The Real Enemy To Fight In Homefront Is The Decline Of America

Route 66 is full of potholes and Wal-Mart is out of asthma medication. A high school football field is being used for mass graves. These are facts from a video game world, facts designed to make a gamer angry.

They're the truths of Homefront, a March video game that somehow merges an unfathomable near-future event with a mood that makes its warfare feel more modern than any Call of Duty.

In the world of Homefront, an emboldened North Korea, having unified with the South, consolidated power in Asia to invade the U.S. A fake news reel that starts the game combines real footage of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and an angry Tea Partier with faked footage of oil crises and invasion. The video stresses to presumably skeptical gamers who will be lookomg down the barrel of this new first-person-shooter that this what-if could be what-happened.

But it doesn't matter if North Korea could do this in the near future.

It matters that the American frustration and resistance it portrays feels like something not from decades hence but from now.

We've seen video games that celebrate the themes of American triumphalism (charge forth as the U.S. saves the world!) and games that wallow in American cynicism (shake heads knowingly at the inevitable corruption of powerful people!). After years of recession in the United States, however, Americans have been given few games that present as their playing field a U.S. facing the fear that its momentary problems are permanent, that its decline from dominance is well underway, and that what worked so well for so many in the 20th century may be bankrupt in the 21st.

Homefront isn't a defeatist game nor is it remotely anti-American. Made primarily in New York by Kaos Studios for publisher THQ and scheduled for release in March on the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, the game puts the player in control of an American pilot who, in the opening seconds of the game, is violently freed from Korean occupiers in Colorado and is cajoled by a hail of enemy bullets to join a scrappy, multi-ethnic American insurgency. This is a game that once was about a triumphant reassertion of American power on its homeland, though its creators have told me that they, encouraged by creative partner and Apocalypse Now screenwriter John Milius, shrank the scope to tell a simpler tale of Americans trying to win one battle, not the war. (Material saved for the sequel, perhaps.)

I've played the first three levels of Homefront and continue to be struck, as I was when I first saw the game last spring, how deeply immersed the game is in the mood of modern America trying to fight back against a current of despair. Its version of the United States sucks. Fear dominates. Talking points of both political parties have been realised to their squalid extremes: debt-ridden economy in shambles, military budgets drastically slashed, American exceptionalism superseded by the aspirations of an Asian rival. Homefront's U.S. is worse than ours, but the gravitational feel of a downward slide and the dream to reverse that force is present in real America and in the video game one. The parallel is unavoidable.

The difference in helping real and virtual America is in tactics. The stakes are higher in America, the bad guys plainly outsiders, the resistance therefore uncontroversially bearing arms.

Where there's fear and frustration in this game, there's a virtual gun to shoot and targets who feel legitimate. Chapter one is the breakout, our hero allied with a few other 21st-century rebels against the kind of occupier that shoots parents in front of children and tries to gas a house that contains a wailing baby. Chapter two is a fight in the suburban dark, lowlighted by the sight of mass graves and a chilling conclusion. The third chapter takes the battle to cleared-out superstores. In the midst of this there's an appeal to American ingenuity, many mid-battle heated exchanges of ideas — of battle philosophies involving restraint or ruthlessness — and a refreshing feeling that, no matter why America is on its knees, by playing Homefront, the video game version can be stood back up. At last, we the gaming people can have a way to help a struggling U.S. This is the simple relief of entertainment soaked in the mood of frustration.

We will save America in Homefront by shooting its foreign, occupying enemies. If it was devoid of themes, Homefront would feel like nothing more than a Call of Duty, an achievement its creators would happily enjoy if the game sold, say, nothing more than a Call of Duty. For players, it will feel familiar, borrowing from Activision's mighty shooter series as well as from the careful pacing and attention to scenic detail of Valve's Half-Life 2. Its gameplay is not as ingenious as its latter inspiration. Its combat is straightforward with limited variation or demonstration of ideas not seen in shooters before. There are certain enemy structures that must be flanked, careful attention to be paid to spreading fire and the occasional empowering use of a remote-controlled, helicopter-killing urban tank. Your health recharges, if you take cover.

Homefront commits the occasional Call of Duty crime, releasing a stream of enemies toward the player in the name of trigger-reaction fun but at the expense of believable scenario or down-to-earth mood. But it drove me forward, turning a planned two-day play session into a one-night barrel through. It achieved this not through gameplay but through its presentation of America. I cared. I wanted to see the fate of the schools, read the discarded newspapers, mill about in a prison camp. I really wanted to talk to the Muslim American who I found praying — one of the first Muslims I've seen in a game who wasn't trying to kill me — but he just kept praying (the limits of canned animations in video games, I guess). I wanted to save the neighbours.

I want to help America, and in Homefront, I'm the only person who can do it.


Comments

    Don't like the frequent mention of CoD. I was hoping for a more 'realistic' experience, not tidal waves of gun fodder.

    Do you think we will see a version Homefront for Iraq or Afghanistan were they get to "shoot foreign occupying enemies"?

      nice.

      Considering the Taliban has a ban on all media based technology, to the extent that they will destroy cassette tapes and beat\kill those they catch listening to them, I suspect that such a game will only come about if those "foreign occupying enemies" succeed in removing the local occupying enemies first :\

      Might happen in Iraq though.

    Perhaps gibbs this will help people empathise with people overseas that are in occupied territory by relating. Maybe.

    It is a shame that the posters for Homefront are so cliched and crappy, I was put off the game completely by the advertising campaign, but I'm more interested now to see how it pans out.

    I see two problems with this from a 'cultural studies' perspective.

    The first is that America's enemies are (still) "foreign" or found outside America and are invading. This is not the cause of America's current frustration, not so simply. Yes the people who hijacked the 9/11 jets were from other countries, but now, America's biggest enemies are within. They are the people who enabled the GFC, they are presidents who let hundreds of people die in hurricanes, they are political jackals feeding on the fear they are responsible for generating--I'm looking at you Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.

    Secondly, the problem is solved by shooting. This is one of the problems with America, the idea that things can be solved with violence (particularly gun violence). Bioshock demonstrated in the videogame medium how violence begets violence, and the strong can manipulate the weak into fighting their battles and accepting the associated risks. They did so in a bitterly ironic way, but I think creative types (videogame designers among them) need to show us different ways of overcoming conflict. Guns do not solve problems, they kill people...

    I haven't even played this game and I'm already intrigued by it. I'm not sure a dystopian American setting is enough to save it from being a CoD-clone, but combined with this editorial, it certainly gives me a lot of hang my critical hat on.

      I totally agree with you too Adam. You make a really good point. Pity there isn’t this intelligent perspective in a lot of modern games.
      I have to wonder though, as a foreigner, how the rest of us non-Americans are meant to interpret these obviously patriotic themes and settings.

        Just to spin this a little farther, I'm actually American-born, lived there for the first 14 years of my life. Lived in Australia for about 13 years now too. I have a relatively unusual perspective on the US.

    Cant agree more Adam, if they would pull their heads out of their collective asses long enough to see what theyve done to their own country they might be able to pick up the pieces.

    As it stands, even their own are predicting their fall from power in the coming decade.

    I dont expect much from this game tbh, I hold hope but pretty much expect another OORAH AMERICORNZ, heres betting the only people given any personality are the American protagonists.

    If they wanted to really make a statement, let them play from both sides, showing reasons and agendas on both sides.

    Like you know, an actual war.

      America will remain the world's most powerful country for decades.

      why is prejudice against America and Americans is so acceptable?

      i find it pretty narrow minded that people paint a counrty of 300 million people witht he same brush because they didn't like a particular presiadent or Fox news presenter.

      try being a little more open minded people.

        I like to think I'm fairly open minded... but America has some pretty big problems.

        The Trillion dollar defecits.
        The huge fights getting medical cover to citizens.
        The major social welfare issues.
        The high murder and violent crime rates.

        They exist and their scope isn't limited to one person... they're endemic of the systems over there.

        as an australian, anti-americanism is very acceptable, imho. it's almost patrioic.

        i always laugh when i read sensitive touchy americans talking about outsiders - my favourite is good ol' rupert murdoch and his 'australian invasion' ...

          Anti-Americanism in Australia is Australian insecurity.

          We love America and hope they take notice of and love us. We hate America because they don't really care about us.

          James Mac: Endemic societal problems in America are no different to any other country in the world. Why single them out as being deserving of unrelenting criticism?

          Considering that Australia is almost entirely dependent on America's military for protection from countries like Indonesia, I wouldn't exactly call mocking Americans a 'patriotic' pass time, you may not like America now, but you would do well to remember that during world war 2, when Britain hung us out to dry at Singapore, America was the only nation that bothered to save us from Japanese invasion.

          Despite the despicable actions of the US government, thousands of Americans have died so that you would have the freedom to bitch about them later.

          As an Australian, I like to think that my fellow country men are smart enough to not make sweeping generalisations about the character of an entire fucking country, especially one that has bled beside us.

    "...shrank the scope to tell a simpler tale of Americans trying to win one battle, not the war."

    Gee, that doesn't sound like Tomorrow When The War Began... :P

      Gee... Tomorrow When The War Began didn't remind me of Red Dawn at all.

        i really hope you're not australian, otherwise shame on you.

        tomorrow when the war began has a heckload more substance than the nonetheless enjoyable red dawn. a heckload.

    In the interests of fairness, I can turn the critical scythe on Australia just as easily as on America.

    Australia is evidently peopled and governed with the most astonishingly privileged Anglo bigots I have really ever encountered outside the British monarchy and perhaps South Africa. The deep-seated racism in this country that justifies the mandatory detention of refugees fleeing third-world countries simply for being refugees is reprehensible. The racist fear-mongering both sides of politics use to generate votes in order to protect us from the boats is farcical, and ethically bankrupt.

    The Sydney-centrism as I will call it bothers me as well. There is a feeling (among certain powerful circles) that the only place worth living in Australia is the North or Eastern suburbs of Sydney, so A) those areas are reserved for the rich and powerful and B) infrastructure and whatnot is an afterthought anywhere outside that small area. The idea that the government is somehow not responsible for providing adequate roads and public transportation, for example, really bothers me. That the main road arteries are privately owned is, to me, shirking a major responsibility of government.

    I only did two points for America so I'll only do two for Australia. I'm not intentionally trying to stir up disagreements or insult anyone here, just saying that neither country is perfect or any more "right" than the other. Talking about international relations in terms of objective measures of power is overly simplistic. If, for example, China's government created or raised a minimum wage by 1%, it would likely crush the American (and Australian) economy because of its reliance on Chinese manufacturing and other low-wage work. Dominance or dependence?

      "If, for example, China’s government created or raised a minimum wage by 1%, it would likely crush the American (and Australian) economy because of its reliance on Chinese manufacturing and other low-wage work"

      i think you need to read a bit more about economics. if China's wages increased (which, incidentally they are) it would be, on the whole a GOOD thing for the US and Australian economy.

      firstly it would mean less outsourcing of manufacturing jobs from the US (and to a lesser extent Australia) because wages would become more competitive relative to China's.

      and secondly, it would stimulate demand for high quality western made luxury goods from Chinese consumers.

        I'm no economist, and your theories sound pretty solid, but much more long term to me. The short-term effect of a higher cost of manufacturing in China would have to increase the cost of the currently cheap products our economies depend on. Our economies are based on buying the stuff we want to buy for cheap from manufacturing facilities in the lower-wage nations. I guess we could cope with a higher cost/quality of living in China if we were to move the low-cost manufacturing stuff to Africa or something...?

        I guess that's not really my point and I don't -really- want to learn enough economics to nut this one out :P I think my original 'these things are complicated' sentiment sums it up well enough. Can we agree on that? :P

      "The Sydney-centrism as I will call it bothers me as well"

      I assume you live in Sydney, because this exists in other states as well. For example in QLD you'll hear about millions of dollars being poured into roads around Brisbane, while the Bruce Highway, which links cities further north of Brisbane, is an absolute joke. I live in the ACT so I hear about people in Queanbeyan (NSW town just across the boarder) getting screwed by the Sydney-focused NSW Government all the time. Ditto in Victoria etc.

    Once again I agree entirely with you Adam, few people have actually travelled far enough north to see the issues taking place in our own country.

    I grew up north and west, and will simply point out that the 'Aussie Spirit' is more about ignoring issues and hoping things turn out okay. Tall poppy syndroners.

    I wasnt saying that I myself thought that America would fall as the major hegemon up there either, I was talking about the fact their own leading financial analysts are saying this.

    Its due to them off-shoring everything and anything they can without building their own industries. In a lot of areas of the US now there is more money to be had dismantling factories then there is making them operational.

    The same can be said of Australia's sitting on their hands during the mining boom, instead of building infrastructure to do something with all that ore we keep shipping out, then buying back in the forms of products.

    Being patriotic isnt demanding and saying your country is right no matter what, thats a football club. True patriotism is questioning everything your government and nation does, not simply assuming were the best.

    The comments raise interesting points - too much to respond to.

    Just wanted to add that I'm deeply impressed with Kotaku/US Kotaku's willingness to write about mature and topical themes - American exceptionalism versus the fear of decline - and relate it to gaming.

    Briefly on Adam's point: yes, the enemies are still foreign (and undoubtedly morally 'evil', there's no ambiguity on North Korea's intentions) - but the path to American (fictional) decline is paved with the extremist rhetoric and political/social malaise that you point out in your post. I agree that it's sending mixed messages (guns solve everything!), but at the very least a game talking about America's crises of identity, direction and future should be approached with an open mind. I'm fascinated as to how they'll treat a topic that even America's leaders are seemingly trying to downplay.

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