ArmA III's Laws of War, and the Humanitarian Side of Conflict

By Rick Lane on at

Bohemia Interactive has made its name with realistic military simulators. Since the days of Operation Flashpoint up to their most recent game, ArmA III, the developer has prided itself on authentic depictions of large-scale, combined-arms warfare. But their focus has always been on the mechanisms of war – the weapons and vehicles, the tactics, bullet-trajectories and terrain.

With the upcoming DLC, that is about to change. Laws of War focuses on an area of war that is rarely-explored in gaming: the humanitarian factor. It's an expansion that explores how both soldiers and non-combat operatives deal with civilians in a warzone, asking questions like what happens once the war ends? Who does the clearing up? And what scars are left behind?

“We feel that this whole topic is just really important to war and conflict in general,” says Joris-Jan van t' Land, Creative Director on ArmA III. “The training in IHL [International Humanitarian Law] is  a very important part of military training, especially for professional armies. So we feel it contributes to the whole authentic nature of ArmA.”

Bohemia has also been inspired by ongoing current events. Although ArmA III takes places in 2035, and so has no real-world basis in any conflict past or present, Bohemia want to reflect how the nature of war has shifted in the last couple of years, exemplified by events in places such as Syria. “When IHL and the Geneva Convention were first formalised we were still in a world where most of the wars were between nation-states. So, in a way the wars were more - I dunno even how to put it - but clean?” says van t' Land. “Now of course war is much more asymmetrical, where you have these non-nation-state actors who, they basically slap IHL in the face and they break everything that it stands for. So it's a very relevant topic.”

It's also a subject that could get Bohemia into hot water if the developer went about it the wrong way. To ensure that the DLC's representation of IHL and the procedures of non-governmental organisations is accurate, the developers have been working with the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC]. “They gave us a sort of lecture workshop about the topic to introduce us to all of the basic parts of it,” says van t' Land. “One very clear example is the way we have the red crystal symbol on our unarmed military medical vehicles. It was suggested by them to do that instead of the red cross, because the red crystal is a more universal symbol that they would like to spread more and more.”

The Laws of War DLC introduces a broad range of new features which reveal  much how ArmA III and is community has evolved and diversified in the years since the game's release. The most straightforward of these is a new mini-campaign, the Remnants of War. Remnants casts players as Nathan MacDade, a former military specialist Explosive Ordnance Disposal, who now works for a non-governmental organisation called the International Development and Aid Program, or IDAP for short.

The story is framed around a Skype interview between MacDade and an investigative journalist about events at a town named Oreokastro, where IDAP has been sent to clear the town of mines and generally make it fit for human habitation. “Through this conversation, we go back in time along one sort of timeline to see different perspectives on what happened to this town,” says Jay Crowe, lead designer on Laws of War. “And through doing that explore the topic of IHL and maybe show its complexities.”

Like many of the series' previous campaigns, Remnants of War will blend linear play with more open-world exploration. The story itself is told through a strict sequence of missions. But during these missions players can explore Oreokastro for what van t' Land refers to as “memory fragments”, which transport players back to events that occurred in the town during the war.

“There's a certain degree of choice that the players have,” Jay Crowe explains. “But you get to play as these other characters, these roles, and the narrator reacts to what you do. So there is some wiggle room in terms of how you choose to complete the tasks. And what we tried to do is take these small decisions, or these things that maybe seem inconsequential, these actions, and then we show you 'This is what happened if you make this choice. This is how it relates to or breaks or bends the rules of international humanitarian law.'”

The campaign has been developed to give ArmA III players something substantial to get their teeth into. But it also acts as a springboard for ArmA III's multiplayer and how the Laws of War DLC will add to it. ArmA III is a highly community-driven game, moreso than any of Bohemia's previous military sims. This longevity has resulted largely from custom scenarios created by the community, while its online players are a diverse mixture of roleplayers and 'milsim' enthusiasts who partake in regular military exercises and take things like the rules of engagement very seriously.

It's here where Bohemia's plans for Laws of War become particularly interesting. Laws of War will introduce IDAP as a playable faction within the game, adding in new vehicles, clothing, and equipment such as an improved minesweeper into the game. “What they focus on is humanitarian aid delivery. So they have transport vehicles, these types of things,” van t' Land says. “De-mining is very big part of what we also cover in our mini-campaign. So they have this special drone that, it doesn't really exist like that in the real-world. But we've taken inspiration from some up-and-coming prototypes. It's basically a drone that can both detect mines and other explosive remnants of war. But also it can drop a small charge to detonate them.”

Curiously, the DLC's focus on humanitarian issues has also meant the introduction and alteration to some of the weapons in the game. Most notably, cluster-munitions. “We added a simulation of some of the small bomblets from the cluster-bombs not exploding on impact, and so effectively they turn into landmines,” says van t' Land. “It creates a real interesting new dynamic that, yes you could still technically break IHL and use cluster bombs, but then you have to deal with the long-term effects, not only for civilians but also for your own faction.”

Bohemia has been somewhat limited in terms of how it can explore these themes in a systemic sense. ArmA III is now four years old, older still if you count its fairly substantial early-access development. Hence introducing new mechanics could quite easily break the game for thousands of players. They did experiment with a harder set of systems where, for example, killing civilians would directly punish players in various ways, but van t' Land states they found the system to be too “artificial”.

Instead, Bohemia want to use the campaign and other elements of the DLC to educate the player on what International Humanitarian Law is, and then hope they take those lessons into online scenarios. “I think it's more effective when we have this roleplaying aspect to it, where we're not saying  'This is what's necessarily right and wrong, read about it, but here's a situation, do something and we'll see what the effects of that are.'”

Bohemia hope their representation of IHL and how it can be upheld and broken is both authentic and considerate. But the developer also wanted the DLC to have a more tangible effect too, which is why they're donating 50% of the DLC's earnings to the Red Cross. “When they came to us, they had this really great tone of voice and expectations and pragmatic passionate side to them,” says Jay Crowe. “They were open to discussion rather than immediately shutting-down video games as bad.”

It's quite a striking example of how far games have come in the last twenty years, where a medium oft-decried for its representations of violence and war can now engage with and even contribute to organisations that aim to help real victims of conflict. “We're not saying in this DLC we are really capturing the entire subject. But it allows us to sort of explore this different perspective on the battlefield and maybe, or hopefully, present something that's interesting or meaningful to players,” ends Crowe.