Monday 25 July 2016

Pyrrhic Defeats and Pyrrhic Victories

Sata's pet theory that the demise of Top Gear might be the best thing that's ever happened for television continues to be proven correct. This week Robot Wars returned to fill in the Sunday night slot, and we also know a second series of it-grew-on-us-ok Sata favourite Ultimate Hell Fortnight is in the pipeline.

And now this! The Weaver, an author doing the same thing as us, only better and more frequently, brought our attention to the revival (inappropriately advertised as a "new series") of Time Commanders. The reader will, of course, remember Time Commanders from its much-loved original 2 series in 2003 and 2005. If not, most of the shows are available to seek out online.

The premise was pretty simple, Glen Hugill Eddie Mair (or later, an annoyingly childish incarnation of Richard Hammond) would grumpily insist that a team of four players played a game of Rome: Total War (which had been modified 'a bit' but in no noticeable way), against an unseen team who were never mentioned. The challenge was either to maintain or overwrite history, and bring glory to the players' nominated side.

Oh, well, nearly. We say a team of four played Rome : Total War, in fact the team of four had two players each controlling one half of the nominated army (in the game sense there were two allied and visually identical players being controlled by the team).

Oh, except having in players who knew RTW would be boring, and teaching the team RTW's controls on the day would probably lead to a lot of (equally boring) "what does this button do / how do I charge/fight/run?" moments, for a UI is a subtle thing, so the team of four controlled two technicians who controlled two virtual sides who together constituted the teams forces.

Oh, except how do four people give orders to two people? Well, two of the team are nominated 'Lieutenants' (later captains), and each work with one technician. They have more information, more control, and more focus on what's going on.  The remaining two were 'Generals', which is a higher rank than lieutenant, and were in theory responsible for the 'broad strokes' of the battle, grand strategies and key choices.

If this system seems like a bad way to play RTW to you, then you're missing the point. Whilst one twitchy RTS veteran hunched intensely over a computer would probably give the Romans (for it is always them) a better chance of overcoming the Goths (or whoever) at this week's fixture, it would also give a spectacularly boring programme.

Imagine, if you will, four people all trying to drive a dual-control car. By having the team's tasks distributed; having the grand planners and the watchers separated from the directors, and having each half of the force controlled separately anyway, the process of play becomes vocal and complicated. Not only does each team member need to communicate their thoughts, but they often need to justify them and add detail.

Backseat Drivers.

Communication was a big part of the challenge of Time Commanders, and one completely orthogonal to the dry strategy the computergame provided. But communication (in contrast to the computergame) is something very easy for the audience to follow. In the Battle of Cynocephalae, the first story is the story of one man trying to do everything and shouting quite frequently, while the three women around him slowly (and rather independently) learn how to operate. This story requires almost no telling, and we're reminded of our comments from the Hunted review about using television as primary and secondary evidence of the things that have happened.

But, and perhaps by accident, in their mission to make a computer game into dynamic and compelling television, the designers of Time Commanders also made a game that was conceptually extremely appropriate. What do we mean by this? Well, controlling an army is extremely difficult.

When a player sits down to play an RTS, they have a near perfect-control setup. They can see everything their own forces can see (sometimes more) reliably, instantly, and in detail. They can issue orders and have those orders immediately implemented. They have a lexicon of statistics, they can know the exact numbers left in the battle, the exact power and health of each unit at all times.

Time Commanders removed all of these control advantages: a view of anything more than a small area had to be recreated using blocks on the map by the generals (later, could be requested using a third technician), orders had to pass from general to lieutenant to technician to machine, and information about the mathematical nature of the computer game was kept deeply hidden, with all clues and prompting to the players presented through the lens of the historical story. 

The series 2 set had a lot more red.

And my goodness, how excellently all these debuffs made Time Commanders capture the feeling of the chaos of battlefield tactics. Hence, Time Commanders was itself a great computer game, (despite never letting its players touch a computer) much greater than RTW and perhaps the best historical RTS ever created.

And it was played only 24 times. Crazy, huh?

(A fair disclaimer: this author has never actually been involved in a ancient or medieval battle, and is mainly basing opinion on their memory of films like 300).

In order that the audience could make sense of what was going on, our experience frequently cut away to commentary from a pair of experts, one of whom was always the phenomenal Dr Nusbacher. To return to our example of Cynocephalae, the second story of that episode is the story of an Army being mislead in the early stages, but through a series of lucky key moments coming to dominate a battle - this story is only made available to the audience by the experts telling, it's secondary evidence. Pleasingly, though, it's secondary evidence which has been so excellently evidenced with clips from the team and the simulation that we don't ever feel spoon-fed. 

The experts made an incredible contribution to the show, from intimidating the team during the opening with their slightly shouty explanation of the scenario right through to the all-becoming-clear postmortem carried out with blocks on the battlemap. They had more work to do when the teams (and plenty did) gelled smoothly and communicated well, but chose the wrong tactic; sending cavalry in against spearmen or whatever, because this wouldn't have been particularly compelling television, but for some reason (perhaps the American's passionate wailing as, indeed, horses are impaled on spears) on Time Commanders it was.

"You've been rubbish and you got everyone killed"

The main playing of the game took up about 50% of the programme, which the other half containing chatter, history, and a sort of warm-up "Skirmish", as well as the always-gleeful expert debrief. Over the different series the exact content here was refined, although we think the skirmish felt a little bit long for what it was.

There were, we hardly feel we need to mention, no prizes on Time Commanders. There was no banker-style character for everyone to root against. The experts were presented as stern critics, but completely fair, completely lovely, and completely game for the show's surreality. And everyone got on. Relationships were never frayed, social dynamics were never challenged, and everything was done with a smile.

Time Commanders is a show we remember extremely fondly, but perhaps with a little of the rose-tinting of nostalgia. We actually thought it was Nintendo Hard, but on checking the win rate was only just below 50%. While revisiting the programme for this review, we noticed little niggles which we hadn't spotted before; heavy editing to emphasise a clear (enough), making-the-history-relevant narrative was felt in a few places, the lieutenants' stories are emphasised much less than the generals', and the first half of the show lacked the energy of the second half.

We're intrigued by the potential of a 2016 version of TC. Apparently episodes will now feature 2 teams of 3 people, competing head-to-screen-to-head. We like the idea of TC as a competition, we think it could inject more energy into the pre-battle scenes, and put more pressure on the participants. We are unsure about the teams reducing to three - we imagine this will mean only one general: more cohesion, less discussion.

We noticed on review how much the aesthetics and sound of original Time Commanders was influenced by Gladiator - we tried to think of a 2010s equivalent of the massively iconic and popular 2000 film, and our best guess was HBO's Game of Thrones. Fort Boyard has already gone that way.

We're also interested to see what 10 years of computer progress will do to the battle simulations; whether more time periods and parts of the world will be represented, whether elements like artillery and ships could be included in the game. We're also excited to see if the experts will return, what sort of shape their role will take in a competition format.

The overwhelming emotion we drew from revisiting Time Commanders was joy. The teams are always excited and enthusiastic, the experts are excited for the game and pleased to be able to teach us about history on the side, the host is (over)excited by the energy of the situation. Time Commanders was a great, fun programme that dared to be clever, and we can't wait for it to return.