Retrospective: Cannon Fodder

By Kieron Gillen on November 11th, 2007 at 11:03 am.

Cannon Fodder.

I still remember a pub-based conversation around the time of its release. It involved the relative merits of Syndicate with Cannon Fodder. We loved them both, clearly. Everyone loved them both. But were we to call, we preferred Syndicate. But perversely, everyone also agreed that in the terms we were used to thinking of, Cannon Fodder was the better game. They’re an unusual pair, you see. Despite the fact they shared a central mechanic – that is, they were both mouse-driven shooters where you controlled a small group of soldiers going about their missions – and came out within a similar time-frame, I don’t recall any direct comparisons in the press. The only reason I can think of is that they felt so radically different.

Syndicate was a worse game, but its appeal was that it was a better something else – I wrote elsewhere that Syndicate was the first step on the road to Grand Theft Auto, and it’s these elements which were particularly revelatory. The living city, the freeform hyperviolence, the complete amorality… for our teenage minds, it was as cheap a transgressive thrill as listening to that first Rage Against the Machine or sneaking into Reservoir Dogs or whatever else was happening around the time. In comparison, Cannon Fodder just had good, old-fashioned game-design. Levels were clockwork perfect constructions with every element obviously carefully considered. While only rarely as restrictive as a true puzzle game, there was an elegance to them which the pulsing and unpredictable Syndicate could never match.

There was another key difference, and the one why I’m writing about it on this day in particular. While Syndicate ethics were gloriously warped, Cannon Fodder was a profoundly moral game. It managed to be explicitly anti-war while still showing a respect for the men who fought and died through the years. It was, in that old-fashioned way, decent. It didn’t do it sombrely – irreverence was the one constant throughout Sensible Software’s gloriously diverse games – but it’s points were absolutely clear. In fact, through its black comedy, there was even a rage and disgust at how humans were treated.

The title says much. Almost all wargames have a title which directly glorifies war. Sure, Infinity Ward’s memorable sections like the Stalingrad level where you aren’t issued a gun are harsh as mainstream gaming gets, but the game’s still called bloody “Call of Duty”. Medal of Honour. Brothers in Arms. Conversely, Cannon Fodder notes that rather than medals and honour, war is about people dying unfairly and stupidly. This is not a glorious endeavour. War is about waste.

But, as Stuart Campbell once noted, the irony was that Cannon Fodder did more than any other game before and since to actually treat its tiny participants as anything but Cannon Fodder. Rather than an endless supply of soldiers to throw into the fray, Cannon Fodder offered a large but not inexhaustible supply of men. The between levels you’re presented with a screen of soldiers queueing over the hill, with men walking off the left to replace casualties. More importantly, each of the characters had a name, which inevitably humanised them. Even more importantly, whenever anyone died, a gravestone was added to the hill. By the end of the game, that grassy mound was a genuine cemetery. Look what you made.

The theme tune – neck and neck with Still Alive for the title of best in-game song ever, for my money – set the tone perfectly. A light reggae skank carries its direct gallows humour: “War’s never been so much fun”. It states it with something that sounds less like irony than just plain scornful sarcasm. There’s a moment which epitomises it towards the close, where we cut between kill him with your gun/dying in the sun/kill him with your gun/dying in the sun” repeatedly, with ever growing tension, before a final pay-off of a drawled “so much fun”.

War, yeah. So Much Fun.

And since this post has been sponsored by the word irony, there was an extra one – it ended up causing a genuine press controversy. Originally the game was planned to be a simple black box with a poppy on the cover. The British Legion objected – though, of course, a poppy is a poppy and people could do what they want with it. The Star got involved, claiming the game was an insult at our war dead, exploitative and all the rest. Which is so far from the mark, it’s genuinely sad – that every other drum-beating piece of propaganda for the joys of the military has passed without comment, the one which actually had the strength of character to actually engage with the issues was slaughtered. A last minute, hilariously ugly replacement cover of a bloke in camouflage was used instead. In fact, the camouflage is appropriate – it fades into the background of my memory. When I think of Cannon Fodder’s box, my first thought is always the poppy one. It’s arguably the greatest videogame cover that never was, because Sensible, even though they were funny, realised that didn’t stop them from trying to be fearless and frank too.

Sensible aren’t around any more, so I think of them. And I think of Cannon Fodder. And when I think of Cannon Fodder my thoughts bounce between the intricate and brilliant game itself and all the issues it quietly touched on. And I think back to all the dead soldiers who fundamentally died to let me play it and write this.

Remembrance Day always makes me sad, because every year you see less and less soldiers at the Cenotaph as age takes its inevitable toll. Soon, they’ll be none and the remembrance will become even more vague – and, part of me fears, without living artefacts, we’d end up forgetting what we learned in the first and second world wars. That, as I posted it on a wi-fi on a train, a good chunk of the train carried on chatting through those two minutes, including someone making an annoncement about the food trolley coming through, makes me increasingly sure of it. To keep those lessons alive, we have to turn to art. History lessons don’t work. People never listen to lessons. We need art to make people feel about things which is absolutely essential to feel about it. Cannon Fodder, in its own way, realised this.

(In passing, remember that the arranger of “War’s Never Been So Much Fun”, sound-maestro Richard Joseph passed away this year and in the two minute’s that’s happening as I’m posting this, I’ll be thinking of him.)

Cannon Fodder is a bit of an old soldier too. Where Syndicate lead to a different world, Cannon Fodder was the end of one. There’s never been anything similar since and no-one’s taken its ideas and done anything further with it (Bar, of course, its sequel). While it’s a high-point in the British game design of the period, it’s in the past. But it tried, and was great and that’s all that matters.

And, for me, in all these things, it’s important to remember.

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40 Comments »

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  1. terry says:

    Good writeup. Cannon Fodder was an incredibly brutal game for all its cutesy trappings – the margin between beating a level or dying horribly was the difference of a couple of shots. Nowadays we have the CoD “find cover to heal” mechanic and infinite privates to take the place of that guy we just accidentally shot in the face which – though fairer on the hapless player – seems to miss the point somewhat.

  2. Watcher95 says:

    Syndicate Multiplayer FTW!

  3. Robert Seddon says:

    The next time I meet someone who thinks games invariably trivialise death and human suffering I shall reference this article in response. Thank you.

  4. Kast says:

    Wow… I’ve never played Cannnon Fodder before and all I understood about it was that it is some sort of cutesy worms-like war game. Now that might be entirely wrong, I don’t know.

    I am most intrigued about it now, particularly about it’s message and depth. Is it now abandonware or will I have to find it on eBay?

  5. The_B says:

    I think it’s a bit of both. But you’re more likely to find it as abandonware than on ebay, unfortunately.

    It really is a fantastic game. I would pretty much say it’s one my my earliest favourite games, along with the original Worms. (Or at least early favourite games as in I was alive for it’s release, rather than other games I love that were out before I came into exsistence or were old enough to actually physically play them)

  6. Incognito_gbg says:

    Cannon Fodder is one those games, that every “soon to be”-gamedeveloper should be required to play and analyze.

  7. Darius K. says:

    Cannon Fodder is available on GameTap, for those interested in playing.

  8. Darius K. says:

    Actually, it’s available to play *for free* until Dec 31. Play. It. Now.

    http://www.gametap.com/home/play/gameDetails/120053650

  9. Emil says:

    Peace!

  10. Thelps says:

    Thanks KG, for an article that genuinely adds weight and cultural context to a videogame. This is definitely one for all those people who see games as nothing more than a backwards, guilty pleasure without any artistic merit. I’m a firm believer that games represent art on a greater number of levels than any other medium can hope to do (narrative, design, execution, on both artistic and engineering planes), and it’s a sad fact that society at-large dismisses them as kids’ toys and sub-Hollywood entertainment.

    If the public would only wake up and realise the potential the art-form represents for nuanced expression then we’d see a revolution in the overall standard of games. Not to say there aren’t ground breaking, moving games coming out all the time, but it’s still a medium bogged down with half-baked film tie-ins and ‘ultra-violence’ snuff that dictates the world’s perception of it.

    Anyway, cheers, and remember the dead!

  11. Del Boy says:

    The tagline on GameTap;

    “If you lose a few troops, who cares? They’re Cannon Fodder!”

  12. drunkymonkey says:

    I’ll try this out on GameTap now. I attended a memorial service today, and I don’t feel like playing anything that Hollywoodises war, like CoD, though a great game it is.

  13. Oasx says:

    It really seems like there were a bunch of great British game developers who never really made it past the Amiga, i know Team17 is still around but they were known for making amazing games but just seemed to fall in a rut after Worms (not that Worms wasnt great but they have done nothing else the last 10 years)

  14. Robin says:

    I always prefered Syndicate.

    While I’ve always admired Cannon Fodder’s ‘message’, I have a feeling that as critics become more desensitised to awful and ethically dubious American World War II games (incredibly, no review of Company of Heroes I’ve seen remarks on it’s offensive stereotyping), Cannon Fodder retrospectives will read more into it than is really warranted. By which I mean, the black humour felt like it was tacked on because it wasn’t cool to make earnest war/space/cutesy games on the Amiga by then.

    I also hope that someone will try to make an anti-war war game again. There’s Operation Flashpoint and Defcon I suppose, but they’re not very funny.

    And holy shit at the Gametap comment. Uh, good job Codemasters.

  15. roBurky says:

    I remember playing Cannon Fodder, and occasionally one of your bullets wouldn’t kill your enemy. It would leave him lying on the ground, bleeding and screaming. I remember I could never quite decide whether it was better to leave them there, or shoot them again.

  16. Acosta says:

    World Wars consequences will be forgotten, that is a given. For many young people they are just echoes of a legendary past they only know for the movies, like it was far, far away from their reality (no matter the second world war finished only half a century ago). One thing is knowing there was world war, but people don´t know about the consequences and the cost of them. Forgetting and adapting to the new realities is part of the human nature and I am pretty sure we will be see another major conflict before this century ends.

    Excellent write up, I didn´t play Cannon Fodder before, I was very limited at my game option at those days and in those days I decided to get Syndicate, which is one of my favorite games ever, but now I am really curious to try it.

  17. Ash says:

    Really nice piece. I frankly adored the game when it came out, tough I was too young and most of the irony got lost on me — it was still incredibly fun, even tough i was rubbish at it and never managed to finish it.

    War has never been so much fun, indeed.

  18. raigan says:

    I always quit and loaded as soon as anyone died, it seemed stupid to continue playing with weaker recruits when your veterans could shoot so much further. As a consequence my hill was grave-free and the lineup of men stretched to the horizon.. effectively making it the same as the “heroic” games you mentioned!

    “There’s never been anything similar since and no-one’s taken its ideas and done anything further with it “

    Really?! I find it hard to believe that anyone who played a lot of CF didn’t find Darwinia to be incredibly similar — they even kept the gun/grenades scheme!

  19. Essell says:

    Good article, that I’m in firm agreement with, but let’s also remember that you could shoot the dead bodies of enemy soldiers, and they would hilariously bounce 50 feet into the air, after which you could shoot them again, and they would bounce up again, and again, and again.

    You could keep doing it for ages, and it was very funny at the time, but seems starkly inconsistent with the apparent seriousness to be found elsewhere in the game.

  20. Junior says:

    Brilliant article. Your point about remembrance and how little it means is not lost on us however, as gamers who are flooded with WWII games (and I would NEVER change that) we can never forget what was done and the sacrifices made for our freedom, but also we are the only living people who have the slightest clue what those people DID. (I’m discounting soldiers today, they know and they do, but war is a whole different ballgame today)

    While I have immense respect for what people went through during WWII, I have not bought a poppy for years. Every time I see one, it’s on someone who feels the ought to wear one, newsreaders, politicians ect.

    We DO need art to keep this memory alive, if only so we don’t make the stupid mistakes and do it all again, I can only hope that games will either keep that flame alive, or pass it on to something worthy. (virtual reality with real bulley wounds anyone?)

  21. Nick says:

    Great article, I never really thought of CF like that (to my shame) at the time. Then again I was about 9 when I played it.

  22. Winterborn says:

    The interesting thing about you bringing up the Canon Fodder theme tune and Syndicate is that the Syndicate song is the one that sticks in my head. Despite it just being atmospheric music and ‘syndicate’ repeated over and over.

  23. malkav11 says:

    Interestingly enough, Gametap presents it as a “light-hearted” humorous game.

  24. Incognito_gbg says:

    “Really?! I find it hard to believe that anyone who played a lot of CF didn’t find Darwinia to be incredibly similar”

    Well, the control-scheme is also the only similiarity between Darwinia and Cannon Fodder.

  25. raigan says:

    How is it “only” the control scheme? The Squad itself is the same as the troops in Cannon Fodder — moving around, saturating areas with gun fire and tossing in a few grenades when necessary.

    There are certainly lots of things added on top, and the different environment makes things play a bit differently, but as soon as I started controlling the Squad I immediately had flashbacks of Cannon Fodder. Not that that’s bad, I played tons of CF..

  26. Crispy says:

    Great article. ‘Nuff said.

  27. Frans Coehoorn says:

    This game was FUN indeed!

  28. Alex says:

    This (really fascinating, yup, especially for a game I never played, but…) has made me realise November 11 completely passed me by. So I guess I’m one of those people chatting through the two minutes (although I technically probably wasn’t up)
    Still, I feel guilty for being the self-involved student that I am.
    And so I should.

    Does playing it on Gametap count for penance?

  29. Dexton says:

    Once again RPS proves itself the best gaming site on the web.

  30. bonuswavepilot says:

    incognito_gpg et al:
    Introversion even put a tribute to CF in one of the randomly selected intros for Darwinia. It plays the intro music from Cannon Fodder, and shows a message saying that the game is not endorsed by Sensible Software, which is a spoof of a similar message in CF itself which said they weren’t endorsed by the Royal British Legion. (Hassles with using that poppy again, I s’pose).