Describing Bad Company 2, part 1 of many

Latour’s maxim for where to begin an ANT-like description is ‘in media res’ – in the middle of things. Perhaps we could start in the pilot’s seat of a helicopter. Better yet – we could be even more descriptive than that in saying where we’re starting. Here goes:

My viewpoint is an approximation of the nose-camera pointed out the front of the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. Green HUD elements across the middle of the screen give an indication of the pitch of the craft, as well as its roll, and it is currently pitched forward at a reasonably steep angle, carrying it forward at reasonably high speed. Another human player is firing the left mounted M134 Dillion Minigun at an island swarming with ant-like enemies that is slightly to the front and left of us.

If viewed from the outside, both mine and my gunner’s character models indicate that we are soldiers of the United States Army, as do some on-screen indicators. From the perspective of another member of our team viewing at a great distance (like from the ground to our altitude in the air) a small icon is overlaid in-world. Since we are in a helicopter it is a helicopter icon – if we were on foot it would be a small triangle – and if we were quite close, whether in a vehicle or out, our ‘soldier names’ written in blue would also be displayed. The colour of these icons and text, for teammates, is blue unless the viewer and the viewed are in the same squad, in which case members of the same squad will see their squadmates HUD icons as a luminous yellow-green.

To the enemy, we appear to have no on-screen icons at a distance, unless someone ‘spots’ us. Up close our names would appear fittingly in red, whether spotted or no. The action of ‘spotting’ is done by pressing the ‘social’ function button – the default of which is ‘q’, chosen as such because it rests under the fourth finger of the left hand when playing in the default ‘WASD’ position. This facilitates quick spotting while moving, as the middle/third finger is free to continue to press the ‘W’ or ‘S’ keys moving yourself forward or backwards, and the same goes for the second/index finger, meaning that while ‘spotting’ a player can also press the ‘d’ key, strafing to the right. As long as a player’s keyboard avoids ghosting, a player should be able to perform a ‘spot’ while moving forwards, backwards, strafing right or any combination of the two (barring forwards + backwards as they rest under the same finger).

Spotting (or more accurately described as executing a ‘social’ action since it doubles as ‘spot’ and other contextual actions) is a very quick, but frequently employed action as it identifies enemy combatants to your squadmates (and if done with a specific item with a Recon/Sniper class, to the entire team) resulting in visually striking red triangles appearing on screen for squadmates. To identify enemies requires them to be ‘aimed at’ by a player (this aiming process can be both generous and fickle). Aiming is accomplished with the mouse (BFBC2 may support gamepads but in the PC environment I presume their competitiveness is not comparable). Moving the mouse left/right/up/down on the 2D plane of the desk results in the viewpoint of the character being angled up/down/left/right an amount relative to the settings of the ‘mouse sensitivity’ game option.

The mapping of mouse movement is not quite the same as mapping a 2D plane onto a 3D sphere. Think about possible head angle positions: full 360 degree moment is entirely possible, yet any left/right movement of the mouse, rather than sliding the view-position around the current ‘axis’ of the imaginary 3D head-position sphere actually moves the head around the sphere longitudinally. Similarly, any up/down movement is mapped to moving the head angle relative to latitude, rather than the axis at a given point. To test this, aim straight down/up and move rapidly left/right and observe how fast the player rotates 360 relative to the world, then attempt the same speed of movement with the ‘head’ aimed at the horizon. The difference in the increased movement speed relative to the world lies in there being many more ‘points’ of longitude between a 360degree rotation at the ‘equator’ versus one at either of the north/south poles.

Is this a trivial diversion? Hardly! Unless we are taking for granted the fact that Battlefield Bad Company 2 is an ‘FPS’ game we cannot take for granted the presence or absence of any conventions of the genre, be they implicit or explicit. By identifying the strange translation of 2D hand movements into 3D head movements we’ve uncovered something. Had we just ‘assumed’ that BFBC2 is an FPS (and everything that goes with that) we hardly would have even thought to consider the way mouse movements are translated onto the screen – they would have disappeared into the invisible ‘conventions’ of the Modern PC based FPS. The relevance may be discovered later – it’s much too early to decide which other features, mechanics, and aspects of the game, etc are related to or dependent on this particular head movement (and by extension aiming movement), but the point is to be diligent.

Let’s indulge in a diversion to one brief example, however – the radio tag pistol weapon which fires a dart that adheres to the surface of enemy materiel. Once tagged, friendly engineers may then use their ranged explosive weapons that are compatible with radio tracking to lock onto these vehicles (or indeed, individual soldiers who may also be tagged) and guarantee a more accurate rocket strike. The difficulty of planting the initial RF dart on a flying helicopter, however, is already considerable, taking into account it’s speed and the size of the object on screen when it has some altitude. If one considers how few ‘latitudes’ and of movement are available at the poles, we realise that small mouse movements left and right are translated into large changes when either angled steeply up or down, making it hard to hit an already small target with such an un-fine grained aiming mechanism. The game compensates somewhat by allowing for aiming down the ‘ironsights’, which reduces the rate of movement relative to mouse movement…

But back to aiming. I mentioned earlier that the ‘q’ key performs ‘social’ actions, most often used for ‘spotting’ enemy troops and materiel. The other function arises when pointed at a fellow soldier of a particular class, or when in a vehicle. Point at an ‘assault’ class soldier and activate the social function and your solider will ask for ammo; Point at a medic and he (all soldiers are male in BFBC2) will say something like ‘Hey I need a medic’. Both actions will also make your in-world icon and on your minimap icons change to a flashing cross icon but only for the medics on your team. There is a distance limit outside of which you cannot make a social ‘request’ in this way.

From within a vehicle, if activated while not aiming at any enemies, and if the vehicle you are in is damaged, the social function will cause your character to call out to any nearby engineers over the radio or within earshot for repairs. To any engineers in your team, your icon on the HUD-minimap changes helpfully to one of a flashing spanner. Repairs are accomplished with the ‘repair tool’, an Engineer unique weapon that is selected from the 4th weapon slot (i.e. pressing ‘4’ above the WASD keys) – a slot that it shares with the other ‘social’ items for each class. Pressing the number 4 on the keyboard brings up the social item for each class which can then be used: the engineer’s repair tool looks like an electric screwdriver and has a short range of operation, requiring the operator of the tool to be standing next to the damaged vehicle. It is operated by ‘firing it’ with the left mouse button, at which point it appears to be applied to the surface of the vehicle and begins to emit sparks and a noise like an electric power tool.

The assault class has a grey box with a picture of ammunition on top that when ‘fired’ is thrown onto the ground a short distance in front of the player. It will then remain on the ground for a number of minutes and replenish nearby friendly and enemy soldier’s ammo, rockets, grenades, C4, etc before it disappears. The ammo box is affected by physics, so if an explosion goes off near it, it can be blown some distance away. It can also be shot and will move a small amount, and if the ground underneath it moves or collapses, as in the case of collapsing buildings, for instance, it will obey the physics rules of the game engine. The same applies for the medic’s social object, being an identically shaped box but of a different colour (an olive green) with a Red Cross type image on the top. It will similarly replenish friendly and enemy troops health at a slow rate over time and behaves physically much like the assault class’s ammo box.

The last social object, which belongs to the Recon class is the ‘motion mine’, which is brought up by similarly pressing 4 (maintaining consistency between all the social objects) and is then thrown like a grenade. The distance the motion mine travels, however, is (and I’m estimating here) probably close to twice that of a regular grenade, as the ball-like motion mine seems to bounce and roll for quite a distance. From the point at which it’s thrown the motion mine is ‘active’ and sends out something akin to radar, centred on the mine and emanating for a radius of approx 40-50 meters on either side, which then displays on the HUD-minimap the location of all moving enemy players and/or vehicles. This information is transmitted to the entire team – remember that ‘q’ button-activated ‘social’ spotting is only relayed to your squad-mates normally, making the motion mine a more valuable, localized version of the ‘spot’. Adding to its value is the fact that it doesn’t require the spotter to be able to ‘see’ the spotted).

If at this point, you are expecting to find some kind of ‘conclusion’ you’d best prepare yourself for disappointment. “But what does all this mean?” I can almost hear someone say from across those thousands of miles of under-sea internet cable. Well, it doesn’t mean anything more or less than has already been described. As Latour pointed out, and I cannot stress this point enough, “If a description remains in need of an explanation, it means that it is a bad description.

In our case, if I can be so bold as to beg your patience, what we have here is less ‘bad’ description as an incomplete one. Remember that what we are trying to do here is not write a ‘critical essay’, we are trying to describe how and why a very specific online game operates. The critical essay will not do this for you! We need new tools, and description is the best I can think of. I like to think that this first, very tentative, very meandering attempt at description has strengthened that argument. In future, I may organise my descriptions a bit more tightly, but again, that seems to miss Actor-Network Theory and Bruno Latour’s key insight – you cannot always define the limits of your description in advance, as the lines of connected relations will always stretch out to include dependencies otherwise outside of your scope. Perhaps that’s becoming clear as we wander through the strange landscape of Battlefield Bad Company 2; It’s certainly an emerging reality for me.

In place of a ‘conclusion’ we have a summary: where have we been so far, and what have we seen? We have been inside the cockpit of a Helicopter, and seen how it looks (with very little mention of how it actually flies yet, but we’re in no hurry – hopefully we’ll get there). We have traced the movements of a mouse onto the movements of an in-game viewpoint and found that it’s a more complicated proposition than initially considered. We’ve also seem some of the functioning of the social button, mapped typically onto ‘q’ and resting under the 4th finger of the left hand. We also cared to look at the social objects of each class and how each is deployed, via the number 4, close at hand to the WASD position.

If after all this you are still looking for an explanation, I might again suggest that perhaps the current description is incomplete. So be patient, prepare yourself to slow things down, and walk methodically, eschewing shortcuts like generalisation, shorthand and assumed knowledge, and we’ll come back later and try to pick up where we left off.