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America's History in the Making

By the People, For the People

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with Col. John Antal.

 

Col. John Antal, United States Army Retired, is the historical director and military advisor for Gearbox Software, a company that creates interactive video games. Antal served thirty years in the United States Army and is an airborne ranger. Having graduated West Point in 1977, he served in tank units and combat units throughout his years in the service. He commanded a tank battalion in the Demilitarized Zone in Korea—the Dragon Force 272 Armor—and also commanded the 16th Cavalry Regiment of Ft. Knox, Kentucky. Antal was a special assistant for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He ended his military career as the G3 operations officer for the US Army, Third Corps, at Ft. Hood, Texas.

Q: Can you explain your role here at Gearbox and how it plays itself out with the content development of the product?

Antal: My job is to work with a lot of very young, creative people to try to develop this dramatic story about World War II. We are creating interactive stories that are as true to life as we can make them in a video game. I train them through classroom instruction, where we talk about World War II. I show them movies about World War II. We discuss the battles. I've had them develop tactical decision-making games where they had to fight each other as German and American forces, so they understand the tactics involved. I've taken them out to a local rifle range, and I've familiarized them with all the World War II small arms. They have a chance to get some training from me on how to use some of the weapons that are used in our game. I also took them on a two-day field training exercise. They trained as soldiers for two full days. We simulated the battles with paintball. Paintball rifles became our simulation devices; the developers ran around as squad leaders and members of squads fighting each other. We would be out there watching them and coaching and directing them, and we had an after-action review afterwards. To put a player in this environment in a video game—where he really has to lead a squad, and where he really has to think about team members—makes a totally different kind of game play. And this game play really makes you understand the kind of leadership, the kinds of challenges and the self-sacrifice that the people in 1944 had to endure to win World War II. We also find that the ability to show people a real glimpse of what it was like—I mean, as close as a glimpse as you can get in any game—is very powerful for our audience.

Q: How is your experience working with young people at Gearbox similar or different to your experiences working with members of the military?

Antal: What's interesting about my experience in the United States Army was that for the thirty years that I worked and served and led soldiers, most of them were young. The army is an organization of young people, and it's an organization of very bright, very creative, fit people. So the environment that I lived in for thirty years was very positive and very moving. Now I transition to the entertainment world. The people that work in the video game industry are different than the soldiers I worked with, but they're still young, and they still have dreams, and they're still creative folks.

What's interesting is if you can tap the same kind of things that I tapped when I was an officer leading soldiers with these young people who are developing these games, you find that they're very enthusiastic and eager to learn. They're just amazing—then you can find that they're excited about it. They now know more about World War II than they ever knew before. What's interesting is that when I take them on a battlefield tour, and I take them to Normandy, and I show them the places where the paratroopers dropped and how the battle went, they really gain a reverence and a respect for what their forefathers had to do. Most of the people at Gearbox have an attitude that is very positive about what they're creating. They believe the legacy is being transferred to a new generation now. They're able to tell the dramatic story of young people who, 62 years ago, saved the world from totalitarian dictatorship. That's noteworthy. That's noble. We're telling that story now in a new way.

Q: Is your interest in working on these projects more about the idea of people learning history or military history, or is it really about the gaming?

Antal: We've had some unbelievable people who have lived remarkable lives to create this nation we call the United States of America. If you just look at this short period of history and the people who created this rather unique country and the freedoms that we have, it makes you kind of sit back and go, "Oh my gosh, how did we get such people? Where did these people come from?" So, my search of history, my study in history, has brought me to understand how blessed we are. One of the important things in our education process is to gain a passion for a subject. If you are interested in history, there are some great histories out there about any era. You see, we really want to learn stories about people and how people reacted in these extraordinary circumstances. To get that understanding gives you a real unique insight for the kind of selfless service that these young American soldiers had and what they had to do to create our today. We can tell stories in many different ways. We now have video games. We have interactive entertainment. So one of the things that we like to bring about with our interactive entertainment is to show you how delicate a balance this whole idea of history is. It could have tipped either way. By placing yourself in history, in whatever period that interactive experience places you in, you get a chance to live it and see how tough those decisions are, and that's really exciting. You may wonder why we take the time and effort to go to such extremes to get our games historically accurate. The answer is that if you want to create the most dramatic, the most exciting historical fiction, it has to be historical. It can't be historical fiction if the history isn't in it.

Q: Briefly walk me through what those steps are in the software development process.

Antal: The training that I give the development team is designed to give them an experience, to train their minds, to give them an awareness of what it was like 62 years ago. We started with the idea that we were going to make a game about World War II. We narrowed that idea down to several dramatic campaigns of World War II: We selected D-Day to start off our first game. After picking the subject, we then went through a series of classes where we talked about what it was like to be a soldier in those days. What was it like to be a member of the 101st Airborne Division? What was it like to be in the German Sixth Falschmieger Regiment? What was it like to drive a tank, or to fire a mortar? I explained all of those examples in the classroom. So we went from conceptualization to classroom, and then from the classroom we went through a series of training exercises. We then went to other kinds of training exercises: the firing of a real weapon so that they'd get the experience of what it is like to actually fire a rifle or a pistol; the field training exercise where for two days and one night they were in the field. I've taken most of the key developers to every battlefield that is in our game. We've had detailed after-action reviews where film and photos were taken and shown, and the battles were explained. Sometimes I'll explain the battlefield situation to a group of artists so they can get kind of a holistic view of how it works. Sometimes I'll work with a programmer and talk specifically about how a tank moves. The creative team learned how difficult it is to fight a squad in this kind of battle. They were able then to translate that learning into making a better game.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about what is it that makes Brothers in Arms different than other video games set in World War II?

Antal: With Brothers in Arms, we looked at how to tell a dramatic story. A lot of people will understand the history already. We decided to tell our story of a squad of paratroopers. These are paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles: a very famous unit in World War II. They dropped into Normandy. They helped win the day on D-Day. They dropped into Operation Market Garden in Holland in September of 1944. They helped to keep Hell's Highway open so that the British 30 Corps could drive north to try to reach the beleaguered paratroopers at Arnum. We show their story throughout World War II—we're totally authentic. Everything that you see in our interactive entertainment, Brothers in Arms: "Road to Hill 30," our second game, Brothers in Arms: "Earned in Blood," or our third game "Hell's Highway," are real, true situations that this fictional squad is in.

Q: You say that you build a context, and then it's up to the player to determine what happens. Does this mean the battle will potentially play out completely differently in the game than it played out in real life?

Antal: When we put you in this historical context and give you the freedom to choose the ending, this means that anything can happen. So you can, in fact, have a different ending than the historical ending. We overcome this discrepancy by saying at the beginning, "There is a situation. At the end, there's a victory." So if you get to that victory, no matter how, we carry you on through the next historical situation. If you fail, you have to keep going until you win. So that's how we keep the story going along the true historical path. Once you win, you've created that next lynchpin that allows us to carry on to the next historically accurate situation.

Q: How do World War II military artifacts help to educate the user while also engaging or entertaining him or her?

Antal: I think that anybody who's passionate about history and who has studied a subject in depth will look at some of the artifacts of that time. For instance, an MI Garand rifle from a paratrooper in World War II: Anyone who understands the background story behind the artifact knows a little bit about how that weapon was developed, how that weapon became the closest friend of the infantryman. How that soldier relied on that rifle for his life. And when you hold one of those weapons, you think about the story behind it. I wonder what rifleman had this rifle in World War II? What were his fears? How did he get through the day and survive? And how many times did he fire this weapon? So, if you have a creative mind and you're passionate about history, every one of these artifacts tells a story. And that's the exciting thing. Everything here, if you are able to use it properly, can be welded into a very exciting story that will fascinate other people.

Q: How do you create human accuracy, as in physical features and human reactions?

Antal: One of the ways that we are able to create human-like movements and human-like reactions to different situations is with our motion-capture room. What happens in this room is we have one of our employees dress up in a suit that is able to reflect all of the important parts of his body so that the computer can capture them. Then, on the computer screen, we can see the proper joint and muscle movements as he's walking, as he's running, as he's taking up a position. The motion-capture room allows us to practice with those kinds of things and to experiment with the right ways to make it happen. It allowed me to teach the team how soldiers actually move and how they actually operate when they're fully loaded with equipment.

Q: In historical video games like Brothers in Arms, how much weight is given to geographic history? Cultural history?

Antal: A critical question in any entertainment that is historical fiction is how much history do you put into it, and where do you deviate from history? In our interactive entertainment, we place you in a historical situation, and then you decide what to do. There are many opportunities for us to decide how much history to put in there. It's a critical decision, because if we put too much in, then you're overburdened with this historical data that may not be important to carry on the story. What we try to do is always pick one or two historical facts that we can plant at the center of the story, and that will give it the true ambiance of what's going on. So if it's Normandy, France, you should have some hedgerows. You should have some Norman-looking villages. You don't want to have it look like Belgium, which is different. Particular historical spots are useful: For instance, in our first story there's a place called "Dead Man's Corner." That is actually just an intersection just a little out of the French town of Carentan. There was a building there that was very easy to identify. At this intersection, an American tank was destroyed. Unfortunately, the tank commander was killed in the top of the tank, and the tank had burned, so he stayed up there. The troops went by, and they didn't know where they were, but they said they were at "Dead Man's Corner." So we had Dead Man's Corner in the game, because that's a historical spot that really existed. We did the same thing for the fighting in Carentan. We took the photos from World War II, and we built the cathedral exactly as it was in 1944. In fact, it still exists today exactly as it did then, so it's even easier to go there and bring the artists there. The choice of what to put in each chapter of our interactive entertainment is important because there are some historical, accurate, true-to-life things that we don't want to represent in the game. For instance, soldiers walk a tremendous amount to get to the battlefield. A paratrooper who parachutes into Normandy has to walk 1820 kilometers throughout the game, so we don't show that. Movies do the same thing. Historical fiction and novels do the same thing. We don't show the soldiers, for instance, cleaning their weapons all the time, and we don't make you do that. We do not have misfires on our weapons. This is an interesting thing, because we argued about it for a while. We try desperately to get the weather correct. We went through a very detailed study of the weather of every day of our game: when it rained, where. However, this is difficult to do. We find that everyone seems to agree the game shows the most historically accurate depiction of what happened—everything from the soldiers to the tactics to the buildings to the weather. Sometimes you have to make compromises. We limited those compromises to just a few, but they happen in every endeavor in life. What we really want to do is have people trust us and understand that we're making this as historically accurate an experience as we can possibly deliver. That's what dramatic storytelling is all about, what entertainment's all about. That's what we're trying to do.

Q: What is the future of interactive gaming, in your opinion?

Antal: The future of interactive entertainment is fascinating. Right now, we are just scratching the surface of what we can do. In a few years, we're going to be able to create software that will create synthetic environments that will be so realistic that it will knock your socks off. This is going to be a time where we're going to create games and interactive worlds and interactive environments that will allow you to learn about things that you could never learn before in ways that will be much less expensive.

Q: Do you think war games serve a purpose in order to educate people about the brutality and inhumanity of wars and why they are fought?

Antal: In our education process, if we don't talk about the wars and talk about the battles to understand why selfless service is important and why sometimes you must stand up against evil, then we create a generation that may not have a moral compass when it comes to understanding what they believe in. It is important to experience some of this in a way that will explain why these things occur. One of the truths of history is that wars have occurred again and again and again. If our education process doesn't talk about them at all, then we're missing an important part of the human condition, which we need to understand. These games can be an important way to understand a little bit about that. They will never be even close to what it's like really to be in combat. But they are as close as you can get without being shot at. I think it's important to be able to experience this in a safe way. It is an important part of the American experience. Talk to any veteran. They want you to remember the people that gave everything so that we could have the life we have, so that we could have the freedoms we have. The experience of free government, of people with rights and the rule of law, has some very short spans in the history of mankind. You know, we're blessed with the opportunity to live in this time. If you're an American, you're blessed with the opportunity to live in this country that offers you these freedoms. It took a lot of self-sacrifice, a lot of sacrifice on the part of a lot of brave people, both men and women throughout our history. If the choice is between freedom and surrender, I will always fight for freedom.

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