Friday, July 17, 2009

Straddling the Fence Between Terrorism and Fun

A man drives a van equipped with explosives toward a building.  He rams it through a security barrier, sending it barreling further into the occupied structure.  A few moments later, his vehicle explodes.  He has succeeded.

A version of this tale occurred on April 10, 2009, when a suicide truck bomber attacked the Iraqi National Police headquarters in Mosul.  Another version of it happened the other day while I was playing Red Faction: Guerrilla.

Uncomfortable yet?  I am.

Let me first say that I do indeed enjoy Guerrilla.  I hyped its multiplayer demo, and I’m in love with the Geo Mod 2 engine.  I feel immense satisfaction every time I whack an enemy in the head with my sledgehammer.  I relish the opportunity to take out an enemy aircraft with my rocket launcher.  Plus, driving a dune buggy on the Moon Mars never gets old. 

But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m doing something Wrong (not incorrect Wrong, but a moral Wrong).  Andrew messaged me the other day, telling me he’d taken out an important Earth Defense Force (EDF) target with a vehicle and couldn’t ignore that he’d committed an act of terrorism.  I couldn’t disagree (hence my writing this piece).  During one of my guerrilla raids, EDF soldiers bellowed at me: “Die! Terrorist!”  Turns out Guerrilla can’t disagree either.

If you can’t tell, I’m having trouble reconciling my enjoyment of the game’s mechanics with the discomfort I feel about its context.  To Guerrilla’s credit, they’ve done their best to make killing the EDF extremely easy on the conscience.  Their cookie-cutter infantry evoke the Half-Life 2 Combine soldiers, with their skull-white masks and squawking radio voices.  It’s widely accepted that the faceless are not people, so feel free to exterminate them.  The EDF employ obviously Evil tactics: relentlessly assaulting housing complexes and reducing whole sectors to rubble with some sort of super-weapon (a travesty obviously channeling the Death Star).  But the limited plot (limited in both scope and quality) negates all of this work. 

Plenty of games and stories use the “Rebels versus an Evil Empire” conceit – see Star Wars and countless Final Fantasy games.  A black-and-white view of morality is often justified by some sense of the supernatural, whether it be the Force or whatever new twist on magic Square feels like using.  The supernatural usually drives both sides of the conflict, presenting the viewer/reader/player with a nice, logical explanation for the events transpiring.  Guerrilla’s half-hearted tale of interplanetary class conflict does not lay a foundation for such a clear-cut vision of Good and Evil.  It’s a bland story of revenge and revolution on Mars, a series of loosely connected plot points meant to explain why one might go around breaking buildings. 

This oversimplified, underexplained Good and Evil is what makes me uncomfortable.  Guerrilla fails to convince me that what I’m doing is Right.  And it affords me almost no room to question the Red Faction party line (Alec Mason’s “I’m just doing this for my brother” complaints are few and far between, nor do they actually call anything into question).  Contrast this with Assassin’s Creed, whose hero begins to doubt his organization’s motives as the body count rises.  Or with BioShock, a game all about choice and the illusions surrounding it.  These games take measures to question your actions even as you do them, while still making their execution a fun experience for the player.

And fun is what it all boils down to, to be sure.  It is fun to ram your Martian SUV into an EDF convoy.  But is it still fun when you know something similar happened near Baghdad last month?  It was a whole lot of fun shooting aircraft out of the sky while my guerrilla mates drove the armored car.  But the blood-curdling screams of the EDF officer being tortured within were just a tad unnerving.  I find it morally awkward to gleefully enact the role of an insurgent while my country does its best to curb the destructive efforts of, well, insurgents.

Listen, I’m perfectly willing to cut Guerrilla some slack.  Volition, its developers, were faced with the task of contextualizing an engine built to simulate the destruction of buildings.  It’s an amazingly gratifying gameplay experience to take out the last support of a guard tower and watch it collapse like a Jenga tower.  They succeeded in making terrorism fun.  If only they’d justified it a little more.