Ready or Not is a tactical horror game where you creep through sprawling mazes of American decay searching for violent suspects amidst cowering bystanders. Steam currently loves it, but after spending a few hours with it I can’t say I do. At its best it’s an admirably tense puzzle game punctuated by twitchy shootouts, but it’s also a violent political fantasy with no capacity for self-interrogation.
Developed by New Zealand-based Void Interactive, Ready or Not puts you in the boots of American law enforcement tasked with bringing “order to the chaos” of a failed state being torn apart by economic stratification and crime. Your tools for pacification include assault rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, and of course an endless supply of military-grade zip-ties.
Deployed across poor neighbourhoods, car dealerships, and gas stations, your job is to methodically breach and clear labyrinth-sized levels until all of the bad guys are in custody or dead. Fail to execute each encounter according to the proper rules of engagement and you’ll be chastised with failing grades at the end of each level like a bad score in Dance Dance Revolution.
Even before it blew up on Steam, Ready or Not sparked controversy, and lost its publisher, after one of its developers seemingly re-committed to adding a school shooting level. Players on the game’s Discord fantasized about which gear they’d use to hunt down the shooter in this prospective scenario. Void Interactive eventually weighed in to reassure everyone it would handle such traumatic content with care, but after playing through a handful of the game’s existing maps I’m doubtful.
Ready or Not is more like a game of MouseTrap than a round of Call of Duty. You’ll spend more time peeking around doors for traps than spraying and praying, leaving behind a trail of chem lights to mark where you’ve already been. Eventually you’ll hit upon NPCs who won’t surrender, and who instead pull weapons and start lighting you up with the superhuman fury of a Matrix agent. Hence the fear and trepidation with which you and the rest of your squad, bungling AI companions if playing solo or other players if online, make your way through “affordable housing” meth labs and hotel under siege.
It’s an incredibly evocative combo, helped in part by detailed sound cues and the eerie ambient drumming of the electronic soundtrack, that’s handled with all the care of a toddler running with scissors. Ready or Not’s realism is effective enough to disturb but too shallow not to descend into farce, or worse, Blue Lives Matter cosplay with fascist overtones and alt-right dog whistles.
An easter egg in the game’s starting headquarters area consists of a discarded “red pill” box in a trash can with the words “Noggin Joggers” on the side, which some have interpreted as 4chan-speak for the N-word (Void Interactive did not immediately respond to a request for comment to clarify the intended meaning). Elsewhere a box of Vitamin D supplements for “Bonor Health” from “Whore Foods” sits on a table next to spare ammunition, while another vitamin box references the Pepe meme. There’s also the now infamous “Anal Staircase” sign from one of the game’s old trailers which belongs to an upcoming sex club level.
Random bystanders have only a few recorded lines they’ll bark at you at the moment, one of which is, “My mum has a Mexican maid, you might know her.” There’s already a “Mute Cringey Voice Lines” mod to remove it, though Void Interactive announced it also plans to replace it in a later update. Then there’s the law and order ideology that frames the rest of the game. America is on the brink. Crime is at an all-time high. It can’t be fixed, only subdued. The game trains you to fear everyone you meet, not as commentary but as wish-fulfillment, and with seemingly no awareness of the nation’s recent reckoning with an epidemic of police killings.
Amidst these disorienting tonal shifts, which range from the juvenile to the openly racist, there are incredibly grim moments like when you come across a child writhing in pain in her pink bedroom. “Wounded civilian clear and prepped for evac,” your SWAT officer says in his RoboCop voice. Whether because Ready or Not remains an incredibly barebones Early Access game or because Void Interactive lacks the sophistication, it makes the entire affair feel crass and exploitative.
That hasn’t stopped Ready or Die from receiving a flood of positive user-reviews praising the game on Steam. Some no doubt because they see in it the seeds of a faithful successor to the old SWAT games, and thus a return to the kind of slow, tactical, claustrophobic gunplay that even games like Rainbow Six Siege have mostly abandoned. Others likely because of the way it drapes that gameplay in strong-man cop worship (there are no female police in the game yet) and provides a neat and tidy way to counter one system of violence with another.
That fantasy doesn’t come cheap though, in real life or on Steam. Ready or Not’s beta currently costs $US40 ($56) to take part in, while a special Supporter’s Edition is twice as much. It’s impossible to render final judgement on a game that seems more unfinished than not, but so far it’s not shaping up to be the kind I would trust to handle the simulation of a school massacre.