Wishful Wargames: The Weird World of HOI4 Alternate History Mods

 

Content warning for: warfare, genocide, antisemitism, and gamers

Introduction

In 2016, a Swedish game publisher called Paradox Interactive published the latest entry in their line of World War 2 grand strategy games. It is called Hearts of Iron 4, or HOI4, and allows players to take control of any nation in the world from 1936 onwards. While the victory conditions are mostly set by the players themselves, the game’s mechanics set up the rise of a global conflict akin to the historical WW2, and it can thus be called a war game first and foremost. Like many other games developed by Paradox, HOI4 has a lively fan community, active on various social media platforms such as Reddit, Facebook and Paradox’ own forums. Besides the sharing of memes and discussion posts, this community uses tools provided by the publisher to develop fan-made modifications, or mods for short. These mods are distributed through various means, but many if not most of them are found on the Steam Workshop, a platform provided by the digital distribution service known as Steam. Highly varied in content, mods can do anything from simply changing world leader portraits (like giving Stalin a bigger moustache) to shifting aspects of setting and gameplay completely. Mods of the latter variety are called ‘total conversion mods’, and many of them alter the setting to an alternate history scenario, where some divergence in the past has caused an entirely different setup for total war. It is this phenomenon that I want to focus on.

It may seem odd to single out a fan community in such a niche way. What distinguishes the Alternate History mods for HOI4 from the game’s broader community, or from the genre in general? To me, the difference is found in the degree of dedication and internal coherence. There is a distinct subculture to the people who produce and peruse these total conversion mods. They congregate in dedicated subreddits or Discord servers, and in recent months many of them have bonded together into the so-called ‘Paradox Modding Cooperative’. In these places, developers and players share memes, teasers, and ‘developer diaries’, a trend picked up from the publisher where creators will share specific areas or subjects of the mod in progress. Demographically, these gamers are not far from the stereotype: predominantly young, male, and politically confused. Particularly the latter is something I will come back to, since the narratives these mods create are both consistent and all over the place from a political perspective.

Indeed, the narratives of these fan creations are what this investigation is all about. The Second World War was certainly a turbulent and tragic time in history, and the way both HOI4 and its unofficial spinoffs engage with it could say quite a bit about our current political moment. This is a time where the barrier between online and offline culture has dissolved, where the mass conflicts of the past seem unimaginable but the future is almost guaranteed to hold further tragedy. By analyzing a niche of the whirlwind present, we can see how the past is remembered and reshaped to symbolize the ideals of the future. At least, such is my thesis.

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By the end of this chapter, you may understand part of this chart

Chapter One: Categories of Conflict

Among the variety of alternate mods for HOI4, I have discerned various categories based on their setting or place within the community. I will discuss them here in a rather arbitrary order, and with the caveat that many of them are unreleased or unfinished products. Fan projects are almost always an unpaid enterprise, and so they are developed at a significantly slower pace than whatever work they spin off from. Nevertheless, this work can be vital in keeping a game popular; HOI4 would suffer a massive drop in playerbase without the modding community to keep the game fresh in between expansions.

A second warning I want to give before we begin concerns the way I will be discussing history here. Since this is a grand strategy set in a relatively recent era of history, it inevitably turns real historical trauma into the basis for gameplay. War is no game, but Hearts of Iron 4 certainly, and the discrepancy between these facts may come to sound rather cruel in the following. Thus, if I come to make statements like ‘Germany should be more fascist to balance out Russia’, this will relate to the in-game narrative of the game in question, and not to the actual course of history. Whether the past should be turned into a meme-ridden narrative like the various alternate histories discussed is a fair question, but not the topic of this essay. To their credit, Paradox itself enforces a ban on portraying genocide within their game or its modifications. Of course, this moratorium might only make the real-life cruelties of history seem more harmless in hindsight. It is a hard issue to tackle, and whatever way I come to discuss these events myself, my apologies in advance for the inevitable trivializing of the past.

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Behold the king, the king of mods

A proper survey of the current HOI4 modding community cannot get around one mod in particular. As of this writing, its subreddit is about a third the size of that of the main game, and its presence within the fandom is unassailable. I speak here of Kaiserreich: Legacy of the Weltkrieg, a modification set in a world where Germany won the First World War. To be completely honest, Kaiserreich is not originally a HOI4 mod. It started as a mod of Hearts of Iron 2, an earlier game in the series, and was developed further for a spinoff game called Darkest Hour. As such, its development has been going on for more than a decade now, with one of the most developed settings and fandoms as a result. It could very well be called the archetype for all other alternate history mods, as the tendencies I will describe in a bit repeat themselves many times in other entries.

Like the base game, Kaiserreich starts off in 1936, but that’s where almost any similarity to the familiar WW2 setting ends. Since Germany proved victorious in WW1, they are ascendant at the start of the game, though about to be economically crippled by a Great Depression analogue. Their sphere of influence reaches across the globe, from Eastern Europe to Central Africa to a warlord-dominated China. The classic Entente powers of France and Britain have undergone ‘syndicalist’ revolutions, adhering now to a brand of socialism that emphasizes an economy run by labor unions and a democracy of worker delegates. Nevertheless, the pre-revolution regimes still exist in some form, namely as exiled governments in Canada and French Africa. Thus, we have a three-way division of power that will echo through most theatres of war during the course of a gameplay session. It is this balance of factions that might be considered Kaiserreich’s narrative core. It gives most people on the ideological spectrum someone to root for, and the dynamic interaction between these three blocs and various fourth way underdogs allows for countless roleplaying opportunities.

From the base elements I described here, the general tendencies of its community should come as no surprise. The ideological variation of the narrative means that people from the far-left to the far-right partake of this mod, constantly arguing over favorite factions and idolizing the historical characters involved. Just as its central premise turns history on its head, so does the broader setting enable a lot of historical underdogs, and this sparks the interest of history buffs and meme enthusiasts. What’s more, with the developers being fans themselves, the course of the game is shaped by community input, in a constant state of rework. To give an example of how all this comes together, I need but refer to the fabled China Rework. Going back several years, a section of the development team has been rewriting the East Asian part of the narrative, with their work accelerating over the last few months and spurring on a mass of memes and discussions on the part of the community. Without the extremely niche knowledge of all these developments, a meme like the one linked above would be incomprehensible. But with that knowledge, we can now see this world of HOI4 mods open up before us.

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You know you’re popular when your spinoffs start having spinoffs

Our next stop on this tour of a gaming fandom brings us to the direct spinoffs of Kaiserreich. It should be no surprise that one of the biggest mods in the HOI4 community would launch its own sub-fandoms. Perhaps the most absurd among these is Führerreich: Legacy of the Great War. In what is called a double-blind what-if scenario, Führerreich answers the question: what if Germany lost WW1? Naturally, this would bring us back to our own history, but since Führerreich is written from the perspective of Kaiserreich’s world, some details diverge quite sharply. The greatest narrative effect of this is that many countries seem ‘nicer’ than their real world counterparts. The alternate Nazi Germany is less openly genocidal, and the alt-USSR leans more towards libertarian socialism than Marxism-Leninism. As such, the mod seems to say that the people of Kaiserreich could not imagine the cruelties of our actual history. Quite a sad message, if you ask me.

As for the other Kaiserreich spinoffs, they are surprisingly varied. For example, the fan project known as Edelweiss uses the nine in-game ideologies as a template for a dating simulator, using a different game engine and genre of play entirely. Other mods will not be strict spinoffs, but will use the vague premise of an ‘early 20th century historical divergence’: what if Russia won WW1, what if Russia loses the Russo-Japanese war even harder, and so on. Finally, we have mods that built off the world of Kaiserreich into its imagined future. Two upcoming creations, entitled Krasnacht and Kalterkrieg, are set in the wake of Kaiserreich’s WW2 analogue and thus explore its aftermath and onset of an alternate Cold War.

Speaking of aftermath and Cold War, there are many mods for HOI4 that wish to shake up the 1936-1950 timeframe and transplant its gameplay mechanics to a later era. Two of these are Cold War: The Iron Curtain and Millennium Dawn, set during the Cold War and present day respectively. While not alternate histories, they still provide much opportunity for historical divergence. One mod, Red World, even combines these two premises by creating a modern setting where the Soviet Union ‘won’ the Cold War. The main problem with these three mods is that they stretch HOI4’s mechanics to their limits. A game designed for WW2’s total war is simply not suited for a modern day setting, and this really hurts the realism of any such mod. Hard to design a war game around an era where total war is the least desirable option.

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Lovely maps, awful scenarios

We shouldn’t forget that the base game revolves around WW2. Based off this fact, a popular alternate history variant sees the Axis triumphant, a popular alternate history scenario that we find in works such as Wolfenstein or Man in the High Castle. HOI4 currently has at least two of these in development, entitled Thousand Week Reich and The New Order: Last Days of Europe. What unites them is a sense of despair and decay, and even if the latter seems to lean more into the fantastical than the former, they are both hardly pleasant settings. The problem with any Axis Victory scenario is its inherent implausibility, but a narrative focus on the despicable nature of the Third Reich is a good way to assuage accusations of wish fulfillment. Nevertheless, like all of HOI4’s various sub-communities, these projects are bound to attract neo-fascists and edgy meme-lords. If anything, the memes and discussions many of these fictional works generate can be an awful entry point into real-life cruelty. Many a time have I seen references to ‘Romanian meat hooks’ (used as a horrific means of mass murdering Jewish people during WW2) go unpoliced by the modding community at large. This is undoubtedly the darkest side of this niche phenomenon.

There are also many alternate history mods which make reference to the pre-20th century past. A popular point of divergence is the 18th century, since this allows for a tweaking of the onset of modernity without doing away with Euro-American cultural supremacy. As such, the world can be recognizable while still sharply divergent. These worlds are often witness to a triumph of monarchism, and the distribution of more leftist regimes appears quite erratic in comparison. In Frederick’s Nightmare, we see the effects of a French triumph in the Seven Years War as its influence spreads far across Europe even into the 1930s. In Après Moi Le Déluge, we see a similar fortune befall Napoleonic France, the region of Germany being shattered apart in both instances. They are potent scenarios, but appear less popular than most of the preceding mods. I do hope that they will find some traction in the future, since their originality is not to be denied.

The last category to discuss turns even more speculative, heading outside the realm of modern history altogether. These settings have various unclear divergences that serve as a reason for creative historical enterprise. One of them, Divergences, is the continuation of a similar mod for one of Paradox’ other games. As such, it has an existing fanbase to build on, though whether this will translate into greater popularity is as of yet unknown. Another mod, Godspeed: A Flame for Winter, is similarly divergent, but is still in a great state of flux so early in its development. These two are proof of the variety that HOI4’s modding tools can enable, as long as the creators are willing to stick to the mechanics of 1940s warfare. Around that central gameplay however, many alternate pasts are conceivable, and the variety of settings thus generated is quite impressive. In the following section, I want to reflect on this phenomenon in more detail. How do we explain the proliferation of alternate history mods, and what causes the rhythms by which this creative community seems to operate?

Chapter Two: Casus Ludi

So, what do we make of all this, what explains and sustains this community? To answer these questions, let us reflect on the base game this phenomenon emerges from, and figure out what elements make it so suited for alternate history modding. First, Paradox as a publisher is very accommodating to its fan community, and makes sure the tools are designed and provided to make their games easier to modify. Second, these are grand strategies with a historical focus, and so they are bound to attract the sort of person who wants to interact with history, and perhaps even change it. Third, the world war setting is recreated through satisfying abstractions, with features such as maps, armies and factions allowing for the conflict to seem like a grand old time rather than a miserable decade of death and desperation.

The reasons cited above are all rather obvious, but there are also more specific reasons for why I think HOI4 attracts these sorts of mods. One reason relates to its specific gameplay systems, the ‘national focus’ system in particular. Put simply, every nation in HOI4 has a network of so-called national focuses to choose from, which do such diverse things as provide bonuses, allow for the conquest of other nations or change one’s political alignment. They can only pick one at a time, generally taking 70 in-game days to complete, and completing one is a prerequisite for picking the one beneath it on the focus track. Thus, over the course of a playthrough, a nation will slowly descend its tree of focuses and grow stronger, more fanatical, or just more territorially ambitious. In this way, the national focus system provides a choose-your-own-adventure narrative to players, and a nation’s popularity among players is often related to the particular quality of its focus tree. By making this system so easy to modify, Paradox has ensured a low entry-point to modders in shaping their own nation-based narratives. The system is supplemented by events, one-time occurrences which can provide an important player choice or just a few paragraphs of worldbuilding. What’s more, this year’s addition of a ‘decisions’ system allows for some player options to exist outside of time-sensitive focuses or events, ever available as long as their prerequisites are met. Taken together, HOI4 contains a variety of simple yet pleasing systems with which a potential modder can create their own setting. And since they treat nations like ongoing narratives rather than static characters, the creation of an alternate history is encouraged systemically.

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Do not underestimate the power of trees

The final explanation I want to advance also deals with gameplay mechanics, but only in part, for this is where we enter the realm of real life, of our contemporary political environment and the way in which it informs the discussion and creation of mods. The topic at hand is part of HOI4’s political system, namely its registering of national alignment by way of an ideology counter. In short, every nation is a political tangle of ideological interests arranged into a pie chart. In general, the largest piece of the pie chart will be the ruling ideology, but politically unstable exceptions to this are also possible. The base game provides only four ideologies (fascist, communist, democratic and non-aligned), but it should come as no surprise that almost every one of the mods mentioned so far expand on this significantly. This can partially be explained as the result of a general urge among modders to provide games with more content and detail. However, given the particulars of this game and community, I would argue the external political environment plays into it as well. As you’ll recall, HOI4 starts off in the late 1930s, an era when both the far left and far right were considerably more influential today. WW2 can be seen as a power fantasy to either of these groups, either a last hurrah for fascism or its demise at the hands of soviet communism. Whatever the case, this setting provides great opportunity for ideological roleplaying, a tendency that is preserved and even enhances in its various alternate history modifications. By literally expanding the in-game ideological spectrum, niche political interests can find a chance to express themselves, from anarcho-syndicalists to liberal monarchists to neo-fascists. One interesting observation to make about these mods’ communities is that there appears to be no real difference between genuine or ironical support for in-game movements. While this allows for a tenuous harmony between ideologues of all stripes, it also allows for the transformation of naïve jokesters into real political radicals, for good or for ill. One should wonder if this is a healthy environment for teenage to adolescent males to thrive in, or whether it turns obscure fandom into a political echo-chamber akin to other (usually far-right) forums.

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The love of charts runs deep in this community

In conclusion, I believe that the popularity of HOI4’s alternate history mods is caused by some base elements of its design, as well as the deft management of mod tools by the publisher. However, while its popularity relates mostly to the game itself, the form that this community has taken is caught up in a specific historical moment, very much related to the effects of online culture upon contemporary politics. To take a pessimistic view to this, we are dealing with a bunch of nerd gamers who like to play at being 1930s fascists. But in a more optimistic light, these mods can provide players the opportunity to learn more about historical movements that the neoliberal hegemony has left in the dust. I would be lying if I said that the opportunity this provides to the political Left does not interest me. Nevertheless, we are mostly dealing with escapist fantasies here, as none of the narratives developed so far appear to have a broader moral or political message. Perhaps this is just the unfortunate result of these  projects being (mostly) collaborative and ideologically diverse. Still, it would be nice to see one of these projects transcend the bounds of meme-driven fandom into something more relevant or even profound. But I admit this is unlikely.

In the next section, I want to put this gathered knowledge into some sort of practice, by synthesizing the aforementioned narrative trends into a cohesive whole. Whether the resulting setting will realize my hope for a more meaningful narrative remains to be seen, but it will certainly be a coherent one thanks to my one-man approach. Then again, since I am not a part of the modding community, the most this work could achieve is to provide some inspiration to any ongoing projects. But since this is merely a fun thought exercise to me, I would consider such an outcome more than satisfying.

Chapter Three: A Synthetic Suggestion

Time and relative dimensions of war

Having spent quite a few paragraphs on the prominent alternate history mods for HOI4, we should surely be capable of conceiving our own version, if only in a basic conceptual state. It may seem intimidating at first to imagine an entirely different world history, but by following the existing genre tendencies and narrative necessities, a lot of these puzzle pieces will fall into place all by themselves. For example, we’d do well to start with the basic elements of time and space. As has been thoroughly established, HOI4 is a game built for a WW2 setting, and so a 1930s-equivalent start date is almost mandatory. However, this does not mean we can’t take any inspiration from those mods that eschew this timeframe. Many of them seem to focus on the aftermath of great conflict, particularly the political instability and economic devastation that result from this. Both of these factors are of good use to an HOI4 mod, for the former enables great political change and the latter slows the leadup to the next great conflict. Thus, what can be learned from these mods is that even a 1930s start date shouldn’t be set too far after the last great global crisis. This notion of ‘aftermath’ is generally worth preserving.

With regards to timeframe, there is one other point to consider. With any proper alternate history, it doesn’t just matter when the narrative takes place, but also at what time it has started to diverge from our own history. Once again, we can find our inspiration in the mods that preceded this segment. Of the ones we surveyed, it appears that they diverged either in the WW1 timeframe, during the Enlightenment or in a period so far back that no exact point can be determined. Each of these categories has its own pros and cons, and I would suggest some sort of synthesis that can provide the greatest advantage. Considering each of them, I find that the WW1 variety allows too little space for the historical imagination, though the other two provide too much. The ones that diverge during the Enlightenment provide the wisdom that a ‘recognizable yet alternative’ 1930s requires one preserve the dominance of industrializing Europe during the 19th century. Lastly, the most divergent variety has the advantage of creating a good amount of fictional characters, who are much easier to root for from an ethical standpoint; it’s frankly uncomfortable to cheer on any Mussolini, even one that pretends to be a leftist.

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Pictured: something I do not enjoy about Kaiserreich

Bringing together these insights into a coherent singularity, I find that our prospective timeline should diverge during the late 19th century, 1865 at the earliest. This way, the hegemony of certain familiar world powers (such as the UK and the US) during the 1930s is all but assured. On the other hand, there is also enough opportunity for divergence, as nations such as Germany and China could easily see their formation disrupted, and others such as Russia or Austria-Hungary could see their disintegration reversed. Finally, from an ideological standpoint, any divergence during the 1860s cannot undo the rise of socialism, yet still alter it significantly. All in all, I think this is a good point of divergence for allowing the creator to get away with quite a few strategic alterations, without undoing the familiarity a player will have with a nation entirely.

Fractions of faction facts

Next, one should focus on the matter of factions, since the potential for great ideological struggle greatly excites HOI4’s fanbase, and makes for a good alternate history in general. If the goal is to set up the next world war, then most if not all of the factions better have a broad geographical spread to them. I can see two main ways of achieving this. One is to realize the spread through imperialism: lots of historical empires had a presence in two or more continents, and this can be used to expand the number of theatres involved in a war. If this approach falls short of your target, arrange for a strategic pact between two or more imperial powers; our own history is full of those, so it would likely hold true in alternate scenarios as well. The other way of achieving geographical spread is to create an ideological pact between nations. Their shared goal will be to spread a certain vision for society, instead of a mutual desire for territorial expansion. To be fair, any alt-historical alliance ought to be a bit of both categories. Rarely is a nation willing to be pragmatic without concern for ideological difference, or to be ideological without concern for territorial expansion. WW2’s major alliances can be evaluated according to these categories: the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was clearly pragmatic in nature, whereas US support for Britain was more ideologically motivated in comparison. Still, both tendencies will generally be present in each faction you create.

Another valuable lesson about the creation of factions comes to us from Kaiserreich. I would argue that its tendency towards three-way conflicts is no coincidence. Rather, it is a clever way of incorporating the entire ideological spectrum into a single encounter, such as a civil or global war. Furthermore, by allowing for some variety within each of the three factions, one can switch up the good-evil dynamic that can really drive a narrative. While Kaiserreich roughly replicates the base game’s division of democratic-fascist-communist, it distorts the internal politics of each group enough that each one might have something to love and hate about it. For example, while the Entente faction can be seen as liberal democracy’s last stand, they can also be considered a group of imperialist losers who justify authoritarian means in the name of reclaiming their home soil. This ambiguity is worth preserving, to some extent. One reason I would not preserve it entirely is that its moral relativism might prove a little too strong for comfort; is there really any reason to root for a decaying superpower like Imperial Germany, or a fascist stronghold like Iron Guard Romania? I don’t think so.

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Do not underestimate the power of threes

With these lessons learned, I think we can begin to be more specific about what factions ought to be included in our prospective mod. My first proposal fits right into the selected timeframe and demand for geographic spread: turn the British Empire into the primary antagonist. If anything can be said against the gameplay potential of WW2’s primary antagonists, it’s that the territorial interests of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were bound to very specific regions. By contrast, Great Britain had a significant presence in almost every content, and this makes it a great target for coordinated opposition. The latter could be provided by a broad leftist faction, which would use a growing anti-imperialist sentiment against the British, fomenting unrest from India to Ireland to Africa. This brings us to our second faction, which will provisionally be called the Socialist Internationale. Now, in order to select the main socialist power of this setting, I have let myself be inspired by an existing alternate history called Spectre of Europe, in which the Paris Commune proves successful. This divergence fits perfectly within our timeframe. What’s more, the existing historical enmity between France and Britain allows for this central rivalry to feel personal (well, national) rather than just ideological. The third wheel in this equation ought to lie at the ideological center, a beacon of liberal democracy. Staying within the Euro-American hegemony, I would argue the best candidate would be the USA. This provides a comforting parallel with our own history, while still allowing for the details of American alignment and alliance to differ.

With the main factions laid out in general terms, I want to get into the specifics of their internal discord, since we’ve established that it’s this political dynamism that can make a faction shine. First, it would make sense that each faction would be able to align with some diversity of ideologies, though this variety shouldn’t be so broad as to eliminate their distinct identities. For instance, the British will be able to vary between a barely democratic social conservatism to a more autocratic or even fascist strand of monarchism. Similarly, the hodgepodge government that is Socialist France should be dealing with internal factions that range from anarchism to a more authoritarian or even nationalist socialism. Lastly, the United States may see its two-party federal system weaken significantly in the face of economic and political crises. It may see its democracy subverted on the local level by ethnonationalist separatists or direct labor action. While insufficient to cause a civil war on its own, outside powers may manipulate these troubles for their own gain if the federal government does not resolve them in time.

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This poster is right about one thing: socialism rocks!

These internal struggles are but the local expression of a greater global crisis, this being the aftermath (there it is again) of a world war during the early 1920s. While the more progressive powers of France and America sat it out, the main imperial powers of Austria, Germany, Britain and Russia fought each other with wild abandon, the former two collapsing under the weight and the latter two signing an exhausted ‘peace with honor’ in the aftermath. The pan-German civil war that followed saw western regions incorporated into the French sphere of influence, the rest either bowing to British or Russian ‘protection’ or remaining defiantly bitter and neutral. So little time has passed since then, that all the expansionist powers of Europe are dealing with a serious case of victory disease: new territories are proving harder to assimilate than expected, given the necessity of post-war reconstruction. As for the US, its military isolationism has done it no economic favor, as the war’s former participants now seek to renegotiate war debts. Some are even saying a big economic crisis is about to start off this beautiful year of 1932…

Travelling theatre (of war)

With these faction and background details resolved, I want to spend these last few paragraphs on laying out the various regions of the world, to determine who the exact regional players are and which faction they are likely to end up in. Beginning with a shameless example of eurocentrism, we find this continent engulfed in a tug-of-cold-war between Socialist France and Imperial Russia. But again, these powers bit off more than they can chew, and if the few remaining neutral powers of Central Europe were to band together, they could seriously disrupt these expansionist regimes. Heading into the Middle East, we find an Ottoman Empire about to shatter into pieces. However, both Britain and Russia will find the rebels they backed to accomplish this feat less loyal than expected. A non-aligned movement might win out here as well, or perhaps the socialists will pull off the impossible and use their own anti-Ottoman connections to establish a foothold in the region.

Africa is about to go through some very interesting times. The last war has left Britain in nominal control of all German and Belgian colonies, the latter’s home country swallowed up into the world revolution, and now struggles to control its newfound possessions. As for the French colonies, they make for quite the controversy back home. Anarchists seek immediate decolonization, even if it costs them in territory and influence, but a growing ‘social imperialist’ faction wants to exploit colonial manpower and resources to enable the perpetual struggle against capitalism. As for the actual people who inhabit these totally-not-colonies, they will fight for their rights regardless of European paternalism. The continent is sure to be part of the next global conflict, but exactly how the sides will pan out remains to be seen.

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Whatever region you look at, expect to see a lot of this 

South America, for whatever reason, is often woefully neglected in alternate histories. The possible explanations for this are many, yet the most important thing in this is to avoid it. As might be expected though, this world’s South America finds itself within the sphere of influence of the US. But with that power’s attention caught up on internal matters, many nations are looking to strike out on their own. Argentine is likely to enter a defensive pact with Britain, especially considering the threat of freshly socialist Brazil. This new regime is looking to free their Lusophone comrades in Iberia and Africa alike, though the latter population may not have much interest in what social imperialists consider freedom. Meanwhile, North America is going through some interesting times of its own. The US-Canada border has never been this militarized before, and the political instability that bothers Washington so much is said to result from British or French infiltration. Assaulted by its left and right wing, the bipartisan consensus prays that the center will hold.

East Asia looks rather unconventional, at least for a mod of this variety. Whereas one usually finds Imperial Japan a carbon copy of its WW2 counterpart, this version could not be more different. Paralyzed by labor agitation, it seems a matter of months before the masses will tear down the imperial façade. Socialists seem to have the upper hand, but American interests hope dearly for some sort of compromise that would leave the country open to business. China is a whole different story, a victim of its own success. While the Qing proved surprisingly adept at navigating the social struggles of the early 1900s, their massive economic success is leading various social groups to agitate for greater political liberties. Headed for a messy three-way civil war that would surely see their border regions spun off into separate nations, all the empire can hope for is British support to give them an edge in the coming conflict. However, such support would put Britain at odds with its newfound ally Russia. Picking the more economically lucrative China would have a terrible knock-on effect in Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. Then again, a more liberal or, god forbid, socialist China could be a powerful enemy.

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Sort of like this, but with even more sides

South East Asia, frankly, is a bit of a mess. The same colonial conundrum as in French Africa is undermining Indochina’s excitement for socialism. By contrast, Dutch-controlled Indonesia extends no further than the island of Java, as political struggles of one type or another have undone the colonial hegemony one island at a time. If a united front can be formed between nationalists, Islamic socialists and secular anarchists, then the killing blow to Batavia is sure to come swiftly. Indonesia is about to become the new socialist success story, and the Oceanian dominions do not enjoy it one bit. Should the imperial house of cards come tumbling down, Australia may be the last stronghold of British traditionalism in the world. Should the worst come to happen, New Guinea needs to be secured as a buffer against the red-and-black hordes. Currently, the biggest blemish on the empire is found in South Asia, where the Raj is about to face the greatest revolt since 1857. To put it down would take a military miracle, and French intelligence considers it the first piece of its ‘Théorie des dominos’…

The Final Analysis

Here we have it then, a setting wrought from the alternate history mods that preceded it. I’m sure that the tendencies identified earlier are noticeable, if sanitized and a little more directed. I would want this narrative to be a strongly anti-imperialist one, acknowledging the worldwide struggle of decolonization that followed our own WW2 and kind of gets neglected in comparison. Many areas of the world are in a political flux, which will resolve itself either before or during the great world war to come. The way I’ve written it here, I hope it’s clear that the US provides the factional wild card; whether liberal democracy sides with autocratic imperialism or democratic socialism might determine the fate of the world entire. Putting it like that, perhaps the parallels to our contemporary politics are a little on the nose. Then again, they say that history repeats itself.

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General Conclusions. Get it?

General Conclusions

Out of everything discussed so far, the dedication of this relatively small fanbase is certainly worth remembering. We’ve seen that people are willing to start decade-long fan projects out of their love for history and the games that simulate it. Considering the lack of any financial gain in pursuing these projects, I’d say that’s a pretty special thing. However, at multiple points in this essay, I have suggested that a nasty undercurrent runs through this labor of love. As much as some gamers pretend at being above-it-all, the current political moment affects us all, and looking into this particular fan community showed that the memory of global conflict could express itself in quite divergent ways. If I can be blunt about it, it’s obvious that some players take great unironic delight in playing Hitler, or whatever other failed fascist might inhabit an alternate history. Perhaps the further one is removed from real history, whether through the abstraction of gameplay or the divergence of an alternate scenario, the more one is able to slip from a detached and playful support of totalitarianism into a genuine endorsement. Then again, maybe the cruel nature of such ideologies descends upon people through other cultural, with these mods just being an avenue for power fantasy.

Of course, it’s not just fascist gamers with a lust for power who take part in this community. While their expressions have been unduly normalized, we also find opposing tendencies, those who look for something constructive about this phenomenon. History is often a tragedy, yet because of this also a good area for study and reflection. Alternate history could be seen as an attempt to grapple with the mechanisms of world history, to explore the bounds of plausibility or to question those boundaries themselves. And yes, alternate histories can become a lamentation for lost causes, for ill or for good. The trick about this is to own it, to take your perspective and make it explicit enough that one can know immediately what meaning you’re trying to express about history. By this measure, we find that many of the mods discussed fall short, probably the effect of a group project driven by raw passion rather than a specific perspective on the past. Even by sheer momentum though, a project can come to take on its own implicit meanings. Kaiserreich is clearly interested in civil wars and the global impact of ideological struggle. Those mods that deal with ‘Nazi victory’ scenarios are not exactly reverent about the ideals of this regime, even if they do take its aspirations at face value. In short, I think that these grand strategy games can be a valuable means of expressing one’s perspective on history, and should be developed in this manner explicitly.

From the preceding, it may seem like these alternate history mods can be just two things: either an ideological power fantasy, or the specific expression of a perspective on history. However, it is in the nature of a medium to shape one’s message, and this may count double so in the case of videogames. By attempting to simulate history, a creator is in a way testing their own hypothesis on how things are supposed to work. Deviations from their vision may be the result of a platform’s idiosyncrasies, but they may also find that their perspective can simply not be simulated, that the rhythms they thought responsible instead defy their expectations. The dynamic of clashing interests between simulation, gameplay, and narrative is a turbulent one, and this should be kept in mind before we consider one of these mods purely one thing or another.

I would like to end on a note of personal anecdote. After all this ruminating on part of a videogame, one may have wondered how I engage with it myself. How do I play Hearts of Iron 4? The answer may surprise you: I do not play it at all. A long time ago, when I first started playing Paradox grand strategy games, I learned of this in-game console command known as ‘observe’. This would take you out of the driver’s seat and basically allow the game to play itself, simulating all participants in the absence of a player. Ever since this discovery, it has become my primary mode of enjoying these games. Seeing as how the simulation interests me more than the strategies, why not turn myself into a contented observer? The point I’m trying to make here is not that my form of player engagement is weird (which it is), but that a creator cannot presume to know how their works are going to be enjoyed, and that this dynamic can be odd, exciting, and sometimes unfortunate. All of this was apparent in our analysis of HOI4’s alternate history mods. Clearly, these are more than just wishful wargames.

 

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