Published Jul 25, 2010Crackdown 2 was pretty fun when I first played the demo. But before I got my thumbs on the final code, the G20 summit tore apart downtown Toronto — including an incursion of 300 riot cops into my neighbourhood to raid the protestors' Parkdale headquarters — and shook my faith in Canada's police services. All of a sudden, playing a super-powered super-violent super-cop engaging in street battles with anarchists and freaks rampaging through an urban centre was super disconcerting. Sure, the former are allegedly "terrorists" and the latter zombie-like mutant thugs, both seemingly determined to smash the state. But isn't that kinda how the billion-dollar G20 security force viewed the protestors, black bloc and peaceful demonstrators alike?
It's too rare that a videogame causes one to reconsider the real world; with its shockingly limited narrative and lack of moral shading, Ruffian Games, the new team behind the Crackdown sequel, simply assembled a mindless three-way war between the order-restoring Agency, revolutionary Cell and mutated freaks.
But as the Canadian government actually cracked down on street protestors — menacing images of thousands of riot cops armed with batons that seemed straight out of a videogame — it revealed the intellectual limits of Crackdown 2, which consists of your genetically enhanced Agent killing everyone on Pacific City's decaying streets not sanctioned by the Agency's privatized police force. Shouldn't the game consider that we might be the bad guy? And shouldn't we consider that it might be promoting fascism? Downtown-in-distress has become a mini-genre as of late, with the impressive likes of Prototype and InFamous set in cities gone mad, but even they haven't taken the transcendent narrative next step.
It's not impossible in gaming. Michel Ancel's 2003 cult classic Beyond Good & Evil made its post-9/11 socio-political pontificating intrinsic to the game play with its investigative photojournalist protagonist uncovering Bush/Cheney-inspired corruption. Essentially, the government used wartime fear and propaganda to control the planet's populace while conspiring with their enemies even as a resistance movement worked to uncover the subterfuge and spark a revolution. (A highly anticipated sequel is in the works by Ubisoft, though there's no release date.)
BioShock used objectivism and collectivism as philosophical underpinning of their dystopian third-person shooter while first-person parkour game Mirror's Edge offered up a story of state security run amuck. Mark Ecko's failed videogame incursion Getting Up!: Contents Under Pressure drew parallels between our post-Patriot Act world and the game's own totalitarian metropolis, perhaps inspired by the similar graffiti artists vs. authoritarian police state of Jet Set Radio Future.
Crackdown 2 scattered a few audio logs around its open-world hinting at corruption within the Agency, and the closing (and only second) cut-scene sorta follows up on the first game's mwa-ha-ha reveal that it was all the Agency Director's power-grab to control Pacific City. But Ruffian didn't have the nerve to really delve into politics and morality, despite abandoning the original game's criminal gangs in favour of political dissidents.
The story is practically invisible, leaving the sequel's unspoken message — aside from how addictive it is to jump around a city collecting orbs that let you jump higher around a city to collect more orbs — a one-sided argument for status quo-cementing and dissent dispersing.
But what unfolded on the streets of Toronto showed how Rashoman-like reality really is. All sides sincerely believe they're in the right. This is the multi-pronged approach that Bethesda (Fallout, Oblivion) and UK developer Splash Damage (Enemy Territory: Quake Wars) are bringing to their highly anticipated first-person shooter Brink. Due next spring, this ambitious new effort has people playing full solo and multiplayer campaigns on either the side of "Resistance" or "Security." In its post-apocalyptic scenario, a flooded Earth has left survivors on a floating eco-city called the Ark, which can't support its ballooning population and after years of social upheaval is on the, yep, brink of civil war. The security forces want to keep the streets safe and city sustainable while the resistance movement is fighting for the rights of "Guests," refugees left floating just outside of the Ark.
With all factions feeling justified in their actions, Brink's reported grey shading, perspective shifting and intellectual rigour does what the pro-authoritarian Crackdown 2 hardly even hinted at. If able to deliver on its promise, Brink could finally achieve the narrative transcendence politically minded gamers have been shooting for.