Computer Bismarck [1980]

My dad and my grandpa love a movie called Sink The Bismarck [1960] and every few years they watch it together. Everybody else in my family hates this movie. That includes me. I think it’s terrible in a really unique way, though. Sink The Bismarck takes extraordinary pains to drain its character interactions of any possibility of interpersonal drama or emotion. There’s a whole love triangle plotline (or, well, love-vs-duty triangle), which doesn’t even make the detailed Wikipedia plot summary because it’s so inconsequential, and it’s resolved really easily because everyone keeps a cool head, doesn’t let emotion guide them, and tries their level best to facilitate a solution that works well for everyone else. It’s a deeply bizarre, grey way to go about telling a story, deliberately introducing what could be a conflict but having everyone be so darn reasonable that it’s painless for everyone involved. It’s stiff-upper-lip propaganda for the British Navy, but it takes that ethos to such an extreme muted affect that I can’t name another story that works quite like it, with the possible exception of the Horatio Hornblower series [1937-1967], not coincidentally written by the very same author and likewise beloved by my father.

Sink The Bismarck is clearly in-line with what I call “Competent Men” storytelling, which is common in military and science fiction of its era. The point of Competent Men storytelling is usually either: 1) to have something going horrifyingly wrong seem horrifyingly inexorable because even when people do the best they can it’s not enough, ala Invasion Of The Body Snatchers [1956]; 2) to have things go wrong precisely because the Men’s Competence is aimed in inadvisable directions and/or ineffectual against systems too large for mere individuals to trump ala Breaking Bad [2008-2013] or any heist movie; or 3) to have everything go right to shore up faith in Competent Men, ala Sink The Bismarck.

(I actually wrote all of that before even touching the game Computer Bismarck [1980]. Just had to get those observations off my chest.)

Okay, back now, having played the game a while. Computer Bismarck is by way of inspiration functionally a game adaptation of the movie, and therefore shares some of the spirit of Sink The Bismarck’s Competent Men storytelling. Customary to the style (though not strictly mandatory) is a downright-fetishistic attention to the specifics of technical process. It can be a joy to watch someone who knows what they’re doing do their thing, especially with enough explanation that you can follow along. High drama and exquisite tension can be wrought from the briefest touch of a soldering iron, if contextualized correctly. Sink The Bismarck does not successfully execute this trick in my eyes, but it’s clear that that’s how it’s supposed to work. That’s why the love-versus-duty subplot doesn’t make the cut for Wikipedia notability: the bulk of the movie is actually solely about the finer points of finding and sinking the Bismarck, the technical process and its complications.

This works a little better for the game than it does for the movie. Now you’re in the hotseat, forced to yourself be obscenely competent in your futzing around with details in the face of slim odds and an avalanche of things to consider. Someone like me, who gets lost in the fiddly convolutions of the movie or mentally checks out, is forced to at least kinda-understand and pay attention to the details, where all the drama is supposed to be. It’s a game about information management. The imperial fog of war from Empire [1977/1984] is, here, the whole core of the game. You have to FIND the Bismarck before you can sink it, and it’s on a stealth mission, like reverse Castle Wolfenstein [1981]. About your own armaments, the game presents you with an inscrutable information overload, but because the game is turn-based, the player can unravel its knots methodically, at their leisure, with the manual that carefully deciphers everything.

Every turn, you have to submit 30 individual movement orders for all your planes and ships, more when you get reinforcements. Unlike Empire, there’s no cursor implementation, you just have to go through all the units, in the same order every time, an order almost but not quite unrelated to where the ships are on the coordinate grid at game start. This way, at every turn within the turn, I had to constantly reorient myself, tracking first X axis then Y axis, reading them from a single line of ticker tape on the screen that compresses information into a blast of coded numbers which must be deciphered with the manual.

Then, having read the status display, I could enter my orders. One interesting, and telling, quirk of the game is that it has at least three different and mostly non-overlapping words for the basic act of moving your pieces around the board: move, convoy, and fast convoy. Unless I missed something, I don’t believe there’s anything that can move AND convoy, or convoy AND fast convoy, or move AND fast convoy, and it seems to be that as far as the computer game is concerned, or at least as much as is apparent to me, these really are synonymous. To add to the confusion, I believe there is at least one piece on the board that is in “slow mode” but still “fast convoys.” The differences between these concepts are clearly important to the author of this game, but completely arbitrary and inexplicable to me as a reader.

It’s part of a general commitment to, firstly, verisimilitude, but secondly, having neither guiderails nor guardrails. That’s a common ethos in early 1980s computer gaming, this is just a particularly acute case. There is nothing to stop the player from flying their planes out beyond the range where they could possibly refuel, dooming their pilots to death and giving the Germans an easy 4 Victory Points. You’re just meant to consider that, among many other factors, for each and every order you issue. Conversely, I was never actually able to successfully order a plane to fly off of an aircraft carrier for any length whatsoever without the plane immediately crashing, for reasons I never could figure out. Hell, I irrecoverably corrupted a disk image because this game will allow you to try to save the game to the disk that the game itself is on. Computer Bismarck accepts nothing shy of competence. It is absolutely merciless in its expectation that you act with considered intelligence and know what you are doing at all times.

It’s deeply exhausting. You just… get tired of thinking after a while. Computer Bismarck was an absolute struggle to get through: I would simply stop mid-turn, walk away and go do anything else. I made a futile run at repairing my dryer for 2 weeks, mainly for the sense of actually accomplishing something, which you can’t get on the cheap from this game. All told, I spent about 4 weeks trying to learn and play this game, and this post is largely a document of my failure to.

Though I try to shy away from quality judgements like these in most of my posts, I must admit that this game is extremely dull to me. Probably the dullest game I’ve ever played. I wonder sometimes if my mid-life crisis will be an autistic detour into military theory and history, but this game gives me reason to think that I am not truly capable of the imagination required. The reason why it’s dull instead of tight and intense comes back to what I was talking about with Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device [1947]: it’s about narrative context. I simply don’t care about the story, and it also doesn’t do adequate on-boarding to convince me to care about the story built through understanding its convolutions of details, though I can see how its systemic density could create a thrilling narrative for someone who isn’t me. There’s no emotions and a lot of cognition. It’s a fabulously accurate adaptation of Sink The Bismarck!

The drama, as in the movie, ought to come from your emotional investment in the triumph of the British navy over the Nazis. That’s all well and good, I hate me some Nazis. But this isn’t some righteous howl of furious anti-fascism or anything. The manual to Computer Bismarck comes with a couple pages that recounts the true story of sinking the Bismarck, and its ideological stance is communicated more clearly than the actual facts. I mean, get a load of this:

By May 22, 1941, when shortly before midnight the British fleet left the security of its base at Scapa Flow and steamed west into the cold, wind-driven waves of the North Atlantic, the British Empire had indeed fallen on evil times. That once great empire seemed to be in the last, desperate throes of a struggle for survival. She stood alone against the suddenly invincible power of the land armies of the Third Reich. Already France, Belgium, Holland, Norway—practically all western and central Europe lay conquered before the awesome power of the Fuhrer’s driving armored columns and shrieking divebombers. […] In a remarkable series of strikes against Italian forces, the British army had completed a sudden conquest of hundreds of square miles of Libya and raced west along the coastline. Italians had been captured by the thousands. British power had seemed, for just a moment, to remind the world of its former grandeur. And then that small respite too had collapsed—as General Rommel had landed with his panzers to begin his incomparable desert victories, driving the British back and back toward their few remaining vestiges of power in Egypt itself.

And so England stood nearly alone, no other major world power at her side. In the United States, President Roosevelt took such little, devious steps to help as were possible but, weighing the political odds, felt unable to move directly to her aid. The Russians had struck their ‘‘deal” with the Nazis and would do nothing until the power of the German blitzkrieg would, in a few weeks, be unleashed against them—at which time they would be severely tried just to save themselves. If this “little isle” were to be saved, she would have to save herself with such resources and courage as she could muster among her own game but hard-pressed people.

This game was made entirely in the United States, mind you. The core of why the reader is supposed to be invested in the success of the British is chest-thumping patriotic nostalgia for imperial glory. Power is just… an inherent good, if it’s British, and its candle waning by the time of World War 2 is a romantic historical elegy. I know plenty of people to this day think that way, but nationalism has literally never made sense to me. I cannot connect to the mindset and never have been able to.

In romanticizing England, it seems to be also necessary for the story to warp the rest of the world around its new center of gravity, done here with a particularly heavy hand. Americans are devious, Russians are duplicitous, the whole portion I abridge out is just a continued laundry list smack-talking other Allied countries. Conversely and perversely, the Nazis have to be puffed up. Not only are they formidable, but they’re even respectable opponents, brilliant in strategy and engineering. Morality simply doesn’t figure into the moral axis of the story here, entirely substituted for a morality revolving around naked imperial power jockeying.

I suppose it could be worse, though. Next time, unless my plans change (like my gut turns,) I’ll be playing the Nazis themselves, in Eastern Front [1980].

If you want to see someone who actually knows what they’re doing playing the game, I urge you again to check out The Wargaming Scribe and The Data-Driven Gamer.

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