One of my college professors once argued that all narrative fiction is voyeurism. It’s always about the pleasure of watching, of perceiving things that are normally beyond your field of view. Not in the psychosexual sense of voyeurism, or at least not necessarily, but in the way that the act of seeing other people is entertaining. Through fiction, we get to see people as we never could. In film, we see renderings of people who act as if they don’t know they’re being watched. In books, we read their actions from the most intimate of perspectives, even gaining access to their thoughts. Fiction is a chance to transgress the boundaries that normally separate us, and there’s a real pleasure in that transgression. We like seeing other people’s dirty laundry, and fiction lets us.
It’s striking, then, when République casts the player as a watchful set of eyes behind a camera. You play as an individual behind a security apparatus of some sort, capable of interfacing with the cameras and systems of a cloistered, dystopian boarding school. République doesn’t establish or question who you are. You could be a valiant hacker fighting for freedom or just a surveillance officer with a conscience. Either way, the game begins when a teenage girl named Hope, one of the République’s captives, turns to the camera in the corner of a room—to you—and asks for help. You become both guide and watcher, assisting Hope from afar but also observing her and her world. You get to learn about it from a position of absolute safety and absolute power. République makes our voyeurism inescapable, explicitly tying your only means of absorbing and interacting with the game’s world to the surveillance state it critiques.
Surveillance is a type of voyeurism, too. Your position at the other end of the camera is a reminder that behind every security system, there are people watching and making choices about what gets seen and what doesn’t. It’s a salient point. Consider that one of the most well-reported revelations offered by Edward Snowden is how frequently staff at the NSA would abuse their power to entertain their own desire for viewing private moments by exchanging nude photos of American citizens like the creepiest trading cards imaginable. République’s political target is one that’s always shot through with the private and personal, and the game confronts it by putting the player in the tempting, uncomfortable role at its heart.
As you play, you scan objects in the environment for information that’s often needed to navigate Hope’s surroundings and get through all the security pitfalls blocking her path. However, these objects are almost always tagged with related audio-surveillance clips pulled from God knows where. They’re records of private conversations between the boarding school’s security staff, or arguments between the headmaster and the politically aware librarian, or the egoistic musings of the headmaster himself. It’s a glimpse into the soap-operatic machinations behind République’s politics, but they’re also consistently more interesting than the overblown political narrative the game would prefer you care about. I scanned every room meticulously to ensure I didn’t miss a single hidden conversation. For freedom? Truth? Nah. I just wanted to hear the drama play out.
What’s more, this is an impulse the game rewards. Besides the helpful hints and passwords they can contain, scanning for these private conversations earns you points to spend on upgrades for your hacking abilities. République makes snooping both heroic and lurid. If you’re going to assist Hope, you need the perks it bestows, but at least in my case, the desire for one more juicy tidbit of dystopian gossip was just as strong a motivator. Even if you’re not interested in prying and scan objects with nothing but Hope’s best interests in mind, you can’t help but be contaminated by your role as her world’s all-seeing eye. You don’t get to choose when you’re watching her. You’re watching when she needs your help and when she doesn’t—when she’s reacting to tragedy, when she’s smelling flowers, when she’s getting her bearings and steeling herself for what’s to come.
It’s a troubling relationship, but this, République suggests, is the context in which discussions about surveillance need to take. Because if we’re a culture that’s being watched by those in power—and if anything has become clear in the past couple of years, it’s that we are—it can’t be a coincidence that we’re also a culture that relishes doing the watching.
Perhaps fiction is the proper place for our voyeuristic impulses. It’s a place where we can exercise them safely. And it’s, after all, part of the contract, right? We have to want to see people in intimate ways. It’s what gives stories their power and lets them expose us to other people in new, revelatory ways. It’s how fiction teaches, entertains, and influences. It’s not something to feel bad about. It’s not as if I’m watching people through their windows—or working for the NSA.
But then I’m playing the second episode of République. I’m behind a camera, watching as Hope discovers the dead body of a friend. She sobs, and I zoom in to see what she’s going to do next. She steps to a nearby computer. My interface tells me there’s a video on it, a security recording of the moments before this man’s death. I’m given a choice: I can watch it privately, or I can display it on the monitor for Hope to see as well. It’s a decision that brings all of my anxieties about my role to the surface, and it makes me feel sick. What things do we have a right to know about other people? Seeing this man’s death might be useful—for me and Hope alike—but do we have the right to hit play? I hesitate here for a long time.
I decide not to let Hope see it. My only friend on the inside, a security guard named Cooper, tells me my choice relieves him, though he thinks it feels a bit like censorship. I have to disagree. Just because something can be seen, doesn’t mean it should. And while I can’t keep myself from looking, I can at least make sure I’m the only one who does.