Playing Both Sides

Playing Both Sides
In Akira Kurosawa's signature film Rashoman, the Japanese director's black & white movie revealed reality's endless shades of grey by telling the same story from different characters' perspectives. Splash Damage's first-person shooter Brink attempts a similar feat by basically having gamers play through twice to experience both sides of a brewing civil war.

Brink is set in a post-global warming world. The oceans have risen and left an experimental floating city, initially a five-star eco-resort ominously named the Ark, as perhaps the last refuge of humanity. Unfortunately, it was built for 5,000 residents and currently houses 50,000 "guests," which has put everyone at risk. The refugees were grateful to be saved, but soon tired of living in floating shanty towns and shipping containers, working dangerous maintenance jobs and getting limited access to drinking water. Making matters worse, the Ark has lost contact with the mainland.

The game begins with the city on the titular brink as a battle breaks out between two factions – the Security forces determined to maintain order and ration resources versus the Resistance fighter eager to share the water and escape to find habitable land and freedom. Being built for team-based multiplayer – though you can play solo with AI bots – means that this fascinating narrative is somewhat squandered with just short between-battle cut-scenes to progress the story. But it remains an innovative decision to make neither side evil. Security may view the Resistance as terrorists while they believe they're fighting fascists, but the player sees both points of view.

Last fall, EA had the terror-era Medal of Honor reboot change the name of Taliban from the single-player campaign to OpFor (or "opposing force") for the multiplayer after protests from military families, right-wing politicians and, of course, Fox News. Though they were cool with slaughtering the Taliban in the single-player campaign, it became politically untenable to allow gamers to play as them in the multiplayer death matches. If so, I suppose, the terrorists might win.

Homefront recently blurred lines by having gamers play as an American guerrilla fighter defending the Colorado suburbs from a near-future Korean occupation. Though scripted by John Milius, who wrote and directed the similarly themed Cold War classic Red Dawn, changing times mean that American gamers might now better understand occupied populations in far-off lands like Iraq and Afghanistan. But you're still killing cartoonishly evil Koreans.

In Killzone 3, you begin controlling a member of the supposedly evil Helghast soldiers, but it soon becomes clear that you're simply an Alliance fighter in disguise.

Brink went a step further in telling both sides of the story, though not far enough. There are six levels in which you can play both sides, but the Security and Resistance campaigns also each have a pair of "what if" scenarios that exist only in their campaign. In other words, Brink blinked.

It's a means of demonizing the other side without meaning it. If the Resistance fired a missile at a tower, than the game should have the conviction to fully explore that 9/11-referencing moment. Same goes for Security's crackdown and treatment of the Ark's huddled masses yearning (admittedly violently) to be free.

In ancient times, kids would play Cowboys and Indians. When they watched Saturday afternoon serials, they only saw half the story but out back in the woods, both sides were in an even playing field. Early gaming again offered one-sided storytelling but the arrival of multiplayer necessitated that someone play bad guys, even if they are Nazis or terrorists. So developers removed as much narrative as possible to avoid making players empathize with "evil."

But real wars are messy and one man's freedom fighter is actually another man's terrorist. Modern shooters should aim to explore the moral ambiguities of war. Splash Damage makes an important advancement in interactive war stories, and hopefully will inspire someone to go beyond the Brink.