It’s been a while since I reviewed one of these narrative games, but a recent conversation about the RPG Dread and its use of a physical, inevitable death timer in a Jenga tower to evoke the progression of a horror film got me revisiting a game from the collection I downloaded.
Acceptable Loss (by @rpgnatalie ) is a simple game, although perhaps a little more complex than Dread in order to expand the theming and add an almost competitive element. It sits in a very strange place between competition and co-operation as, in contrast to the usual social contract that the GM-player relationship should be more than simple hostility the “GM” figure (or closest analogue as there is not a usual table power structure here) plays an embodiment of hostility pushing inevitably towards the other character’s death.
Such a bold statement warrants investigation. It completely upends the gaming social contract to make a very specific artistic statement, intrinsic to its theming. The theme of Acceptable Loss is one player plays a civilian in a warzone, and the other – and here is why I would almost call that other player a GM-like one – describes everything else in the story. The statement being made is one usually overlooked due to the nature of most RPGs depicting war from the perspective of the heroes or combatants; for those who do not fight, there are few good options and few happy endings. Taking the scope of this outside of mecha stories, because it’s necessary to, I’m going to mention a couple of my favourite novels about civilians in a warzone; The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip, two of JG Farrell’s famous Empire novels.
I’m doing this because I don’t think you can or should consider Acceptable Loss without a layer of empathy, a layer of respect, even, for the real parallels of its theming. And historical fiction is a safe middle ground between real questions of the refugee experience which many players may not be able to adequately explore in a tabletop setting, and the very safe distance of the science-fiction interpretations of the theme – Godzilla or Gundam or whatever other mecha or kaiju-related scenes of carnage come to mind. The game, it feels to me – without needing to say it specifically – is inviting you to go beyond the idea that surviving a warzone is some cinematic act of heroism. This isn’t a story about the heroic father getting his kids out Whatever the Cost, it may well be a story about people having to make awful decisions but it does not lionise that as the peak of human performance under pressure. This might sound very grim and serious, and actively anti-fun in subverting the idea of an RPG being about a hero surviving adversity, but here is where the two layers of realism – considering it through the lens of Farrell’s novels and then through the lens of current affairs – come in.
Let’s start with the second, which I can say less about save I am aware that it is a possible, and important, reading of any game telling the stories of displaced persons. And, indeed, my frame of reference for talking about a game telling these stories comes from comparison to another game, This War of Mine, converted excellently to tabletop format. When I say games detailing the human cost of war can do so without lionising those involved I mean what I feel TWoM does. It shows the adversity, shows the humanity, shows the courage, but does not take the next step of making it into photogenic neat narratives of heroic individuals. It tells stories as they are, emergently, even if they are not good, fulfilling or inspiring stories. This is quite different to the approach some disaster movies take, where the feats of heroism brought about by impending alien invasion/Godzilla/climate apocalypse allow a guy to reunite with his family, set aside their differences etc. Stories about conflict and tragedy don’t need to use it as a vehicle for a dad learning life lessons. They can just tell stories of awful, and sometimes incredible, events. As realistic or unrealistic as they want to be.
And then the first, where I am on much more comfortable ground talking about the stories and themes Farrell presents. Because Farrell has the marvellous talent of allowing the reader to hold two diametrically opposed political viewpoints in their mind simultaneously, wholly engaged and believing in both and conflicted as a result. His novels describe the inevitable downfall of colonial states, from the perspective of the colonisers bewildered at their loss and unable to react, blinded by ambition, arrogance or stupidity. By all accounts any reader of The Siege of Krishnapur would before very long say “The British absolutely deserved the events of 1857” because it makes it wholly clear that the British in India were distinctly unpleasant and in the wrong in every aspect. Farrell is not interested in Imperial apologia and presents the inevitable uprising as expected and deserved.
But at the same time, a reader reads the book gripped by the fates of the characters – a group of British besieged by Indian forces – and would rather want them to survive because they are, for the most part, individually not responsible for their current predicament. One does not in the immediate moment wish to read about a woman murdered due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but at the same time one is also unable to shift from one’s mind the idea that that woman would not be in that situation were she not part of an oppressive colonial power that had utterly failed to manage diplomacy or treat its subjects decently. And that is Farrell’s great talent and why his novels are, to me, so wonderful as anti-colonial fiction; they confront you directly with the hypocrisy of fiction, the idea that one can write people complicit in institutional evil as sympathetic by dint of their protagonist status and capacity for doing great things under great adversity. This is the decoupling of individual culpability from the justification for war that provides the other side of the coin to what I was saying about This War of Mine and something else that Acceptable Loss might be considering.
I’ve not talked at all about the game so far. I’ve talked a lot about what lines of thought – about war, about stories about refugees or victims of war, even about stories of colonialism – the concept of an almost adversarial story-game about someone caught in a warzone might be evoking, consciously or not. The game itself does not explicitly provide these sorts of specific political thinking-points. What it does is implicitly paint this as not a story about heroic struggle against adversity unless you want that to be a safe out, a safe point of narrative closure. Survival is your narrative escape from this world. And that is a very bold statement to make. It is not made judgmentally, but it lays it down very, very plainly. Instead, the players take turns either moving the tower or pulling from it – not rebuilding, only pulling – until it falls, and the individual under focus here dies. This is unequivocal. If you play, if you carry on playing, you will not survive. All you might do is die better. If the player describing the world causes the tower to fall, the other player describes the civilian’s end, and the end of the war. They are allowed to add some hope to the world. Otherwise, the questions the civilian must ask their counterpart if they cause the tower to collapse are less welcome; Did you suffer? Were you alone? How will they remember you?
That really is a lot. It’s freighted even more heavily by all the readings I’m reading into it, all the contemporary and fictional and historical mental baggage I have about war and what it does and how it’s depicted and how disaster movies are the complete antithesis of this game. At the point I don’t even care about the robots, because why would you? The mecha or kaiju genres are the safest of ins into this topic, they’re a good thematic idea because the visuals of something huge smashing the city, evoking Ultraman blowing up a 1/8 scale city every week or the scrappy, frantic battle at the start of F91 with its evocative and memorable image of a woman killed by shell casings, or even Evangelion’s terrifying city fighting, are familiar in their distance from reality. Compared to This War of Mine’s burned-out house and descriptions of grim deaths by sniper or landmine or just starvation it’s a lot easier to get yourself in a safer mental place imagining yourself escaping the Angels. But I couldn’t disconnect myself completely from the heavier themes at play here, and honestly that isn’t a bad thing.