'Real world issues' in games like Deus Ex are there for marketing reasons, not for art

September 2, 2016 by John Brindle

Most AAA games don't make good-faith attempts to seriously address the "real world issues" they include in their stories.

There is a cycle we are used to by now. An AAA game is announced with a potentially fascinating concept. Its themes seem ripped from the headlines, tapping into the zeitgeist and promising to explore hot-button issues. During marketing its developers play up to this impression, talking enthusiastically if vaguely about its Serious Themes. Some people are cynical, some people are hopeful; all the usual hoopla plays out. Then it gets released, and it's stunningly inane -- or, at the very least, banal.

I don't yet know if Deus Ex: Mankind Divided will finish this cycle. Zam's reviewer says there's "not a whole lot of depth" to its politics, but we have already watched the first three stages unfold. First there was the controversy over marketers' use of the phrase "mechanical apartheid." Then there was the usual misinterpretation of criticism as a denial of the right to create. Then, most recently, there was a minor ruckus about old concept art which featured the slogan "Aug Lives Matter." For me and many others the problem was not that the developers addressed these themes at all, but that they seemed unlikely to treat them as anything more than window-dressing. We shared a profound cynicism that, in an industry whose key players so often betray a blithe and impoverished understanding of the real world, we would see any serious engagement with, say, systemic racism.

When this happens, we quite reasonably wonder: how? How do people who explicitly aim to tackle such interesting subjects end up so flagrantly failing to understand them? How do we have all this talent and money sloshing around only to create games which are so shallow or incoherent? What is it that happens between conception and execution which kills off any semblance of artistic depth?

I would like to advance a thesis which may strike some as cynical. I can't say that it's definitely true because I don't have enough insider knowledge of how a videogame studio works. And I would like to stress that in advancing it I am not accusing anyone of being lazy. I can only say that it works really well as an explanation for the repeated failures of "serious themes" in big, high-budget AAA games; if it's true, the whole thing makes sense. The thesis is as follows: real-world themes in most AAA games are best understood as a form of marketing first, and of art second if at all.

Consider Watch Dogs and its forthcoming sequel, set in San Francisco. They are exciting grab bags of every possible thing which signifies "hacking" and "the future": glitch art, CCTV, emoticons, 3D printing, personal drones, chat apps, distorted voices reciting teenage manifestoes. The first Watch Dogs was marketed as a game "about" surveillance, designed to "ignite discussion and reflection" about surveillance and the politics of data. In some ways it works: walking through a crowd and reading snippets of each person's life on your Profiler, letting your findings dictate how you treat them, is genuinely disturbing, while attempting to pass as an NPC in the stealth-based multiplayer "invasions" makes you feel like you're blurring the boundary between human and simulation.

But by and large the game says nothing in particular about its subject. Flashes of interest are lost in a mud of bad dialogue. The hacker ideal of escaping and breaking the systems which surround us disappears into an endless chase after tokens and incentives. Moreover, the centrality of guns undermines the idea that technology is a key vector of power: most situations can be resolved with violence alone. Your enemies are easy to defeat not because they are digital have-nots, but because they are weaker and shabbier at aiming than you are. There is a sense that the premise is working very hard to conform itself to the standard Ubisoft open world game template, regardless of how well that template suits the premise.

If Watch Dogs represents the "banal" version of this cycle, The Division is "stunningly inane." Although not explicitly advertised as an issues-based game, in practice it steps into that space. Its intro invokes Black Friday, the financial crash, and the controversial Executive Directive 51, as well as the fear of terrorism which has been a constant in the West since 2001. Austin Walker on the Giant Bomb podcast also points to the character of Larae Barrett, a prison gang leader who at one point scolds the player: "Just one more dead black body on the pile, right? Just nothing to you!" For Walker this is a kind of 'tell' which proves at least one writer knew they are skating close to ongoing debates about race, justice, and order in America, and which might even constitute their attempt at joining it.

And yet The Division flops even worse than Watch Dogs. Where it fails to engage its themes, it's simply superficial, but where it succeeds it's actually repugnant. Others have dissected its contradictions plentifully, not least Heather Alexandra in her review for this site, who scoffs at the way the game asks you to shoot "looters" while simultaneously looting everything you can. Any aesthetic problem that might get in the way of a functioning loot-based MMO is disregarded, with predictably disturbing results.

In fact there are only three kinds of people in The Division: players (plus their armed NPC allies); civilians, who never attack you and cannot be shot and to whom you give snacks and soda; and "looters" or "rioters," who always attack on sight, who can only be shot and never reasoned with, who were apparently rioters since they were born. The latter are easy to identify because they lazily replicate the racialized iconography of contemporary gang crime, and they remain rioters or looters both prior to and independently of any actual rioting or looting. But the game never explains why "looting" is still a criminal act when the rule of law has broken down, nor how people in Manhattan are supposed to survive except by looting. You just shoot them in the back and shoot them without warning because they're enemies. In the real world, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this category of "looter" functioned to legitimize violence by trigger-happy police officers and white vigilantes against black survivors. Surely, surely, that should have taught us to be suspicious of such categories, of how they are produced and maintained? Not according to The Division, anyway.

But to give it due credit, the game works quite hard to convince you that these are bad people who deserve to die. Its Brooklyn-based tutorial segment is littered with expository notes about the evil of your enemies. "Rioters stole the food supply," explains your obsequious earpiece companion at one point. Apparently they're "selling it back" to people in an act of "pure profiteering." They also steal morphine ("probably just going to sell it or use it") and take hostages ("they want to trade [them] for dugs"). Don't ask why they're being so transparently nefarious in an environment where most people would probably just be trying to survive, nor how they can still be "rioters" while running a black market. Just accept the obvious hints that it's okay to kill these people, even before they've done anything, even from behind or without warning. Indeed, the very first person you're told to shoot is already holding a gun to someone's head; later, you find footage of enemies burning people alive. Near the end of the tutorial, earpiece guy gives his gushing thanks: "I just want to say, I've lived in Brooklyn my whole life," and blah blah, thanks for everything. The game is love-bombing you; even after the end of the world, it wants you to feel good about what you're doing.

That's intensely jarring, because anyone can see there are a lot of moral grays in a city under quarantine. It requires, or seems to require, the imposition of an artificial "order" on a confusion of desperate people. If The Division aspired to fulfill the rich political, social and even biblical echoes of its name (which after all is almost a literal translation of "apartheid"), and speak to those debates about police brutality, we might expect it to foreground the act of division itself – of separating the world into healthy and sick, lawful and unlawful, owner and looter. We'd hope it would ask us to consider who maintains these divisions, who benefits from them, who they hurt and what they are worth.

Rioters in The Division Rioters in The Division

But by and large The Division comes pre-divided. Its world has already been cut up. No division is required from the player except perhaps to calculate DPS. And so instead of exposing division as an artificial structure created by human beings who are accountable for what they do and must live with the consequences, it somehow manages to replicate the trick to which all tyrannies aspire and in which most videogames succeed – of making its divisions seem natural, pre-existing, inherent in the structure of existing reality, with no messy triage required.

When you play games like these it's tempting to think of the AAA industry as one big Chinese Room experiment. Maybe it's actually populated by people who are really adept at sounding like they know what they're talking about without actually knowing – who only know how to manipulate the symbols of language to sound like they are addressing real-world themes, not how to provide the substance. But I don't find that quite plausible; it sells short the level of genuine expertise and talent which flows into the games industry. Still, we are looking at a persistent pattern of games which bungle their themes in much the same way every time.

In Matthew Seiji Burns and Tom Bissell's short narrative game The Writer Will Do Something – a tortured groan of exasperation by two veteran studio developers – you play the lead writer on a fictional AAA title which is undergoing a crisis. In the course of an argument with the producer who wants you to make it "grittier, tougher, meaner," you have the option to protest that this is a game with a signature weapon called the Gunsword. When he asks "so?" you reply:

"You want a serious, sober, gray-skied story, but you don't want to give up your gameplay. And I understand not wanting to give that up — it's what everyone likes about ShatterGate. That doesn't change the fact that you're asking for something impossible. Don't you get that? You want to have your cake and eat it too."

This is the precisely the pattern by which serious themes in AAA games fail. Where serious themes can enhance or coexist with an established genre template such as the open-world action game or the loot-based MMO, they are engaged (as with Watch Dogs' Profiler). But where they would require too substantial a deviation from these templates – for instance, where they make repeated knee-jerk violence seem like an inadequate or sinister response – they are ignored. After all, The Division's simple split between always-hostile enemy NPCs and friendly helpless civilians is perfectly normal for a videogame of this type. It's just that in the context of Hurricane Katrina and Black Lives Matter it suddenly seems very unpleasant. So it seems like the themes exist to serve, to decorate, to market the power fantasy, rather than the other way round. The fantasy is always prior; the Gunsword always comes first.

As I say, I'm agnostic about what causes this. Maybe no single human being intends it – maybe the intention plays out on the level of the group mind, in the friction of machinery against machinery. But serious themes do usually end up functioning as a kind of inoculation, a protective device, which shields the power fantasy from criticism by conferring on it even the slightest trace of importance and artistic worth. This isn't just a third-person shooter; it's a third-person shooter which questions what it means to be human!

Because Gamergate was right about one thing: the gaming press has been taken over by a liberal intelligentsia, and thank God for that. Arguably it always was one, but in the last ten years the attention paid by mainstream journalists to aesthetics and ideology has reached new heights -- thanks in no small part to persistent agitation from outside the mainstream. Slowly, in fits and starts, it is becoming normal to actually treat games as art rather than just bleating that they should be. At the same time, however, a substantial proportion of the player base remain indifferent or actively hostile towards this agenda, and devoted to traditional generic forms -- or at least publishers believe this is the case, and are scared of losing their audience.

So serious themes become a kind of dual-level marketing technique which aims to smuggle formulaic nonsense past the limited group of people who know or care what apartheid was without scaring off the people who don't. It helps that these groups are not clearly delineated: genre fans aren't stupid and do value thematics, while many of the intelligentsia enjoy power fantasies and are willing to go out on a critical limb in order to defend them as art.

This thesis, while reductive, would help explain why Serious Themes in AAA games are so often occluded through science fiction or fantasy -- "mechanical apartheid" instead of actual apartheid. Making them nakedly about real-world issues would code them as too boring and righteous for non-critics. It would also explain why the creators of these games routinely insist that they "aren't making a political point." This seems incoherent: how can you explore real-world issues without making any kind of statement? But if those issues are actually, by design, a kind of surface embroidery which can be draped over whichever game engine you choose, it makes perfect sense: you don't want to make a political point, because that would be more engagement than you require, and it would carry risks you don't really need to take.

Bioshock infinite uses racism to seem clever, not because it has something intelligent to say about it Bioshock Infinite uses racism to seem clever, not because it has something intelligent to say about it

This is not a new critique. Back in 2013 Dan Golding wrote perceptively about BioShock Infinite's "aesthetics of intelligence." Instead of being genuinely interested in the weighty historical themes it invokes, he said, the game simply "uses racism for no other reason than to make itself seem clever" -- an aesthetic veneer which lends it the trappings of importance and intelligence. Still, it now seems prudent to extend that critique into something of a general theory. We will all be less surprised albeit no less disappointed by the failure of Serious Themes if we make the default assumption that they exist to emulate artistic legitimacy rather than to deserve it. Indeed, if, as Nikki Bee says on Twitter, the meaning of "aug" in Deus Ex is polyvalent --; that is, it stands in for different real world issues at different times depending on the whim of the writer -- then perhaps it is really standing in for real world issues in general rather than for any specific problem. That is, the primary function of augmentation as a narrative device is to signal that the game is about something.

That publishers feel they have to send that signal at all is a victory of sorts. The promises which are not kept in this generation will form the baseline expectations for the next one. But I'm not sure that players or critics are ultimately the ones most beguiled by this marketing technique. The games industry is haunted by a kind of ancestral shame, stretching back to Ebert and beyond, that our medium is not good enough. We still fear that it's for children, that it's a toy, that it's superficial nonsense no serious person need care about. At the same time, people who work for AAA studios often pull long hours to murky milestones with limited creative control. I suspect it really helps people endure that if they feel that the game they are working on has artistic worth and weight. I would guess it's actually very important to a lot of AAA developers to believe that they're creating something that matters. So perhaps it is developers themselves who are most invested in the idea that their Serious Themes are more than a façade.

In The Writer Will Do Something, your character is sometimes quite skeptical that themes in games can work at all. In one ending, you quit to become an indie developer, but the same problems keep cropping up. Another ending transplants them to a soda company. Towards the end you wonder if this kind of thematic dysfunction is inevitable in any sufficiently large and complex creative endeavor; maybe nobody knows how to do this properly. Yet there are big studio games which achieve genuine thematic depth and coherence: Dishonored, MGS2, the Portals, and The Last of Us: Left Behind are among them. The task is not impossible. There is a better way. It's just a question of how capable the AAA studio is, as an institution, of aligning its priorities like that.

For now, the next time you're playing an AAA game which has made a mess of its promised themes, ask yourself: are you playing an artistic endeavor which failed? Or a marketing effort which succeeded?