How A Video Game Chickened Out Of Letting Me Be A Terrorist

Video games let us be heroes. They let us don the cape, wave the flag, put on the badge, hoist the blue lightsabre or simply face the fires of dragons to save the princess.

They could let us be anyone, though. Terrorists, for example. They could let us be them.

If you take your video games as fun machines, you wouldn't much like the idea that a video game can let you role play a terrorist. You'd be happy being an Angry Bird or Batman or the person controlling dropping Tetris blocks simply because that's fun. Terrorism? Not fun.

But if you're interested in video games as role-playing devices, as time machines or actors' scripts, then you, like me, may have been eager to be a terrorist in the new game Brink. Unfortunately, though, it's all a cheat.

Brink is a multiplayer-focused first-person shooter with a strand of narrative justifying a series of skirmishes that pit two factions against each other. One faction is Security, the police force on a floating city called The Ark. The other is the Resistance, dubbed "terrorists" by the Security forces. The game is futuristic. Most of civilisation on Earth has supposedly been wiped out, wrecked by, among other things, the melting of the polar ice caps. The Security does the bidding of the Ark's head honchos, The Founders, to keep The Ark safe. The Resistance, made of scrappy refugees from the outside world who fled to the Ark resist being treated like unwelcome dregs.

As grievances go, The Resistance's objections seemed reasonable. They didn't want to be rationed water and only be given the worst jobs. They didn't want to be consigned to shantytowns. They were, understandably, ready to get off The Ark to find real freedom. Perhaps these problems excused armed rebellion, though terrorism felt like a stretch, as, you know, it tends to.

The Security forces in the game refer to the Resistance as terrorists and - wouldn't you know it? - early in the game we discover that the Resistance is building a dirty bomb. Later in the game, they are aiming a surface-to-air missile at the tallest building in The Ark, a sort of mash-up of Hamas and Al Qaeda tactics all in one. These guys are terrorists? By mid-game, playing as the Security, and learning their side of the story mission by mission, I bought it.

Brink lets you play as both sides. The game lets you see either side of the story. This is one of the things games can do well. Take the Halo series, for example. In Halo 2, you can flip-flop from fighting as the heroic Master Chief or see moments of the war he's waged from the other side, in the boots of one of the supposedly malevolent Covenant. To be specific, what games can do well is actually let you play both sides. Whether you actually feel for both sides is another story. For example, in last year's Medal of Honor game, which was set in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, you could compete online as Western forces or as members of an "opposing force". Until the 11th hour, that opposing force was going to be called "the Taliban", but outrage from veterans' families compelled a change. That outrage and that change implied that playing as the Taliban would have felt meaningfully...anti-American and presumably pro-all-the-things-the-Taliban-supports. But that's not how it works in games. (It's no surprise that a recent video game version of the U.S. raid on Osama Bin Laden's hide-out recast the conflict as a balanced gunfight bereft of ideology.)

There is seldom any sense of ideology baked into the roles people play in multiplayer games. Distasteful as it may seem to play as the Nazis in a competitive World War II game, for example, few if any multiplayer games define the Nazi side by anything other than the class of tanks they command, the cut of their uniform and the shape of their guns. While games often let players wear the boots of either side of a conflict, they've seldom made the wearing of those boots uncomfortable.

Brink had a chance to be different. According to the storyline in the game's Security missions, those Resistance guys really are terrorists. Dirty bombs? Tower attacks? To hell with them. But... I could play as them. The game offers eight missions for the Security side and eight for Resistance. I was eager to hop into those other boots and learn just how they justified their actions.

Oddly, the Resistance doesn't justify their actions. Brink's mission structure is the product of smart recycling, so even though it supposedly has 16 missions across both campaigns, it really only has eight, each one played from opposite sides. After a few missions of the Resistance campaign, I reached that dirty bomb mission. Surprise! The Resistance doesn't talk about building a dirty bomb. They talk about crafting a vaccine. To be clear, the mission that infolds after those different narrative set-ups is exactly the same. Played from either side, the action involves a gunfight in a shantytown, one side escorting a robot through gunfire while the other tries to stop them, some intel being stolen (or not). I thought Brink's creators were sending a message here about the manifold understandings of a conflict. I thought I was being asked to accept both the Security take on the mission and the Resistance one as equal, valid and simultaneously canonical. The Security people had been misinformed, perhaps; The Resistance's aspiration to terrorism wasn't real, just misunderstood benevolence.

I was reading Brink wrong. In the Resistance version of the game's events, the so-called terrorists never fire a missile at a tower. They just try to get off the Ark. This confused me, until I realised that four of the game's missions, the last two in each campaign, are "what-if" missions. In one of the Resistance side's "what-if" missions, we actually do get the missile strike. That mission's summary: "What if [Resistance leader]Chen's extreme rhetoric inspired his followers to extreme actions?" That, I realised, is Brink's real message. The sides aren't equal. The terrorists are terrorists, in the reality of the Security's world. The Resistance do horrid things. And they are not me.

When I'm not the Resistance they are terrorists. When I am the Resistance, they are not. It's not a matter of interpretation. It's not a symptom of subjectivity. It's not an apology that deems one man's terrorist as another man's freedom fighter. It is, instead, a warping of the game's virtual reality. For whatever reason, the game's creators don't want me to be uncomfortable. They don't want me to wrestle with the opposing side's views. They have instead created an enemy faction I can simply hate, and then, when the roles reverse, they cleanly endorse a revised ideology and let me be that enemy guilt-free. There's no tough choice here. It's just checkers. I was no terrorist in Brink because the game never gave me a chance to be.


Comments

    Best US-written article of the past 12 months I think. Seriously, that was really thoughtful and I'm totally impressed.

    I really deeply agree with the kind of hope you held out for in Brink, and can totally empathise with the disappointment you feel when that hope fades. It would seem that Brink does nothing to complicate the hegemonic belief in Americanism as the one true right way, which is a real shame. It doesn't even make you think about alternatives in a general sense... that's pretty poor.

      Agreed. It's refreshing to see well written articles instead of stupid puff-pieces that make me wish I could get the time it took to read back.

    The "War on Terror" makes putting people in the shoes of terrorists, whether doing bad things because they're pissed or because they're fighting for their beliefs or rights, a very difficult and risky thing to do.
    I have no doubt that at some stage the writers wanted to cast the resistance as a sympathetic group pushed to breaking point, but ended up getting corked to keep from making gamer and, more likely, producers uncomfortable.
    Until producers are willing to give developers a chance to break convention the video games as art will be a difficult case to prove.

    HEY KOTAKU! can you find out if the dude who created the art style for the game is the same dude who did the art for the original 32-bit Road Rash that was on 3DO/PS1? Been playing it lately and the similarity is striking, with enlongated/characatured faces.

      Heres a link; http://youtu.be/fjgIED7KJLk

    I don't get it? Why do we need a tough choice? From what you described, you say that the developers intentionally wrote the narrative so that you would see gain a biased impression of your side while playing them.

    Of course they would! I see no problem with it, in fact I think this demonstrates as said "one man’s terrorist as another man’s freedom fighter" incredibly well. People need to realize that in pretty much every game you are NOT playing as yourself, if you are playing as a resistance fighter in this, that fighter would believe in their cause, and be surrounded by people who believe in their cause.

    Then the exact same thing happens on the other side. The security is colour cast as the enemy, but they are of course employed defense, doing their job to protect the sanctity of their civilization, but I was told they are a heartless totalitarian government! Shouldn't I get to feel uncomfortable fighting on their side too?

    The whole point of the brink narrative is that nobody believes themselves to be the bad guy. Hitler didnt think he was evil, he thought he was the champion of the German people. The first sovereign emperor of China took over that country by military might, literally killing millions in the process, but he did so, comfortable in his belief that he was maing a better world... he may have been right, but the families of the dead saw him as a murderous conquerer, greedy for land and power.

    Falling down, a great movie with Michael Douglas has him at the end, completely baffled by the idea that he's the bad guy, and that is something that has been missing from games. JRPG's have villains that cackle maniacally as they describe the manner in which they will destroy humanity - almost charicatures of what it is to be bad. Military shooters have turban wrapped faces holding women and children hostage - or evil corporations bent on world domination... Villains in gaming are often portrayed as the devil himself in a different set of clothes - one dimensional, flat and boring.

    I for one applaud Splash Damage for their approach to this game, two sides who both believe themselves to be the ones in the right, fighting off the chaotic rebellion / violent oppression of their counterparts? Thats an idea I can get behind.

    This game is better than alot of people are giving it credit for.

    The terrorists have no leg to stand on they came to the ark a man made ship owned by the rich and powerful as refugee's if you dont like it you can get the fuck out.

    This would be a relevant article if Brink had marketed itself as a narrative-driven game, but it really didn't. Just like Quake Wars had a thin narrative to give context to gameplay, the point of Brink's narrative is to make the game feel like there's a tiny smidgen of a reason for the action you're participating in. But that's it. If you went to Brink looking for narrative, you only have yourself to blame: it was the co-op gameplay and the movement that sold the game. Moreover, look at Splash Damage's history: Quake Wars and Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. It's quite obvious what these guys specialise in.

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