Games have long relied on the narrative of heroic struggle against overwhelming odds to support their most popular mechanic: shooting men and collecting loot. Whether the villain is an evil wizard bent on world domination, hordes of inhuman zombies, or just brown-skinned soldiers, they all represent interchangeable ciphers ready to provide the player’s character justification to commit mass murder.
The ways in which each narrative is flavored, however, can differ significantly and in notable ways. Two games that share a similar premise while harboring distinct themes are IO Interactive’s Freedom Fighters (2003) and Ubisoft’s The Division (2016). Both take place in a hostile, anarchic, New York City. In Freedom Fighters it’s because – as in the film it liberally borrows from, Red Dawn (1984) – the Soviet army has invaded and occupied the city. In The Division, the source of strife is internally derived; sparked by a domestic biological terror attack, the city has fallen into disarray and various gangs have taken over. Both games involve “taking back the city” in some form or another.
Each game draws from a distinct historical setting which serves to both cohere and separate them. Freedom Fighter’s urtext, Red Dawn, was a film firmly couched in Cold War paranoia. It was based on the idea that apocalypse – brought on by two nations with massive armies and huge nuclear armaments battling for hegemony – was just around the corner. The Division taps into a more current fear, which also happens to be the undercurrent of many of Tom Clancy’s other properties: that the enemy is not governments but individuals with their own motivations. The fear is still death and chaos, the unknowable and unpredictable end of civilized society, but the object of that fear has changed shape. And in response to that shifting cipher, the player is given control of two very different kinds of heroes.
In Freedom Fighters you play as Chris Stone, a working class plumber who stumbles into becoming the ersatz leader of a rebel group fighting the Soviet occupation. He’s also in search of his brother who has been kidnapped and damseled by Soviet forces. The Division has you play a nameless citizen soldier; someone who has been recruited and trained under the auspices of the terrifying real-life Directive 51 to maintain the continuity of the Federal Government in emergency situations. You are essentially a trussed up, government-funded, version of a doomsday prepper: someone convinced that civilized society will inevitably come crumbling down, and who imagines themselves one of the few sufficiently prepared to survive. That preparation usually comes in the form of food, water and medical supplies. And lots and lots of guns.
The working class nature of your hero in Freedom Fighters is heavily supported by the text. A plumber is as respected a totem of working class America as it gets. One need only recall the rise and fall of Joe the Plumber who lent dubious working class credibility to McCain/Palin’s Presidential run in 2012. The forces that gave his words the extra weight of authenticity are part of a powerful iconography. Employing them in your narrative says a lot about the kind of message you’re trying to promote.
Meanwhile, The Division does not cast the player as an individual as much as a nameless tool of the U.S. government. Only in the last third of the game do you have to face enemies that are as well-supported as you are. The rest of the enemies in the game are perceived looters, escaped convicts and decidedly working class “Cleaners,” ex-garbagemen who in a kind of group paranoia have taken it upon themselves to burn away any remaining infection from the city.
Though these groups of gangs may provide some challenge in the early stages of The Division, you quickly establish your technological and economic dominance over them. Your home base, The New York State Post Office, is loaded with resources that only become more bolstered and extensive as the game carries on. Many of the missions in The Division involve protecting these same precious resources from the wild and unruly populace. This dichotomy is flipped in Freedom Fighters. Your role is to destroy property and weaken the Soviet-controlled government. The more that chaos is sewn, the less stable the occupation becomes. This is a defining ideology of those who practice guerrilla warfare, and by committing to this ideology Freedom Fighters paints your character clearly in the dramatic colors of a guerrilla fighter.
Of course, guerrilla warfare is not without its controversy. Governments are not incorrect when they blame guerrillas for increasing violence and instability in a region, which often leads to the unnecessary deaths of civilians. This is the line used by the fictional Soviet occupying force in their propagandistic news broadcasts that appear as cutscenes in the game. The Division similarly puts a heavy emphasis on the safety of the city’s civilians. It seeks to tread a line where you are revered as a kind of folk hero even as the brunt of your actions are, as mentioned earlier, in the service of protecting property and maintaining stability and government hegemony. Just as in real cases of guerrilla warfare, both sides claim that their most cherished goal is the safety and livelihood of the noncombatant civilians who then end up being the ones who suffer most.
As such, it’s important to interrogate what these games imply when they task you with “taking back the city.” It can be understood that the idealized resolution of both conflicts is the U.S. government as we currently know it coming back to power. A return to the status quo, rather than the beginning of something new. There are story threads in The Division that suggest potential branching resolutions, but for the purposes of this essay, they are too vague to attribute much narrative impact to.
Considering the plots of both games seek similar outcomes, the contours of how they differ exist primarily along the axis of how you are allowed to seek these outcomes. Some light is shed by examining how each game approaches “squads” and friendly allies in general. While both games feature the similarly redundant ally NPCs that litter the scenery either as panicking civilians, or nearsighted friendly troops, Freedom Fighters allows you to recruit NPCs to fight alongside you and to follow your commands. The amount of NPCs you can recruit depends on your charisma level, which is increased by helping wounded allies and taking over Soviet bases. These NPCs are cut from your cloth: rough and ready armed civilians ready to take up with the insurgency. They aid you, and you aid them, together you present a more unified front in the stoic battle to retake your homeland.
The Division, being released more than a decade later, commits to a fairly online-centric mode of play. While you start the game alone on the streets of New York, it’s trivially easy to join a party of four and play the game with other humans, both strangers or intimate friends. You are thus taken out of the narrative of the game itself; you aren’t recruiting New Yorkers like in Freedom Fighters, or any other characters that might ostensibly exist within the text of The Division, you’re playing with other members of the audience who share the same detached perspective that you do. It helps reinforce the game’s somewhat dismissive attitude toward much of its internal fiction that I like to describe as “disaster tourism.” It’s the kind of tonal dissonance we saw in the first E3 demonstration of The Division’s online play.
The video features scenes of devastation, mixed with the kind of banter you’d reserve for a pickup game of soccer. Not to say that this type of lighthearted online experience is exclusive to The Division, but in prioritizing online interactions, the game loses some of its ability to back up the tone and setting through play. By restricting squads to NPC allies, Freedom Fighters allows its world to stand on its own, without comment, without disconnect, as hokey as that world may be.
The enemy types in each game also make a huge impact on the experience. Freedom Fighters pits you against a cartoonishly evil Soviet army. You spend the game putting holes into cardboard stereotypes and offensive caricatures. But on the level of ethical dubiousness, The Division is far more troubling. While Freedom Fighter’s NYC stops at its famous monuments and exaggerated accents, The Division seeks to replicate as much from the actual location as possible. This added verisimilitude has deeply troubling outcomes when some of the NPCs you’re killing come with a backstory of breaking out of Riker’s Island, a prison with a horrendously troubled real-life history. Even devoid of corrupt institutions, the act alone of shooting rioters in an emergency situation painfully recalls recent American history: during Hurricane Katrina black people were assumed to be looters, shot and arrested at far higher rates than white people.
The diverse means by which the status quo is restored do make a difference in exactly what kind of status quo each game resolves to. By the end of Freedom Fighters Chris and his cohorts celebrate on Governor’s Island, in the face of an uncertain future. The Soviet Union remains in control of the rest of the country, and New York is a burnt out husk of its former glory. A sense of creeping doubt obscures the bright halos caused by celebratory fireworks exploding in the background. The dilemma of every guerilla movement finally rears its head: was it all worth it? Did the means, the innocent blood spilled, truly justify the ends?
The Division asks no such questions, struggles with no such doubt. The game ends in the way many other open-world, player-retention-seeking games do: with nods to plot-threads promised to be unraveled in future installments. And New York, the city that originally expressed some understandable hesitance at inviting a large unaccountable military organization into their midst swaps neatly into a mode of thankfulness and adulation. Sure, the state of things is essentially the same as when you began the game, but your “character” expresses no disappointment at the fact. A game built to provide unlimited play cannot possibly support a satisfying story arc.
The Division tasks the player with saving the world, but in the distracted manner of someone only half paying attention as they tell a story. Self-defense becomes a much more dubious sell when you spend most of your time in the game wandering around shooting black men in hoodies; when you don’t even pretend that your character has any real stake in the situation. It’s a game that prizes fun above resonance, but still wants to slip in compelling, real-life context.
Despite its gritty, hard-edged realism, The Division doesn’t treat its subject-matter nearly as seriously or even holistically as Freedom Fighters ultimately does.