The Real Monster
To The Bitter End returned this week with a look at the ending of Crackdown and how it shined a malevolent light on the game’s violent police state, which Toussaint Egan argued should’ve been obvious all along and has only gotten more concerning in our current political climate. As Wolfman Jew pointed out, this is one of many games that tried to get you to rethink your violence, but didn’t make a satisfying point:
Here’s one question I have to games like this that question their own authoritarian politics: Where do we go from here? I mean, we’ve spent years dancing around the politics of modern-day action games, to the point where the games do it as well. But it always feels like the inevitable answer they give is just “more violence, but, you know, against the real bad guys.” I get that there are technical and mechanical reasons for that, and people who put down $60 don’t want to not shoot people in their shooting game. But as someone who doesn’t really define games by their politics, I often find the way they try to deflect them to be more disconcerting. If you’re going to bring it up, shouldn’t there be something more meaty than the hero being evil the whole time?
There are exceptions—Undertale, the endings of Prince Of Persia: Two Thrones and Mother 3—but the rule is more like Crackdown‘s sequel or Haze or Dead To Rights, where you fight each new villain the exact same way. Those games and many more do have political aspirations, which makes it all the more galling that they don’t encourage different types of play. From a political perspective the fundamental problem of police violence is one of culture and methods; we’re taught that immediate and forceful solutions are right, so all we need to do is point that in the correct direction. But that’s kind of the center of the problem, as it encourages the same type of action that leads to extreme violence and the police becoming a sort of protected class.
Maybe that’s the point of this—that there isn’t actual escape. But that seems lazy and reductive when coming from a position of comfort and safety (which these games often appear to be made in and is certainly how they are presented), which just ends up creating a quasi-elitist undercurrent. Look at something like The Division where local occupation is meant to be exciting and fun. Even when they have these kinds of twists, it always feels like they’re about bad people overcoming bad systems, or making your hero the victim instead of all the collateral in his vicinity.
I’d like to propose a possible counteragent: The Wire: The Video Game. Not literally, but I really love the idea of an “open-world action mixed with puzzles” game where different methods of investigation and enforcement lead to different results down the line. Maybe “shock and awe” tactics would be (or seem) necessary at points, but have darker consequences later on, while slower pacing with an eye for detail and community involvement could pay off but be harder to accomplish. There could even be some randomization in the vein of a rogue-like, keeping players from making “perfect” runs. It’d be hard to program, but considering the amount of games where you play as some sort of “warrior cop,” it seems like a plan worth following.
RobertPostsChild searched for reasons why these twists are often limp:
There’s definitely a weird confluence of issues that make games a seemingly awful medium for trying to address heady topics, whether they’re just practical issues or the result of where the industry is at these days. A lot of times it just feels like they’re throwing something in to make it “interesting,” but for whatever reason, the game just isn’t actually equipped to explore it, so it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. (I’m looking at you, weird false equivalencies in BioShock: Infinite!)
Narrative demands worthy opponents and the escapist desire for solutions that are understandable, unlike real life. Neither of those things are particularly objectionable in and of themselves but can end up backing stories into weird corners, especially when it all has to ultimately be an excuse for the player to do the thing that the game is. Designing your game around that, rather than grafting a narrative onto a pre-determined one, is really the only way to avoid the problem.
TheOligarchicMe laid down a game idea that used the same backdrop as some of these games, but was focused on rebuilding society, rather than blowing it to pieces:
I have always wanted to see a semi-serious portrayal of full-blown Escape From New York-style “urban breakdown,” so things like The Division and The Dark Knight Rises kind of piss me off in how vague and fridge-logic-prone they are. There are so many opportunities to explore how communities hold together in those extreme situations and how authority figures could maintain order, but they tend to handwave all the problems.
So my dream game would be Deus Ex meets Crackdown or The Division but about actually building up society again in a post-apocalyptic city. Fight off the gangs of looters, but also help settle homeless people in safer areas, restore utilities, negotiate trade between scavengers and rebuilders, make peace between warring neighborhoods. Make players have to work for their libertarian fantasy.
Elsewhere, NakedSnake tried to reconcile the realities of video game violence:
When you are dealing with video games, no matter how violent they are, you are still fundamentally dealing with somebody in front of a screen moving around pixels with a controller. No one is being hurt. But just like how in my dreams I never allow myself to cheat on my wife, so too does the real world intrude on our virtual violent fantasies. We just can’t shake the notion, no matter how subliminal, that our in-game behavior is psychopathic unless there is some kind of pretext or justification for our violence. Maybe this is why video game plots are all so self-serious. Their purpose is not really to draw us into the game, but rather to lull our conscience to the point where we can just revel in the violence. People often talk about the buried evil that humanity barely manages to suppress under the veneer of civilization. In the conflicted attitude that video games have toward violence, we see evidence of the buried goodness too.
Bringing the conversation back to Crackdown, ItsTheShadsy thought the biggest issue was that the game didn’t earn the finale’s attempt subversion:
I don’t think Crackdown ever earned that ending. The game is an insane sandbox of pandemonium, and the last minute feels like a kid caught playing with their toys trying to explain how it’s actually a learning experience in order to satisfy their parents. The sudden seriousness is at odds with everything that came before—and the fact that you can continue playing around afterward.
The issue, I think, is that Crackdown‘s satire is too inconsistent to support the ending. The game’s humor, if and when it exists, seems to be going for parody through exaggeration, something like RoboCop‘s take on violence and consumerism. But apart from the sporadically solid bits like the probable-cause scenario mentioned in the article, it abandons those ideas in the pursuit of fun chaos. The ending should have been Crackdown’s version of learning about The Fourth Directive, but without the groundwork, it feels tacked on. The article is right to say that your actions aren’t far removed from the ending’s message, but the game does a poor job calling attention to that in the moment.
The racial and ethnic politics could only work if the game was an effective satire throughout. It’s not. So instead of playing out as a commentary on the socio-economic implications of force, it’s just killing minorities followed by finger wagging.
That’ll do it for this week, Gameologionnaires. Thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!