REVISITING THE COLD WAR FROM A POLISH PERSPECTIVE, PHANTOM DOCTRINE UNITES THE WORLD AGAINST HIGHER POWER
Looking for your strategy fix? You won’t want to miss this.
Achange of perspective is often healthy. We look on others through our own eyes, not taking into account their experience. We judge those we aren’t fans of by the standards of those we are. We look at history through a predefined lens – one which doesn’t take into account the experiences that millions of others have had in other parts of the world. Phantom Doctrine isn’t a game aiming to change the very notion of how the West sees the cold War, but coming from a polish developer, it’s always going to have an underlying difference to the end product. paweł kroenke, narrative designer on Phantom Doctrine, makes it clear the turnbased strategy title’s usp isn’t just ‘made from a different perspective’. “We didn’t aim for, ‘okay, let’s make the cold War, easternstyle’,” he says, “this is a game about operating independently, as the player, so your organisation is not tied to any political identity – or to any ideology, in fact. you’re fighting a global conspiracy, one so big it transcends national borders.” Phantom Doctrine doesn’t throw the player into a fight between east and West like might be expected. “it’s a fight about spies, who are not nice guys, against a global conspiracy, backed by even less nice guys. it’s really vague, and post-modern maybe.”
"PHANTOM DOCTRINE CAN BE COMPARED TO XCOM AND THE X-FILES, DEALING AS IT DOES WITH GLOBAL CONSPIRACY"
at the same time, the simple fact is Phantom Doctrine comes from a polish studio, from a team made up of mostly polish nationals, and it wasn’t too long ago that poland was on the other side of the iron curtain. kroenke admits this unique perspective is sure to have had some impact on the game: “Because most of the guys on the team are polish, and most of the guys lived in the communist era, they all have old history and stories in the family – and those stories are about what people didn’t like,” he explains, “But it still has a tint of this eastern perspective on the whole thing. it’s maybe not the main focus, but i still think you will see something that we just wouldn’t think about because we haven’t lived in the West. at the same time, i think it will be viewed by the Western player, because it will be ‘weird’, as ‘this is unusual, this is not how things work here’.” that change in perspective is sure to get more eyes on Phantom Doctrine than it might otherwise have achieved. While creativeforge games did achieve modest success with its previous turn-based strategy game, Hard West, that certainly wasn’t enough to whip players into a frenzy about what was coming next from the studio. fortunately, Phantom Doctrine is positioning itself as something just different enough to catch players’ attention, while at the same time mixing in a bunch of familiar aspects – familiar to those who played Hard West, and certainly familiar to fans of the xcom series. it’s the comparison with the firaxis greats that brings up another inspiration from creativeforge’s original idea in the shape of The X-files. “the first page of our design doc on the game includes the words ‘x-files’ as one of the main inspirations, and to be perfectly honest, that wouldn’t be my first choice,” kroenke laughs. “When X-files was on tv, i was nine, maybe, and even then, to me it was completely ridiculous. sometimes it was climactic and spooky and stuff, but a lot of the time it was pretty absurd. especially the alien-based episodes and stuff. “so when they told me, ‘We’re going to make this X-files game’, i was kind of like, ‘i’m not sure what we’re going to do – aliens?’” he continues. “and they’re like, ‘Well, no, no aliens, because we want this to be a serious game.’ ‘okay, so what do we do, like the Bigfoot and all the legends… like telepathy, some paranormal stuff?’ ‘no, we actually want it to be realistic, so none of this.’ ‘okay, so what are we looking at?’ ‘like government conspiracy’. this is what the original appeal of the X-files was for most people.” all of this means Phantom Doctrine is still something that can be compared fairly to xcom, dealing as it does with global conspiracy – and of course turn-based strategy – but the well being drawn from went a bit deeper than just emulating the best in the genre. “We went from this, and we looked for other references that were more of a fit for the era that we selected for the game: the early eighties,” kroenke says. “that was helpful as it gave us more inspiration, a wider array of things to pull from. We went into those spy movies and all kinds of spy fiction. But because this was supposed to be realistic and serious, we didn’t go for James Bond, who was like bigger-than-life and over the top.” instead, the team veered more in the direction of the ‘stale beer’ wing of spy fiction
– your trenchcoats and realistic cases, John le carré and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, anything that errs more on the side of gritty, sombre reality. “We felt that this fits the game very well,” kroenke says. “and this is an environment where we can build the conspiracy, and just see how far it takes us.” all these words count for nothing, of course, if the game itself doesn’t live up to the plans. fortunately, the team at creativeforge, which has ”basically doubled“in size since Hard West, has nailed the atmosphere. players are met with distinct, differing mechanics in and outside of missions, with the pre-mission time spent piecing together clues in order to pick up new leads, sending agents around the world to gather intelligence and, rather brilliantly, engaging in a robust psy-ops campaign if your base currently holds any captured enemy agents. this latter element allows a number of different approaches, with the one we employed being a straightforward brainwashing attempt. if successful, the enemy agent is reprogrammed to respond to a trigger from your agents in the field before being released back into the welcoming arms of their original agency. encounter this agent again in a mission and you can use them as an additional unit on the ground; an agent beginning behind enemy lines, quite literally with back door access to objectives. of course, this sort of reprogramming can backfire and be used against your own agents – it’s not just a cheat button in disguise – but it’s a devious delight to turn an enemy against their own people with absolutely no warning. the aforementioned gathering of leads is another area in which Phantom Doctrine nails its stale beer influences – you’re literally plopped in front of a corkboard and are left to pin up and rearrange codewords, photos, information and more, stringing them together to form cohesive links and actionable intel. on the one hand, it can be a bit pernickety, demanding that every precise link between specific clues is found before information is unlocked. however, all of that staring at a screen, moving pictures and string and pins around… it’s just spot on. at least to what we think being a cold War spy would be like. not that we’d know. ahem. Moving into missions, any player of Hard West or xcom will be right at home from the start. players are dropped into the fray not with guns blazing or combat gear shimmering in the rain, but quietly, and donned in casual slacks – this is infiltration; cloak and dagger deception, not compartmentalised war. areas are marked as freely accessible or restricted, and it’s up to the player to approach situations however they see fit with their team of (secretly) kitted out agents. as a quick example, we opted to use our off-site sniper – silenced and with a multi-turn cooldown between shots – to eliminate one problematic guard, before successfully disarming alarm systems, activating a brainwashed enemy agent, infiltrating the enemy installation in disguise and exfiltrating without ever being seen or having to harm another person. other approaches are available, of course, and it’s equally valid to go into things weapons hot, tackling your opposition in a hail of bullets and neck-snaps from the shadows. technically you can go in all guns blazing too, if you want, but Phantom Doctrine isn’t a game that takes it easy on you. any attempt to overwhelm the much more well-equipped enemy force, mainly comprising soldiers, didn’t go down too well. Basically, there’s choice in the game, but it’s all framed from the perspective that you’re striking from the shadows. you’re a team of spies, not the world’s greatest supersoldiers. unless you engage in some hardcore body engineering, of course, which results in faster, smarter, stronger agents – but generally speaking, they’re just normal people with honed skills. if it all feels a bit similar to the direction the studio was taking with Hard West, you’d be bang on – this is a learning process for the growing polish team, and its Warsaw base of operations is growing both in staff and confidence with each passing week. “this is sort of a continuation of
what the company was doing with Hard West,” kroenke says. “it was also a turn-based technical game, and it was very small, but it was very restrained. When we finished Hard West, we felt that we had so much more to add to the genre, and we had many more ideas that we wanted to try out. We also felt like we need to make another step up in terms of quality and polish, so Phantom Doctrine has a bigger budget, and we used all the experience we got making Hard West in this game in order to make it the best we can do, basically.” that experience going into the game means a deeper, more robust set of rpg-like systems and a smarter, more complex overall system behind everything. it also means no more westerns for the time being, as most of those in the studio haven’t been able to even watch a movie featuring cowboys since completing work on Hard West. at the same time, though, the setting of Phantom Doctrine wasn’t taken lightly. “We had a bunch of proposals in terms of what we could do with setting,” kroenke explains. “setting is actually a big thing for a company, because we believe that if we make an original setting with a cool twist and something that we haven’t seen much before, it’s going to add value to the product. “this proved to be true with Hard West, where people said the whole atmosphere of the game was probably one of the biggest assets. We definitely wanted to capitalise on that with Phantom Doctrine.” the decision to turn to the cold War came about because of its seemingly obvious marriage with a turn-based strategic setting – and the chance to send a group of agents on missions around the world was one creativeforge couldn’t pass up on. oh, plus the whole ‘real life’ thing to link it to, of course. “there are so many cool stories told in movies and books and in real life about the cold War,” kroenke says, “that we could exploit to create an experience that hasn’t been done before.” the increase in scope and ambition isn’t something kroenke or the rest of the team is downplaying, either – this is a team that’s very proud of how it is growing and increasing and improving. “everywhere you look, it has more stuff than Hard West had,” kroenke says. “this feels like a legitimate production. the other title was an indie title, and we basically had to scrounge every penny on Hard West just to release the game. here we could allow some experimentation and some iteration.“of course, it’s not all plain sailing, and early versions of Phantom Doctrine were scrapped for being ”disastrous“, requiring players to juggle way too many elements at the same time. But it’s all a learning process. “We made a prototype,” kroenke says. “and then we had to again and again, just make it usable. Maybe it was fine, but to just make it work, to get a bit of sophistication and streamlining.” previously, the team would have just cut a feature rather than spending time – and money – on trying to perfect it. this time around there are far fewer limits imposed, thanks to an improved financial situation and a bit more
time to get everything right. “for Phantom Doctrine we’ve had several versions, and have just make them more polished and better-designed overall, because we had these completely comfortable conditions of having more people on board and more time and more money just to try out new things.” this experimental, iterative approach to development shows, with Phantom Doctrine offering layers on layers to pick through as a player and help customise their experience. there’s even the promise of three distinct campaigns, with the third only unlocking after one of the first two have been completed. that third campaign will be more than just an optional, hidden extra, instead offering a concrete, defining narrative to get stuck into. and, of course, it’s not just the storyline as a whole that the devs want players to come back to; the in-game events are robust enough to see some deep changes as you play, and the strategy aims to be deep enough that even experts will be kept on their toes. We definitely felt a pang of the classic Police Quest: SWAT 2 while playing. one area you might not consider when it comes to a growing studio is just how to manage a project of a size you’ve not handled before. as kroenke points out, it’s not all been plain sailing so far. “one of the tenets of the company is that the three major departments: art, design and coding work not exactly separately, but they’re managed separately,” he says. “it’s not like a designer can tell an artist what to do. the task has to come from the art management. this kind of prevents great synergy and a very close co-operation, because that would require us to increase responsibilities, and gets kind of messy in a bigger picture.” While the studio might be growing beyond its ‘a few people in a room’ indie roots, there is still plenty of co-operation throughout the single-floor office on the outskirts of the city. “the story and the game design are very close,” kroenke says. “When i was tackling the story almost on my own, i also did a lot of game design for the production. We have a very close connection between game mechanics and the story. a lot of the story progressed through regular game mechanics, and some of it is scripted, but it uses a lot of regular systems.” and there was one area in which everyone was on the same page almost from day one: Phantom Doctrine is a dark game, both in setting and mood. “it’s not cheerful at all,” kroenke laughs. “it has some jokes, but it’s not like it’s the most lighthearted set of characters,” he explains. “the stuff you do is serious, and the problems you face are serious, and the extent of these 12 conspiracies you’re up against… it’s kind of numbing, in a way. When you’re faced with an enemy who is decentralised. they don’t have a big leader; they don’t have a single base of operations; they’re everywhere, basically. you kind of discover their end game, their main plot, and you can dismantle this whole plot, you can stop it… but you’re far from defeating the whole conspiracy.” to know it’s still there, that the conspiratorial group will try again – this is the world you’re a part of in Phantom Doctrine. it’s dark, it’s tough and it’s not exactly riddled with hope. in short, it seems very much a product of the world beyond the iron curtain. it’s not a game about the cold War, but Phantom Doctrine stands out both as one set during the tumultuous time and as one made by a studio located in what was once a hotbed of intrigue beyond the West’s reach. it’s not going to directly challenge the established normal in gaming, which tends towards a us-centric worldview and understanding of events, but Phantom Doctrine will do a good job of showing us a different perspective on world history. More than that, it will show us the growth of a promising studio and an addition to the strategy genre that brings with it some fine ideas. We guarantee we’re not trying to brainwash you on that.
What would an international spy organisation be without the ability to brainwash enemy agents? nothing, that’s what. Fortunately, Phantom Doctrine lets you do that and more.
If you want to run in, guns blazing, you can do just that and the game will cater to you. unless you’re well equipped, though, it’ll probably all go wrong.