Uncertain pleasures – Into the Breach and Battletech

On an isolated corporate island, the remnants of humanity huddle in the last few tenement buildings. The only thing standing between them and the giant insectoid Kaiju that burrow ever closer are three mechs that drop into the landscape. Meanwhile, in a galaxy far far away, a rag tag crew of ‘Mech Warriors drop into a Martian landscape to face off against pirates, hoping that the bounty and salvage will offset the inevitable cost of repairs.

Despite both being turn-based tactical games, Into the Breach and Battletech both deliver very different takes on the genre, as well as different flavours of mech fantasy. These hinge on two very different adaptations of board game logic. Of course, Battletech is a direct adaptation of the tabletop game of the same name, but unlike the Mechwarrior series of real-time first-person videogames, Harebrained Scheme’s recent adaptation is in a form closer to the analogue source. Meanwhile, Into the Breach by FTL developers Subset Games, while not directly adapting a tabletop property, is clearly influenced by both skirmish war games (like Battletech) but, more importantly, abstract strategy games like Chess.

Battletech manages to offer the player enough ways to mitigate chance to create interesting strategic scenarios.

While Battletech’s encounters take place in large theatres of operation, rendered in full 3D, Into the Breach constrains the action to a small tile grid that hovers isometrically in the centre of your screen. This massive divergence of point of view is fitting since Into the Breach, like Chess, is a game of perfect information, with everything visible all at once; while the more expansive Battletech revels in the unknown, represented by the mysterious radar blip drawing ever closer. To paraphrase former US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld’s enigmatic insight: “There are known knowns… There are known unknowns… But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” Battletech clearly fits more into the latter sentiment.

The enemies in Into the Breach all simultaneously signal their intents at the beginning of the turn, and with all damage values known in advance, the challenge for the player is in dealing with the situation at hand as efficiently as possible. Although enemies could move unpredictably, on a turn-by-turn basis all elements of the game are completely predictable: in game design terms they are purely deterministic. Into the Breach thus plays like those chess problems that are often printed on the puzzle pages of high-brow broadsheets.

Players can take in Into the Breach’s map in a single glance, but figuring out how to deal with it is another matter.

Meanwhile, Battletech revels in the tabloid approach of sensationalism; a shock and awe barrage of long-range missiles or an up-close precision laser cannon strike. In order for the spectacle to work, for the drama to unfold, a certain degree of uncertainty is essential. Weapons each have a percentage chance to hit based on various factors (but are never certain), and even when they do there’s no telling which part of the ‘Mech they will strike. Will they ineffectually spread their damage over a large surface area of armour, or concentrate fire on a single component, literally disarming the enemy? Every decision to act in Battletech, no matter how good the odds, is consequently accompanied by bated breath.

“There are known knowns… There are known unknowns… But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

We might say that Battletech better represents the uncertainties of warfare, where no plan survives contact with the enemy, or even that it better represents the spirit of games, which Greg Costikyan famously associates with a certain degree of uncertainty, in his book Uncertainty in Games.

For Costikyan there are many different forms of uncertainty, and these two games perfectly embody two of them. While Battletech clearly favours the kind of uncertainty that is found in the randomness of a dice roll, Into the Breach employs what he calls ‘solvers uncertainty’, which is down to the player employing their intellectual faculties to solve the puzzles presented by the game.

This doesn’t mean to say that this is the only form of uncertainty each game employs. Into the Breach has some random elements (the kinds of upgrades offered in shops, for instance), and Battletech has an ample amount of strategic depth that allows for the mitigation of its randomness (using precision strikes to increase the odds). Both games also employ, to a lesser extent, other forms of uncertainty such as performative uncertainty (skill), player unpredictability (predicting the AI’s tactics or the players in Battletech’s multiplayer mode), analytic complexity, and hidden information.

Remember the time Sam Beckett Quantum Leaped into a 100ft BattleMech?

There’s one more aspect of uncertainty Costikyan discusses that wraps up our discussion nicely: narrative uncertainty. In short, what happens next? Into the Breach is a rogue-like that uses a narrative context of multiple timelines to justify how players can retry when they fail (by launching a single pilot to a new timeline), thus the minimal narrative perfectly supports the genre’s conventions and gives player the sense that they are jumping from reality to reality, like Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap, in search of that elusive victory. Meanwhile, Battletech, which rather follows the format of shows like Firefly or Cowboy Bebop, follows the fortunes of a rag-tag bunch of bounty hunters as they cruise the galaxy trying to make ends meet. In this context, the uncertainty produced by the randomness creates ample opportunities for dramatic moments and the campaign’s long playtime offers the space for these economic pressures to unfold.

In short, these two games not only utilise very different modes of uncertainty, putting their own spin on the mech fantasy and the turn-based tactical genre, but each one is perfectly suited to the story being told.