Jagged Alliance 2 is a short book. It seems inconceivable that author Darius Kazemi would be able to fit a complete account of how a game was made in less than 150 pages, but he does this completely naturally. This book provides you with a complete picture of how a game is made, from the state of the industry at the time, to the cultural circumstances that affected the game, and even examines the game’s source code in detail.
Jagged Alliance 2 is a turn-based strategy game developed by Sir-Tech. In a turn-based strategy game, you control a set of units on a board, issue them commands during your turn, then wait while your opponent takes its turn. You most often play against the computer. In the introduction, Kazemi defines his goal for the book as a criticism that is as objective as possible, with no baseless interpretation of the game’s content or starry-eyed nostalgia. This is obviously an unattainable goal, a fact which the author immediately concedes after setting it. As the book uses interviews from people involved in Jagged Alliance 2’s development, their accounts will naturally conflict and some interpretation is necessary. However, whether analysing the artificial intelligence of Jagged Alliance 2 or examining how gun culture affected the development of the game, Kazemi uses quotes from interviews and excerpts from the game’s code to paint a unmistakable of Jagged Alliance 2 and the circumstances in which it was developed.
Jagged Alliance 2 presents the history of the game and Sir-Tech, the company that developed it, in a narrative format. However, it’s done with minimum input from the author, with the voices of Jagged Alliance 2’s developers taking the main focus. Ian Currie, the designer of Jagged Alliance and its sequel Jagged Alliance 2, is presented as the mastermind behind the game. The first chapter of the book tells the story of how Ian Currie developed the game Freakin’ Funky Fuzzballs during his free time while working on a railroad. This game was published by Sir-Tech, who eventually hired him. After shipping Freakin’ Funky Fuzzballs, Curie designed Jagged Alliance and its sequel, which the book mainly focuses on. The book avoids an easy pitfall by not making it seem like Curie was the only person responsible for Jagged Alliance 2’s creation - it puts just as much emphasis on the voices of the others who worked on the game, from the artists, the level designers, and even the managers of Sir-Tech.
Throughout the book, Kazemi shows the cultural and industry shifts that caused the success of Jagged Alliance 2 and why we don’t have games like it anymore. Sir-Tech was a Canadian company, and according to the author they strove to incorporate their country’s multiculturalistic values into the game, giving players a diverse cast to choose from. This is contrasted to gun culture in America - most of the first games fans were deeply entrenched in gun culture. Darius Kazemi shows how this affected the development of Jagged Alliance 2, as the developers felt pressured to include more guns in the game to appeal to their audience. Kazemi points out that one of the main differentiating features of Jagged Alliance when compared to XCOM, another turn-based strategy game that was released shortly before, is its diverse cast, but he neglects to mention how these same factors affected XCOM. Since XCOM was a sci-fi game, did it need to portray itself as a realistic simulation in order to win the support of its fans, or did it have an entirely different audience altogether? Was it possible that having a less diverse cast made it more appealing to its audience, as they could project their own attributes onto the characters? When trying to be objective, Kazemi simply presents facts and attempts to let them speak for themselves, with a minimal amount of analysis on his part.
One of the most interesting parts of Jagged Alliance 2 is when the author delves into the code of the game, giving a line-by-line rundown of how the game’s artificial intelligence works. Artificial intelligence can seem overwhelmingly complex when observed in action, and it’s tempting to think about it as a concept beyond mortal understanding, approachable only by savants. Darius Kazemi breaks Jagged Alliance 2’s AI down into what it is: a set of simple rules, working together in a system to create something that appears to be smart. This chapter also has one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen in a codebase. Jagged Alliance 2’s developers embedded an essay about game design, artificial intelligence, and how to combine them in a fun way in the source code of the game. In game development, you would expect to find this in the game design document for the game. Most source code only has comments when necessary, like “this function is broken.” Jagged Alliance 2 brings a side that you don’t see from a lot of videogame criticism - it not only talks about the technical aspect, but examines it in detail as something that was created by people who were making something they loved.
Jagged Alliance 2 presents in detail how a combination of circumstances combined in exactly the right way to create a game that could not have existed otherwise. While it has some shortcomings, it goes above and beyond what you would expect of games criticism, deconstructing the game down to its source code. If you are interested in game development, I would suggest you buy this book immediately, as it provides some amazing insights about game design, the game industry, and how they have evolved since Jagged Alliance 2 was released. I would even suggest reading this book if you have any remote interest in video games - it presents a fascinating story and shows a complete picture of how a video game is made, something that isn’t seen a lot. Rather than focus on just the cultural impact of Jagged Alliance 2, the code, or the game itself, Darius Kazemi chooses to focus on every single aspect that makes up the game. While this broad critique may miss things along the way, it provides a complete view of a video game and all the parts that make it up.
Title: Jagged Alliance 2
Author: Darius Kazemi
Published: August 25, 2014
Genre: Game History, Non-Fiction