Relic or Russia: Who’s Rewriting History in Company of Heroes 2?
Then came Vladimir Putin. A product of the KGB, he was perfectly placed to understand and wield the power of nationalism, and the idealized version of history the accompanies it. This kind of propaganda whitewash can apply to any subject; witness the way TheBadComedian, in the end of his video, downplays and almost dismisses the history of Stalin’s Gulags, as if it were a Western exaggeration designed to make Russia look bad. On June 24, 2013, Russia’s legislative body debated legislation which, according to one Russian lawmaker, “would outlaw criticism of the Red Army’s actions during World War II.”
Even more recently, Russia has been criticized for its brutal treatment of LGBT citizens. Despite the attempts of brave activists to introduce change, official condemnation and populist violence still maintain the status quo. On the front lines of the conflict, there are a handful of brave Russians who are risking their lives in the name of human rights. But there are also their opponents, young men eager to prove their manhood with their fists in the service of state-sponsored bigotry. Putin’s brand of vigorous nationalism appeals, and so does his version of the Great Patriotic War, which admits no uncertainty, and no guilt. Many of these young men no doubt play video games themselves.
In the United States and other Western countries, citizens take for granted the ability to both lionize and criticize. We can revere the heroism of our World War II aviators, while simultaneously mourning the lives that were lost in Dresden and Hiroshima. This is not the case in Russia, where the war is simply understood differently.
When Relic raises tough questions about the tactics, policies, and practices of the Soviet Army, or the documented atrocities committed on the Eastern Front, it is viewed by some players as a stain on the honor of the victorious Red Army. Criticize part, and you criticize the whole. Criticize the whole, and you criticize the part, right down to the grandparents of the commenter quoted on the first page of this article. Some Russian players will acknowledge the truth of Russian failings, which is incontrovertible, while also pointing to the near-infinite examples of Russian heroism. Others, like TheBadComedian, will see only punctures in the vast balloon of nationalist pride, carefully inflated for decades by Soviet and Republican authorities, and now besieged by a group of Canadians with dubious motives, wielding a pin.
I think that Relic was motivated by the desire to make a game that accurately depicts the horrors of war. As I suggested in my review, this resulted in part from a subconscious feeling of guilt: games like Company of Heroes 2 make hyper-realistic combat so entertaining that they need a certain amount of sobering reality to be morally defensible.
War is undeniably horrible. But it is horrible for many reasons. In attempting to make a game about the horrors of war, Relic committed a crucial mistake. The developers saw the brutality of the Eastern Front, of Stalin, of Soviet Communism, and they turned Russia into a scapegoat.
You can see it in the way that Soviet officers stride on-screen like pantomime villains, ready to dispense summary executions. You can see it in the differences between the way Relic depicts the Russians, and the way it depicts the Americans, British, and even the Germans. And you can see it in the way that the game is still harping on its theme, even as Russian soldiers raise the Soviet flag above the Reichstag, “how many millions died for a photograph?” the game asks, unwilling to provide even a little catharsis.
Every country that fought in World War II had heroes. Every country that fought in World War II had villains. Every country had soldiers who were heroes one day, and villains the next. The horrors of war know no country.
We shall see how Relic will decide to approach this controversy. In turn, we shall see how its critics will react. In the meantime, we can be glad that today, when citizens of two continents start to fight, they can sometimes do it with their keyboards.