Published on August 8th, 2013 | by Fraser Brown0
How Relic lost Russia
72 years ago last June, Operation Barbarossa, the codename for the German invasion of the Soviet Union, began. It saw the highest casualties of the Second World War, on both sides, and led to a significant portion of the horrifying 20 million-high death toll that the Soviet Union suffered during the entirety of the greater conflict. Operation Barbarossa and the Eastern Theatre in general was also the focus of Relic’s recent Company of Heroes 2, a strategy title that garnered no small amount of critical acclaim, including from yours truly.
Yet, this month, Russian Federation and CIS distributor 1C-SoftClub ceased their distribution of the title. The reason: a vast outpouring of negativity from consumers in the region. Many have criticised it for being full of clichés dreamt up by the west, racist overtones and historical inaccuracies. Censorship, historical sensitivity, or just a cautious business move in the face of a lot of anger — whatever this is, it reveals a vast disconnect between the occident and the East.
Whenever a studio co-opts the history of a foreign nation for the purposes of entertainment, it runs the risk of offending a vast number of people. As a Scot, I’m more than familiar with the butchering of my nation’s history for fun and profit. Braveheart, a movie filmed in Ireland, starring an anti-semitic Australian, ignoring any and all historical sources could have easily been seen as an offensive piece of tripe. But now we use it to bolster tourism, bids for independence, and as an excuse to get drunk and shout “Freedom!” for no particular reason.
The line between offensive and just silly is a very thin one, and it’s ultimately a matter of perspective. For countless Russians and Eastern Europeans, their perspective on Company of Heroes 2 is not a very favourable one. Unlike Braveheart, however, Company of Heroes 2 had the benefit of considerable historical research — but what Relic researched was a very touchy subject, and one which was emphasised and exaggerated to create the impact the studio wanted it to have: where the atrocities, brutality and the darkest elements of modern warfare were at the forefront.
Those boycotting the title appear to be primarily frustrated by Soviet tropes like Gulags, soldiers without guns, the execution of deserters — things that paint the Soviet era in an unfavourable light. It is in stark contrast to the original Company of Heroes, which spun a far more positive, Band of Brothers style yarn. But these negative elements merely represent a slice of the game. Unarmed soldiers feature in one brief cutscene, the execution of deserters (order 227) happens quite rarely (and is historically accurate), and the only Gulag referenced in the game is the one the narrator and protagonist Lev Abramovich Isakovich has been locked away in.
What strikes me as most bizarre is that it is Company of Heroes 2‘s detractors, and not Relic, focussing only on the horrors found within the game and the conflict itself. If Relic had merely presented a game where all of Russia’s dirty laundry was aired then that would have been problematic, but in reality, for every savage act of barbarism, there’s an incredible, inspiring act of heroism. When Isakovich sacrifices himself and ends up buried under rubble, sure to die, his men ignore their commander’s orders to leave him there, risking their own lives to save him. Such heroic acts are not uncommon in the game, and while Company of Heroes 2 could be considered an indictment of the Soviet leadership, it never presents the actual soldiers as less than brave, loyal men and women.
Relic created a video game. Not a history text book. Not a factual retelling of the war on the Eastern Front. It’s a piece of fiction based on real events. Developers are not academics, nor are they journalists — they don’t have a responsibility to make their games accurate reflections of reality, even when basing them on historical events. And yet nothing that we see in Company of Heroes is an outright fabrication. Certainly, some elements have been exaggerated or not put in the correct historical context, but these liberties go hand-in-hand with creative ventures like films and video games.
Relic lost the moment it decided to make a game based on the Eastern Front and actually add a narrative component that didn’t glorify the Red Army. The Great Patriotic War, as it was called by the Soviets, was presented as a noble, overwhelmingly positive conflict by the Communist regime. With the majority of combatants being dead, and censorship being rife, the leadership could create whatever fanciful fiction it wanted.
Long after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian lawmakers are still attempting to censor those who would dare criticise the Red Army. Recently, the lower house of parliament considered a bill that would make it illegal to criticise the Red Army’s actions during World War II, and those breaking such a law would face up to five years in prison and a substantial fine. The Kremlin even funds what are essentially propaganda films celebrating the role of the KGB.
Likewise, fear of Communism in the west, especially in America, led to a demonization of the Soviet Union. The Cold War, a conflict of ideologies, was filled with propaganda from both sides, and our understanding of the conflict on the Eastern Front has been hampered by this. Sensitivity also continues to limit discussion about this part of the war: diplomatic incidents have almost occurred due to the framing of the Soviet occupation of Berlin as less that humane, and even now in 2013, there’s still a sense of unease, a feeling that despite the Cold War being behind us, Russia and the west remain fixed in their roles. It’s still us vs. them in the minds of many.
Russia and the west do not share the same values, according to President Putin, and maybe he’s right. Regardless, it’s a shame that all of this outrage has led to Company of Heroes 2 no longer being sold in what is a significant portion of the world. Sega and Relic are, at this time, discussing the situation with 1C-SoftClub, and are “investigating” concerns. I’m not really sure what they could do other than the removal of the entire story and certain mechanics, which would be absurd, frankly.