesn’t matter how evil your army is as long as the town is liberated by the “good guys”. Out in the field you can have your zombie dragons and vampires torture and massacre anyone you like, as long as the civilian population only has to deal with the friendly, honorable knights marching through the streets. Morality is an illusion in Ogre Battle. As long as the people see an honorable underdog, that is what they will think you are no matter how brutal you are in reality. The message here is also that no war is entirely just, and also that not even your “side” can be fully trusted. The player may just decide that the ends justify the means, but they might also be more cautious when confronting the propaganda of their own country now that they have simulated its effect.
The story of Ogre Battle tells the story of Zenobia, a continent made up of several smaller kingdoms. One of the kingdoms, the northern Highland Kingdom, conquered the others in a brutal war led by Empress Endora. Your army starts out as a band of local resistance in one of the smaller conquered kingdoms to the south. As you battle your way across the continent, many of the Highland cities actually respond poorly to your high alignment troops. At the last map, the heart of Endora’s kingdom, the cities are all of “low-alignment” and your reputation will drop dramatically if you send your angels in to liberate them. The Highlanders don’t see themselves as the aggressors; in fact it later turns out that Endora had a good reason (at least a good reason by simplistic fantasy kingdom standards) for originally trying to unify the continent. While this point is undermined by low-alignment troops and high-alignment troops being pretty overtly “good” or “evil”, the underlying message of subjectivity and moral ambiguity was unique for the genre, and would be carried further in the sequel.
This sequel, Tactics Ogre, will be the topic of the next update.