Political theatre and sock-puppet ideologies take centre stage on the dusty red plains of Mars, as Blasphemous Geometries examines the latest instalment in the Red Faction franchise.
Somewhere, out in the mists of possibility that exist between universes and states of being, there is a game that begins in this fashion :
Your character is sitting in a cramped bedroom in front of a computer. Behind him, on the wall, is the green flag of Hamas (provided by someone down at the mosque, it serves both as a political statement and as a way of covering up an old poster of Ronaldinho. Your character clicks the mouse button and the webcam starts recording. He reads a prepared speech about Gaza and the West Bank and concentrates upon keeping any signs of emotion from his voice. Martyrs, he has been told, must be proud. He has to stop and start again when his voice cracks into an embarrassing squeak on the word ‘Jihad’. He rides his bike to a lock up on the other side of town. A van has been packed with explosives and a primitive trigger that appears to be a wiimote. You snort your amusement at the in-joke.
The character drives through dusty streets and sits in the queue at the checkpoint as you assume control. Waiting for a gap to open up in the traffic you mash the accelerator button on your controller and the van lurches into life. It wallows on its suspension as it ploughs through some bollards. Israeli soldiers with weak AI throw themselves to the ground or fire at the van but it’s too late, the van picks up speed and crashes through the front of the guard post. You flicked the hand-brake seconds before impact and turned the van to the left – meaning that it hit the building side-ways on, making a bigger hole in the process. Your character’s life bar is pulsating crimson so you quickly press the button to detonate the explosive. “Allahu Akbar!” you ironically whoop with satisfaction as the building comes tumbling down. Immediately, the game transfers you to another randomly generated bedroom with slightly different posters and a slightly different-looking character. You have respawned. You check the map included with the game. Plenty more targets out there. Reviews mentioned that if you manage to pull off a decent nightclub-combo you can unlock Angry Condemnation From Western Governments, triggering an Israeli crackdown that initially makes the game harder but ultimately opens up extra spawning points and new rocket-firing mini-games.
Red Faction : Guerilla, you will be pleased to hear, is not this game – but it does comes intriguingly close to it. Close enough that it offers a good opportunity to discuss how some games handle politics.
Set on Mars a few years after the original Red Faction game and its much more traditional sequel, Red Faction : Guerilla seems purposefully designed to remind us of the vision of the Middle East that is perpetually plastered across the Western mediascape.
The game depicts Mars as a desert bathed in the languid sunlight of a distant star. Its surface is littered with dusty roads, rocky hillsides and the kinds of military fortification that are not so much present in the landscape as a brutal imposition upon it. Mars is a hauntingly beautiful world disfigured by an unwanted Human presence… a presence steeped in the semiotics of occupation. It is no accident that the game’s main enemy, the Earth Defense Force, should have a name so similar to that of the Israel Defense Forces. Both names are, of course, paradoxical: the EDF ‘defends’ the Earth by brutalising people on another planet while the IDF ‘defends’ Israel by blowing up apartment blocks in Palestine and Lebanon. The same echoes of the Middle East can be felt in the missions the game has you accomplish. A typical Red Faction : Guerilla mission sees you covering a van in high-explosives before crashing it through the front of a building and detonating the bombs in the hope of causing as much damage as possible. Even at a strategic level, your organisation is as uncompromising as Al Qaeda or Hamas. Your commanders have no interest in negotiating with Earth or reaching an agreement with the EDF. The game is all about pushing the EDF back, sector by sector, until they are eventually driven into the sea of emptiness between the planets. Even the frequent character deaths due to the game’s punishing difficulty give the war against the EDF a ‘human wave’ feel. You might very well die trying to destroy that roadblock – but should you fall, many others will gladly take your place.
Of course, there are many ways in which Red Faction : Guerilla does not resemble a suicide bombing simulator. Rather than playing a hardened insurgent or a disaffected teenager spurred to action by the white heat of a freshly acquired and intoxicatingly empowering ideology, you are playing the kind of blandly cynical gravel-voiced tough guy that inhabits most contemporary video games, a character whose protestations of being “just an engineer” do nothing to blunt his gift for mass slaughter. A character whose a-political cynicism sits awkwardly besides a desire to fight to the death over and over for a free Mars. “I am not a terrorist” he moans throughout the game, convincing no one.
Indeed, the lack of politics in Red Faction : Guerilla extends beyond the main character to the rest of the under-written script. Other than the fact that the EDF are kind of mean, we never gain much insight into why it is that the miners are in rebellion – and as such we never learn precisely what it is that the Red Faction are fighting for. This much is par for the course as far as video games are concerned.
As my last column about Mirror’s Edge suggested, when game designers attempt to deal with moral and political issues they sometimes wind up making absolute fools of themselves. The reason for this is simple: people play games in order to have fun; fun like driving cars into walls, shooting people in the face, engaging in corporate-sponsored athletic competition and cutting monsters to bits with elaborate and obviously impractical melee weapons. Having to examine your conscience and make complex moral judgements is not generally considered to be fun, and so games that do deal with ethical dilemmas tend to reduce them to the simplest of choices: The Light and Dark sides of the Force in Knights of the Old Republic (2003), whether or not to murder children and harvest their organs in BioShock (2007) and whether to snack on tofu or devour live baby chickens in Fable (2004). Games such as Mirror’s Edge and Red Faction : Guerilla do not give you room in which to make a choice, and so they try to make their in-game morality as straight-forwardly generic as possible by utilising not political ideals but broad political themes, symbols and images drawn from real-world situations.
For example, Mirror’s Edge attempted to be about freedom and nonconformism, but the actual mechanics of the game were constructive, and so the game’s use of symbols came across as half-hearted and even mocking. Red Faction : Guerilla, by contrast, has a much clearer central theme : The need to smash the old political system before a new one can be built.
The original Red Faction game is best remembered for its then (and arguably still) revolutionary Geo-Mod engine. The technology gave you the capacity to blow holes in walls and dig underground in a way that felt hugely empowering: it meant that, as a player, you were no longer dictated to by the game’s environment. In effect, the original Red Faction was a game about the colonisation of space; the process through which one culture reshapes a foreign landscape to suit its own ends. What empowerment the game granted you was not from stopping the process of change, but rather from taking control of it and pointing it in the direction you desired. The necessity of that change was never up for discussion.
In contrast, Red Faction : Guerilla‘s Geo-Mod 2 engine leaves Mars itself untouched while you raze entire super-structures to the ground. In one of the game’s better missions, you drive around blowing up buildings while the game’s only memorable character explains to you that he wants to learn to breathe carbon dioxide and speak Martian so that all traces of humanity can be erased from the face of the planet. This wish is not so much nihilistic or genocidal but rather negationistic. It is the recognition, common to all revolutionary movements, that in order for a just society to be built, it must be designed upon a blank slate from which all social facts are subject to deconstruction and change. Red Faction : Guerilla‘s under-written script never tells us what values its characters are fighting for but in a sense it does not need to as seldom has a video game had such a nuanced understanding of the nature of political theatre and the power of moral outrage : Bring it all crashing down, we’ll form some committees and decide what we want to replace it with later.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]