Bad North: On Beauty and Strategy

I’ve recently been playing Bad North, a real-time strategy game where you move dudes around on an island to fend off Viking sea raiders. It’s really elegant. At any given moment, the distribution of your troops across the island seems ornate, deliberate, like dancers spread across a stage. It’s not just me putting them in cute positions though. I think it’s more the strategic elements of the game drawing your units towards arrangements that are just generally aesthetically pleasing. I mean, look at this image below.

Gorgeous. The soft blues and greens are beautifully contrasted against the shocking red gore left in the aftermath of previous landings. There’s a sort of motion to the island too. It’s not just the motion of the image – let’s take a moment to talk about that, though. On the surface, it might seem counter-intuitive to talk about the movement of a still image. But images have always dealt with representing movement. Take, for instance, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (here, sfw). Even though it’s an image, Duchamp has obviously put a lot of effort into creating a sense of movement within the still frame. Alternately, and I think more to the point with what we’re considering today, think about something like Hokusai’s Great Wave (here). The ‘movement’ of the wave, so to speak, isn’t so much a matter of it looking like it’s moving. I mean, it does, but there’s also something more abstract than that. It’s more about the direction and flow of whatever’s in the frame. So for instance we could say that the ‘movement’ of the wave starts on the right, and sweeps down and back around, culminating in that crest that’s just starting to tip. The sky serves as a negative of that movement: it ‘moves’ around and down in the same way, but reversed. It’s also a negative in that it’s empty space, sky set against water. And then, at the meeting place between those two, you’ve got Mount Fuji. So the movement within those two spaces essentially frames the mountain as a key point of focus. It’s one of the things that movement can do – it can be a framing device.

In Bad North, then, what you’ve got is a bunch of islands that each have this really elegant movement. In the island above, for instance, it’s obviously this sort of enclosed circular movement. You’ve got the main point of origin, the house at the top, which is emphasised by its height and the wide plateau that surrounds it. It then reaches down and around in both directions, like the claws of a crab, terminating in a house at either end. You get this sense of like a hunched figure enclosing something in its arms – it’s emphasised again by that small hollow space under the plateau, there’s that sense of almost hunching over something.

Now this is where shit gets cool. Because we’re dealing with a game, the movement of the island isn’t just a visual image. It also ties into the gameplay. In this game, Vikings are coming to wreck your shit. They want to burn down your houses. And because the actual pathways across the island are matched with the island’s movement, the gameplay act of moving around actually becomes part of the movement of the image.

I’ll repeat the image here so you don’t have to scroll up and down, and give you an example of what I mean. Whenever enemies land on your island, generally speaking, they’re going to move towards the closest house and burn it down. The player’s job is to visualise the pathways that enemies are going to take and intercept them before they wreck shit. So, for instance, when the first boats on the right arrived, the enemies on board were obviously going to move round the edge of the hill and then move to that first long house in the bottom of the frame. That’s a really aesthetically pleasing pathway. It’s stretching along the back of the hill, following the curve of that claw and then finishing at the house. It’s a gameplay movement that matches the visual movement of the image. It’s aesthetic as fuck.

As each new ship approaches, then, the web of possible pathways ripples. You see the landing point, and the pathway to the nearest house, and then the pathway after that, and after that. The movements of your enemies trace out the movement of the island, the movement of the image. The aesthetic structure of the image becomes the foundation for your strategic decisions, meaning that your strategy in turn takes on an aesthetic dimension.

The interplay between strategy and aesthetic is strengthened by a number of the developers’ decisions. For instance, the islands are all developed around a relatively small set of terrain types: the hill, the wall, the lake, the house, the forest, and the upwards path. It’s a really strict vocabulary, in a way that unifies the experience. Each new island is a variation on a theme. They explore different arrangements between a small pool of terrain types, creating images with different movements and momentum, and then they allow you to activate those movements, to turn the movement of an image into the movement of little characters negotiating the terrain. The results of those negotiations are then fed back to the image. Whenever people die, the ground darkens with blood and gore. By the end of the level, the bloodstains serve as a visual guide to the negotiations that took place. In the image above, for instance, the cluster of houses on the right seem to have served as barriers, helping to contain enemy forces. On the left, no such cluster existed, and so the containment had to take place in a much smaller area. To repeat the point from earlier, then, just as the image structures the player’s strategic decisions, those decisions in turn etch themselves back into the image. And, after each level, the map displays the record of where blood was spilled across each island. Your own grim little gallery of death.

And fuck, I’ve barely even started to talk about the game. The balance is beautiful. Each type of enemy is counter-balanced by the appropriate unit. Archers are defeated by men with shields and short, stabbing swords. Giants are defeated by pikemen. The berserkers with their two swords are defeated by archers, who can murder them before they even reach the shore. However, while you’re presented with the types of enemy you will face on any given island, you aren’t given the number of each type. You have to try and balance it as best possible, and if you skew too far in one direction, all your troops will die. And death is permanent. As you proceed through the game, the sun starts to set – blood red, of course – and the weather worsens. First the rain, then the snow. Eventually, drums begin to sound before each enemy ship lands on your shores. It builds tension: have you made the right choice? Have you chosen the right men? Have you put them where they need to be? If you’ve botched the set-up, there’s usually not time to correct. The violence is too fast. You make your plan, arrange your soldiers, and then it’s not up to you any more. The drumbeat is not just a build-up to the violence. It’s building up to your loss of control. Ah – no, I should stop. Bad North is great. It’s beautiful. Check it out.

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