A Force More Powerful

There is a great streak of violence in every human being. If it is not channeled and understood, it will break out in war or in madness.--Sam Peckinpah

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Underlying the inflammatory, disingenuous rhetoric that drives politicians to pontificate tirelessly on the potential of games to incite violence, there's an assumption that might be worth exploring: that games can change the way we think, and possibly even the choices we make. It's an idea that recently captured the imaginations of a group of filmmakers with a penchant for politics. After completing an acclaimed documentary series examining the methods of nonviolent social movements, they decided to build a computer game. The result is A Force More Powerful: The Game, and like the films of the same name, it aims to educate, inspire, and even train its players in enacting social change through nonviolent actions.

Part strategy game, part simulation, AFMP pits the player against oppressive regimes in a dozen different fictional conflicts, each based upon real-world events. One scenario involves preventing a military coup while pressuring an oppressive dictator to hold national elections. Another involves obtaining women's voting rights in a fundamentalist monarchy where the police restrict speech. In each case, AFMP's protagonists are the leaders and groups sympathetic to the cause, and their actions are directed by the player. The enemy is the oppressive authority, controlled by the game's AI.

At its most basic level, AFMP is a turn-based strategy game, where the action occurs primarily within charts and menus. Each turn follows a simple formula: select one of several available leaders from an illustrated list, choose from a menu of available tactics, then choose a target for that tactic from another list. Once you've decided on the course of action, you advance time in whatever increment you see fit. The game then gives you feedback on the outcome, usually in the form of simple text messages. If your tactics succeed, you'll gradually win influence and achieve reforms. If not, your movement will be ineffective, or worse, it will be crushed by the enemy regime.

It's a simple, conceptually elegant system that in practice can become incredibly complex. First of all, the list of available tactics is huge. You can task your characters with raising funds, performing public services, recruiting other groups, or softening up opposition leaders. Your message can be distributed via the media, at public protests, or even at rock concerts. If necessary, you can send your leaders into hiding or have them flee the country. And if they're jailed, you can engage them in letter-writing campaigns or have them perform hunger strikes. And these are just a handful of the options available at any given time.

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You'll typically have less than a dozen characters and their accompanying groups at your disposal, but you can have them all pursuing different tactics and targets simultaneously. You can also schedule their actions far into the future, then advance time and revise your strategy as events unfold. Each character and group will enact and respond to tactics according to their abilities, ideologies, and policy preferences, as well as their levels of other variables like fear, enthusiasm, and public influence.

AFMP adds another layer of complexity by allowing character and group attributes to be affected realistically by ongoing events. Overworking a group will decrease their enthusiasm, but scheduling a rally will increase it. Even apparently negative outcomes often have unexpected positive effects: a brutal police crackdown on a student march will cause the students to become more fearful, but it will also decrease support for the police in the community where the march occurred.

Each scenario offers a simple Sim-City style visual depiction of its urban center that allows you to plan tactics and assess trends, but everyday events are usually planned and occur within the game's menus, charts, and lists. Some scenarios offer maps that depict infrastructure, agricultural, or natural resources that can be targeted. There's a ton of information to process, and despite readily available color-coded charts and descriptions of individual, group, and community stats, it's often quite difficult to see the big picture. This is remedied in part with simple system that allows the player to poll all the movement's leaders prior to scheduling any tactic, and consider their input. Their advice isn't foolproof, but for the most part, they'll steer you in the right direction.

AFMP isn't a pipe dream of a game that rewards shallow idealism or encourages martyrdom. Instead, it challenges you to apply resources thoughtfully, reasonably, and realistically. It wisely avoids hot-button political topics, instead focusing on basic civil rights. The only overt bias it demonstrates is a built-in intolerance for violent action. In every case, nonviolent tactics are always more successful. Fortunately, this never really seems like a contrivance, because each scenario is thoughtfully crafted to portray a situation in which nonviolence seems like an appropriate path.

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Even though you'll never find yourself throwing Molotov cocktails or smashing windows, AFMP is not without drama. Its conflicts include plenty of intrigue, as a combination of quietly arranged meetings and low-profile social tactics is often the most effective approach. You can plan mass protests, blockade streets, and even occupy buildings, but any action that involves a public demonstration could potentially turn violent and hurt your cause. And, more importantly, any visible tactic raises the profile of your movement, exposing its members to scrutiny or harm.

How you coordinate your campaign will depend in part upon the goals you've decided to pursue. Each scenario begins with a detailed briefing, following which you must choose from a list of victory conditions. The thing is, AFMP doesn't actually guarantee that all the conditions each scenario offers are even attainable. You might choose a single reform to enact, or an ambitious agenda of sweeping social change, but either way, you'd better plan realistically. Even though AFMP's difficulty is adjustable, it can be unforgiving if you overreach.

In scenarios with aggressive police or military forces, poorly timed actions can have devastating consequences. It's disheartening to watch as the movement you've carefully and quietly built gets crushed just as its influence begins to be felt. In one scenario I played, as my tactics went public, peaceable and sympathetic religious dissidents were rounded up and executed in the town square. Soon after, all of my leaders were jailed, kidnapped, in hiding, or dead.

Brief, primitively animated cutscenes portray key public events, but otherwise pivotal moments occur without embellishment. When one of your leaders is assassinated, you get a simple text message advising you of the event, and an X appears across their portrait. There's no gory visual or dramatic description. They're just gone.

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An underlying theme in AFMP is the ability of the everyday person to affect change. It's a concept reflected in the game's clever art design, which depicts its content on mundane, workaday materials like post-it-notes and coffee-stained notebooks. AFMP's graphics are technically unimpressive, but the entire presentation evokes the feeling that you're engaged in a hardworking grassroots movement with ordinary people, where strategies sketched out in coffee shops and libraries are the impetus for revolutionary actions.

AFMP is a masterfully complex, incredibly nuanced, and ambitious game. Unfortunately, its methodical, research-heavy approach often feels convoluted and cumbersome, and it's cyclical planning and advancing of time tends to get repetitive. Instead of an in-game tutorial, it comes with an impressive, full-color, 116-page manual, but you'll have to spend at least a half-hour perusing it before you can even begin to play the game well. For those interested in exploring AFMP's full potential, there's even a full-featured scenario editor that allows you to create your own conflicts.

In any event, this is not a title for those who aren't prepared to invest substantial time and brainpower. And despite its developers' aspirations, I'm not sure that AFMP would prove a useful training tool for fledgeling revolutionaries. It's hard to imagine that individuals engaged in real-life conflicts over human rights would find playing such a game a valuable use of their time. For those with the luxury of whiling away their hours with detailed simulations of other people's struggles, though, AFMP offers something entirely unique. Unlike the conflicts in almost every other games, its scenarios unfold with depth and believability, and they intelligently mirror what happens in the real world.

You can't play AFMP without thinking of events like Tiananmen Square or the march from Selma to Montgomery, and you can't help but consider what those events' participants risked and sacrificed to achieve their goals. Given the time it deserves, AFMP will change the way you think, about games and about society. And it won't have you firing a single bullet. For a computer game, that's quite an accomplishment.

A Force More Powerful
Official Site
Released February 2006 (PC)
Developer: Breakaway Games
Publisher: ICNC & York Zimmerman

Comments

Excellent review, Fly. This game has fascinated me from the moment you first mentioned it. The documentary was excellent, I think I'll give the game a shot.

I first heard a review of this on NPR of all places. I am glad someone like you, who's opinion I respect greatly, has reviewed it. I don't think I have time to play it, but I may buy it just support such a unique title.

I'm extremely interested in this, I'll have to check it out. The time constraints may prevent me from really getting into it, but it at least sounds worth the time I would be putting in.

Great review, do they have a playable demo?

I'm going to wait for the FPS... crouch behind the mailbox, wait until the Congressman passes by, aim for the wallet and execute the combo!

LOBBY! LOBBY! PANDER! BRIBE! BRIBE!

Prozac wrote:

Great review, do they have a playable demo?

Not at present, unfortunately.

This sounds really cool, and the review is excellent. That said, I think H. L. Mencken said it best when he said: "There comes a time when a man must spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats."

(Of course, I'm the same woman who tried to convince her baby to say "revolución!" as he waggled his little fists in the air...so, ya know...)

duckideva wrote:

(Of course, I'm the same woman who tried to convince her baby to say "revolución!" as he waggled his little fists in the air...so, ya know...)

This demands photos.

I actually worked on this title for a while. It's cool to see it that people are actually checking it out. Even for someone who's a hardcore strategy gamer, I don't think it's 'fun' in the conventional sense. But it is an interesting simulation. It would be cool to have a mod that gave your protesters 'V' costumes.

The NPR story is here
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5342543

Ivan Morovich said that he and some of the other student leaders were big fans of the Operational Art of War and the Age of Empires games. One of the goals of the game is to get people to think strategically about non-violence.

(Of course, I'm the same woman who tried to convince her baby to say "revolución!" as he waggled his little fists in the air...so, ya know...)

On an unrelated note, my friend has trained his two-year old to say 'More Cowbell!'

Mr Eko wrote:

I actually worked on this title for a while. It's cool to see it that people are actually checking it out. Even for someone who's a hardcore strategy gamer, I don't think it's 'fun' in the conventional sense. But it is an interesting simulation. It would be cool to have a mod that gave your protesters 'V' costumes.

The NPR story is here
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5342543

Ivan Morovich said that he and some of the other student leaders were big fans of the Operational Art of War and the Age of Empires games. One of the goals of the game is to get people to think strategically about non-violence.

(Of course, I'm the same woman who tried to convince her baby to say "revolución!" as he waggled his little fists in the air...so, ya know...)

On an unrelated note, my friend has trained his two-year old to say 'More Cowbell!'

Game stuff: Great additional input. Welcome to the monkeyhouse!

Kid stuff: Hysterical!

Great Review, I am defiantly going to be checking this game out.

I don't play many strategy games but wow, this review has me very interested. I love history and politics, so I may have to check it out if it's sold at a good price or a demo is available.