Confronting the exhilarating fiction and the miserable reality of weaponised death is not new for games. This fixation with guns and explosions has driven the tech and culture of games for decades, and a quick glance at the bestseller lists for autumn 2015 indicates that it’s still point of focus, even for a maturing art form which is capable of great beauty beyond pure action and adventure.
That focus on guns isn’t by default a bad thing, though. Aiming, shooting, running and hiding are activities that work tremendously well in games — and many great experiences have been developed from the ‘first person, gun outstretched, grenades on R1’ perspective of a modern 3D shooter — just as everyone from Hemingway to Shakespeare and Scorsese can make varied, great art from roughly the same subject matter.
But there are some weeks when, for whatever reason — political, personal or psychological — a player’s appetite for destruction is just less ravenous than others, and those games curdle in the bright light of real life. And this was one of them.
This was a week soundtracked by the sharp, horrible rattle of real weaponry, and shrill voices both hailing and decrying its existence. This also happened to be a week when the release of Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege and Square Enix’s Just Cause 3 summed up, in two extremely different ways, why games about killing people are still a matter of taste, and timing.
Put as simply as possible, Rainbow Six Siege is a game about special forces versus terrorists, in small spaces, plus robot cameras. The player starts each game — either solo or preferably with a group of friends with whom you can talk and share tactics — outside or inside one of 11 spaces (including an Air Force One style plane and a suburban house), with a gun and some other gadgets. Depending on your ‘side’ you then have to set about invading or defending, while completing various objectives in an attempt to win the day.
As a pure, straightforward and focused gaming experience, it’s very impressive. Graphically it’s somewhere in the mid range of modern shooters, has sharp controls, lacks for single player interest but excels in multiplayer with friends. The destructible walls, grappling hooks, and robotic cameras that surround the player add strategy and depth, and it’s never anything less than a very tense, upsetting and addictive experience — even if you get killed very early on in the round, as WIRED tends to do almost all of the time.
The problem — at least as it appeared this week — is that as pseudo-realistic as Siege purports to be, and as horrible the blood splatters left behind when you kill a given terrorist, or the exploding mist of a suicide bomber, are, the game is still ultimately an exercise in wish fulfilment. The central conceit of Siege is that everything is on the line, but you can stop the bad guys. When you burst through a wall or up through a basement, you won’t find it filled with dead concert goers, embassy staff or tourists. Instead you arrive more or less before the moment of horror, not after.
Others have compared Siege to the 90s home-invasion family classic Home Alone, and they’re right to make that comparison. This is a game about traps, surveillance, gadgets and strategy, and against the madcap blastathon that is Call of Duty it’s even rather intelligent. But it seemed impossible, this week, to play this game, with Paris still reeling and northern Iraq and Syria choked by gunfire and bombing, and not be left as depressed by this game as entertained.
If only our enemies played by the rules of those in this video game: five versus five, almost all the hostages already safe, no one else in sight, and we switch sides at half time. But they don’t, and we don’t. Rainbow Six Siege was fun to play, this week, and it will be for a long time. But it wasn’t much fun to think about.
Violent and bloody Just Cause 3 might be, but it is as different a gun-based video game to Siege as you can get. This is warfare meets The Beano: your task is simply to be set loose upon a sprawling open tropical world and use your wits, reactions, enormous armoury and a stunningly well-tuned wingsuit-parachute-grappling-hook combo to blast your mostly airborne way to victory over the evil Reds in the pay of the Glorious Revolutionary Blues.
Mechanically and graphically it’s absurdly entertaining; the player is free to dispense with the game’s self-consciously rubbish story almost immediately, and take the game for all that it is and no more: a stupid, friendly, cartoonish romp, where you can ride on top of a jet plane and attach rockets to motorbikes for no reason, with explosions seemingly by Michael Bay, technology by Batman, and characters more thinly drawn than a Far Side cartoon copied onto rice paper.
At times — say, when you are soaring above the peaks of Insula buffeted by your impossible wing-suit, then attach yourself via grappling hook to a passing aircraft and ride it directly into a water tower, just after ejecting at the last moment, parachuting to Earth, tethering a machine gunner to a red barrel and watching the ensuing explosive collaboration — it is possible to ignore what this game says about anything, and find enormous enjoyment in the process. And again, fun it is — though fun tempered by long loading times and fiddly controls.
But again, this week, Just Cause 3 felt even more hollow than its developers probably intended. This is game set in a world in which a few well-targeted (or actually, fairly randomly targeted) explosions can bring down an evil militia. Ours, most experts agree, even if they supported UK military action in Syria and Iraq, is not. Wiping evil from a map is not a matter simply of attacking and liberating each fortress in turn. Even finding our enemies is beyond our abilities, most of the time. Grappling hooks and wing-suits, if we had them, would probably help in the fight against ISIS. But then again, probably not. We just don’t know.
Both Rainbow Six Siege and Just Cause 3 are both fine, playable video games. Do they attempt to be realistic portrayals of violence or war? Of course not. And perhaps criticising them on that score is harsh.
But the fact is that both of these games are also, inescapably, culture to be judged against the backdrop of their time. And in that sense, it is hard to see them as anything other than evidence that we still, collectively, want to believe in the transformative power of violence: a few more bombs, or a few more guns, and we can probably sort all of this out. Right?
It’s an attractive idea. Yet everywhere around us we see evidence, more or less irrefutable evidence, that violence does not, after all, have the transformative power we think it does. Both Siege and Just Cause seek to find pleasure in removing violence from narrative, giving the player total power and setting them loose for justice. But this week, of all weeks, was not one in which that mission could seem anything other than at best a joke in poor taste, or a poorly thought-out thesis, and at worst a harrowing, haunting parody.