Fireside this week! It’s been a while, eight weeks in a row without a fireside. For what’s coming up in future weeks, I’m working on a longer discussion of Expeditions: Rome and how it treats Roman history. After that, we’ll have a look at the art of pre-modern generalship as compared to the remarkably ‘frictionless’ command in games like the Total War series, inter alia. I’m not sure why we ended up with a whole lot of history-in-video-games in a row here, but no one seems to mind, so that’s good.
For this week’s musing, I hope you will all let me indulge in a bit of game’s criticism, specifically aimed at Elden Ring, a game I am really enjoying but which is also a fascinating cultural product. I have been particularly struck by the way the game treats gender, something I found myself paying attention to because I was taking close note of much of the armor in the game for a possible ‘kit review.’
FromSoftware (the Japanese developer behind Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekeiro and Elden Ring) has a philosophy to how they treat armor which I quite appreciate. Some FromSoft armor is realistic, much of it is absurd fantasy, but it is armor. The game does do some reshaping; textile elements in particular will conform to your character’s general build and armor is scaled to your size even if it was originally worn by a creature many times larger than you. But beyond that, the armor continues to be shaped as it was; crucially armor does not change based on your character’s gender.
In this, Elden Ring and the rest of FromSoft’s body of work avoids the problem of many games (especially MMORPGs), where the appearance of equipment changes dramatically based on the gender of the wearer, with male characters typically getting bulky, effective-looking (if overwrought) armor and female characters wearing the same armor getting something designed to show off their body rather than protect it, despite wearing the same armor. Historically, I should note, we don’t see evidence for specialized armor by gender. While armor has to be made to fit, the nature of actual armor – with layers of padding, somewhat loose-hanging mail or globular shapes designed to deflect blows – means that the overall shape of armor doesn’t change much – often not at all – to conform to a male or female figure.1 And so, when a female character dons a plate cuirass in Elden Ring, it remains shaped like a plate cuirass.
And that fits with the overall feel of the world of Elden Ring in that it is a worth where women fight and that isn’t treated as strange. A number of NPCs (e.g. Latenna, Nepheli Loux, Millicent) and bosses are women fighters; likewise many game’s ‘spirit ashes’ (summonable warriors to aid you in a fight) are clearly the spirits of women fighters (e.g. Tricia, Finlay, Tiche). This is a world – like the real one – where a weapon doesn’t care about the gender of whoever wields it, but also where there don’t seem to be strong social norms against women fighting (unlike nearly all pre-modern societies).
At the same time, gender isn’t a non-factor in the world of Elden Ring. First off, while it is clearly not unusual for women to fight in Elden Ring’s world, there are still clearly a lot fewer female fighters than male fighters. Nearly all of the rank-and-file soldiers in the service of various armies are male, for instance. That doesn’t mean, to be clear, that there are no female ‘mooks’ – a lot of the ‘Nox’ warriors in the two Eternal Cities are women, for instance; but women are fairly rare in the ‘rank and file’ of Elden Ring‘s armies. In this sense, Elden Ring is reflective of its time (that is, now): while women in military service is no longer unusual in most countries, most service personnel are still male: women make up 14.4% of active duty U.S. military personnel and perhaps more relevantly for Elden Ring’s cultural background, just 7.4% of the Japan Self-Defense Force. We live in a society where women can fight, but where fighting in war remains a disproportionately male activity.
But I would also say that there is strong evidence of a male design sensibility at work in the game too. While Elden Ring does not have an obvious romance plot (one of the alternate ending paths are pretty clearly coded this way in terms of its imagery), I think it’s also pretty clear that part of the use of female characters in the game is hinging on the way that straight male players are likely to see them. The lore of the game is structured this way: the player is attempting to become a Lord, a process that (you are told by NPCs) is aided by a ‘Finger Maiden,’ and requires becoming the ‘consort’ of one of a couple of female divine beings.2 There are some gender assumptions here, even though absolutely none of this changes if the player opts to play as a female character.
In particular the game leans heavily into using female characters as supportive ‘guides’ for the player (a trend through many of FromSoft’s games – the ‘maiden’ character – the Maiden-in-Black, Firekeepers, the Emerald Herald, the Doll, etc.). Given that these games exist in worlds of lies and half-truths, it is hard not to see the use of gender here as both a signal of the vulnerability of these characters and also their essential trustworthiness; it is a shortcut, assuming a (straight) male player, of building trust and attachment. In Elden Ring, this is particularly striking because – not to get too far into spoilers – many of the alternate endings involve essentially trading from your initial soft-spoken female guide character to one of a few other different soft-spoken female guide characters. By contrast, the main male character who doles out exposition is both gruff and rude to you and also, perhaps unsurprisingly, betrays you and attempts eventually to stop your quest.
And frankly, while the game lacks the sort of obvious romance subplot, I think it is clear that the developers designed with an eye towards how a male player is going to process romance interest through the game. One of the first characters you meet calls you ‘maidenless’ (meaning you don’t have that guiding, supporting NPC), a line which the playerbase immediately ran with for the humor of it, but I don’t think this is just an awkward translation; the (male) NPC who says that line, if attacked, retaliates with a bouquet of flowers. FromSoft is in on the joke here. Likewise, the game features ways to leave messages for other players; the words you can use for these messages are intentionally limited, but ‘lover’ is included in the message set which again, lends itself not just to this kind of humor but also for players to indicate the presence of friendly (almost always female) NPCs with the message, ‘lover ahead.’ Again, FromSoft is in on the joke and has actively designed for it.
I am not an expert on Japanese culture, but I assume some of this strikes me as odd precisely because it is crossing a cultural divide in reaching me. Western games are actually far quicker to make supportive characters more gender neutral (think Anderson from Mass Effect for a male version of a character filling much the same supportive role as a FromSoft maiden) than they are to allow for gender-neutral armor and clothing (to take Mass Effect again as an example, female Shepherd still wears ‘boob plate.’). A western RPG that had gender-neutralized equipment is likely, I suspect, to have also written its story in a way that isn’t going to result in a collection of FromSoft style ‘maidens’ (and they absolutely won’t all be called ‘maidens.’), while a game that does feature those FromSoft style ‘maidens’ made by a western studio is likely to have a pre-set, locked in male main character.
In any case, please don’t take this for me trying to ‘cancel’ Elden Ring or FromSoft. Rather I think the game is fascinating, a ‘deep text’ where there is a lot of layered meaning, imagery and content to be mined out and examined. There a lot of cultural context here and not just in gender. The game’s mythical imagery, for instance, is a glorious pastiche of Christian and Norse imagery, often twisted or repurposed in interesting ways that is just crying out for a full academic analysis. Dissertations ought to be written on the symbolism and embedded cultural context of this game and of FromSoft’s larger oeuvre; given the impact these games continue to have on the broader genre, I suspect they will be.
On to Recommendations!
First I want to note that our diligent volunteer narrator, AGreatDivorce, has been busy at work providing audio versions for a number of posts. From the Ukraine-related series, “Understanding the War in Ukraine,” “How the Weak Can Win” and “Nuclear Deterrence 101” all now have audio versions. In addition, the entire five-post series on “Bread: How Did They Make It?” from farming all the way to the bread at the end, has gotten an audio version (the link there points to the playlist of the whole thing).
I should also note that I have done some writing and such in other places. Over at Foreign Policy, I’ve written about “What Makes Armies Commit Atrocities?” – an article covering the institutional, organizational culture and command factors that lead armies to commit atrocities, of the sort we are seeing committed by Russian forces in Ukraine. If you missed it, I also wrote a review of Expeditions: Rome for Foreign Policy; the planned Collections post on the game is going to expand on some of those observations, but also make a few different ones. I also recorded a podcast with Three Moves Ahead on how imperialism is depicted in strategy games.
On a lighter note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the only good April Fools joke on the internet, which is Roel Konijnendijk spending a day over on r/AskHistorians as everyone’s favorite shouty man, Leonidas, King of Sparta. I’m sorry…LEONIDAS, KING OF SPARTA. This has become something of an annual tradition and it is amazing.
For those looking to keep track of the war in Ukraine, War on the Rocks has done a series of podcasts with Michael Kofman as the conflict has evolved. Hopefully they’ll keep these up as they provide a useful analysis that goes beyond just telling you what happened to explaining what that might mean and its broader implications. Likewise the daily updates from the Institute for the Study of War, for those looking for a fairly granular effort to track the general progress of the war.
Over on History.Net, Wayne Lee has an article on the logistics of grass and, essentially, how Steppe nomads (with particular reference to the Mongols) invented operational art in order to cope with the challenges of moving large armies of steppe nomads. It’s a great article and builds on some of what we’ve discussed with Steppe subsistence systems and also ties in with our book recommendation on operations.
Finally, for this week’s book recommendation, I’m going to recommend B.A. Friedman, On Operations: Operational Art and Military Disciplines (2021). This book is valuable in two ways: on the one hand it is structured in such a way as to serve as a useful primer for the new student looking to understand what operations and operational art are. That’s very important and valuable because war at the operational scale exists at a tricky point: too big to simply be seen (or shown effectively in a movie, game or TV show), but at the same time if just depicted as lines moving on a map, much of the detail work that goes into making those lines move on a map is lost. For the newcomer, this book is going to fill in that gap and that is incredibly useful.
At the same time, this is a book with an argument about how operations should be understood and how they should not be understood. Responding to many of the same themes we’ve touched on here about the danger of elevating operational concerns into the strategic level, Friedman disputes the very idea of an operational ‘level’ that is co-equal with tactics and strategy. He backs this argument up with a good account of the history of the development of the idea of operations, while at the same time noting that people had been doing operations for a long time (see W. Lee’s article linked above for more on that!). In the end, he finds operational art – ‘the disciplines necessary to enable tactics’ – a useful concept, but the operational ‘level’ – to often a backdoor to usurping strategy (Friedman has a glorious quip here, “Prussia and then Germany’s failure to heed Clausewitz’s admonishment took the form of the military side of the civil-military relationship dominating the other. The Soviets failed in the only way Marxist-Leninists could, predictably and through the complete subjugation of the military profession to totalitarian might.” Glorious) – is to be discarded. One can agree or disagree with that argument (I find it more persuasive than not), but even if it isn’t accepted, the book has equipped the reader to understand what operations is.
Friedman then goes on to lay out the principles of operational art, dealing with all of its component elements: administration, information flow, operations themselves, coordinating fires, logistics, command and control and so on. The chapters on these topics are short, but give the reader – especially a civilian reader – a basis to understand a lot of what an army is doing in an operation, especially a lot of the ‘hidden’ activities essential for its success. Friedman also breaks down a ‘campaign taxonomy’ of different kinds of objectives and methods campaigns might have and ends with a series of case studies. The whole thing is written accessibly and without too much jargon (acronyms are all explained), so this is a book the non-military lay-reader can make use of.
If there is one shortcoming to the book, it is the lack of diagrams and maps (there are a few tables), especially in the concluding case studies. Fortunately the case studies are by no means obscure and so the reader can easily pull up a map on Wikipedia or similar resource to follow along without becoming too lost, but one still wishes some custom made maps were in the volume, especially for a volume on operations. That said, at just about $30 for the hardcover, one cannot complain about the value here! If you want to understand where the idea of operations comes from, what operational art is, and in general how it is done and what it is concerned with, this is the book for you.
- Now there is a separate point here about armor designed particularly to accentuate the gender-characteristics of the wearer. Given things like muscle-cuirasses and oversized armored cod-pieces, the idea of armor for women designed to draw attention to that fact is hardly unreasonable.
- It is clear that the consort-goddess pairing does not need to be male-female. To say with minimal spoilers, there is one (male) boss enemy who has abducted and is holding a male potential-divinity for this purpose, though that opens its own whole can of worms where the only same-sex pairing in the game I am aware of is presented as non-consensual. Interestingly, the player cannot select this divine being to become their consort; they have a choice of two beings, both coded female.