Mars: War Logs brings the resistance back to RPGs

This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

Join the resistance, and make roleplaying games better!

I probably wouldn't have noticed Mars: War Logs except for the PR email I received which included a line about how it had been influenced by the French film "Army Of Shadows." This piqued my curiosity for two reasons: first, it seems utterly astonishing to me that a game would advertise itself as being based on a 45-year-old foreign film that was buried for decades due to its politics. Second, after I discovered it via a feature on cult films, I watched it and enjoyed it, and have come to cite it as an excellent example of one of my favorite types of narrative: the resistance story.

Role-playing games have a long and storied association with resistance stories. Many of the classic JRPGs of the 1990s began with the premise that an evil empire or corporation was taking over the world (and probably awakening an ancient evil), and only you and your ragtag band of spiky-haired misfits could stop it. Final Fantasy 6's Returners and Final Fantasy 7's Avalanche were two of the most famous resistance groups of their era, but they weren't alone. The Suikoden games, The Secret Of Mana, Wild Arms, and Grandia all had the equivalent of evil empires of their own. It's not limited to that era and type: there are also modern JRPGs like Radiant Historia, as well as classic PC RPGs like Ultima 5, Ultima 7 and The Magic Candle 2.

A few of the most famous western RPGs of recent years include components of resistance. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you're given the choice of taking sides in the civil war engulfing the universe. Conceptually, each faction of the war in Skyrim can claim to be the resisting underdogs, given oppression by the governing bodies on all sides. In practice, the war has too little affect on the structure of the game, and may be Skyrim's most overt disappointment. In Dragon Age: Origins, you have to fight off both the Darkspawn and the new, villainous king of Ferelden.

Join the resistance, and make roleplaying games better!

In Mars: War Logs, you start the game as a prisoner of an indeterminate war, immediately trying to escape from your labor camp. You make plans, recruit allies, search under every rock, and build up your weapons and resources as well as your character's skills. Those are the conventions of most RPGs, yes, but the resistance story gives them added weight.

The resistance story works so well in role-playing games because the aspects of game progression align with story progression. First, resources need to be scarce. An RPG where you join the army and immediately receive a quality weapon and armor would make item progression either slow or illogical. In a resistance story, it makes sense that the characters involved use whatever makeshift items were available to succeed.

Mars: War Logs' main character, Roy, doesn't even begin the game with a knife. He picks up a random long tube. After a few hours, he can maybe upgrade that tube to an animal bone or a lead pipe. Weapons and armor (composed primarily of padded clothing) can be upgraded with the scraps of metal and leather found around the camp. This is an extreme form of item progression, but it's also a very effective one. Struggling to find a slightly better weapon feels right given the structure and story of the game. Crafting is not exactly my favorite RPG component in general, but here it feels like exactly the sort of thing Roy would need to do to survive and resist.

Character progression benefits from resistance stories as well. The real-world concept of human improvement is usually abstracted into leveling or skill improvements in RPGs, and that can occasionally feel ridiculous. But in the desperate situations that ordinary people are thrust into if they join a rebellion, they'll either see their skills and abilities rapidly increase, or they'll probably end up dead. Mars: War Logs is actually relatively limited in such character improvements – you can improve perks and abilities, however, there are no attribute stats – but as with the items, the progression seems to match how the game should work. After half a dozen fights, you'll be dodging enemies and throwing sand in their eyes more competently than when you started.

There are also huge plot benefits to stories structured in this way. Groups attempting to sabotage entrenched power operate in cells comprised of a handful of people, roughly the size of traditional RPG parties. Interpersonal relationships are absolutely critical – anyone untrustworthy or incompetent can get the entire group captured or killed. Resistance stories also force their characters to make difficult decisions in moral grey areas, even when fighting evil.

Join the resistance, and make roleplaying games better!

"Army Of Shadows" may be a film about the prototypical resistance, the French fighting the Nazis in World War II, but the characters are forced to decide whether possible collaborators live or die, and life with the results. Video games would seem to be a perfect place for such stories, given the ability to engage in moral choice, but they often lack nuance in their morality systems. I would love to be able to report that Mars: War Logs is an exception to this rule, but as far as I've played – which is not to completion; this is not a review – it seems to be along the Fallout/BioWare model of being kind/cruel.

I'm not entirely certain whether I love resistance stories on their own and therefore love them in RPGs, or if I love them because they're so great in RPGs. But it explains why I was instantly curious about Mars: War Logs, and why I feel like, in certain respects, it epitomizes the role-playing genre. When story and gameplay align it's often wonderful for video games, and resistance stories do just that with role-playing games.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.