I saw Tom Clancy’s The Division twice at E3, and if not for the title cards, I might have thought I was seeing two different games. At Microsoft’s press conference, it was a strategic team-based shooter with a thudding bass soundtrack and a firefight on the steps of New York’s James Farley Post Office. Its bouncy, ironic Christmas music made it feel a little like Die Hard.
At Ubisoft’s show a few hours later, it was a quiet tragedy. A sobbing woman sang "Silent Night" as the camera panned over an empty house, time-lapse video subtly depicting a child dying and a man begging for his life. Blood spattered on the window of a New York brownstone. A group of Division agents appeared as saviors, their expressions suggesting that they might cry at the sight. And then some mooks in gas masks showed up, and everybody pulled out the rifles. Until that point, you could probably have called it Tom Clancy’s The Road.
As Polygon’s Chris Plante has put it, "the dead child is why we have to kill everyone with our friends online." His assessment is that these trailers, instead of being window dressing, should be the goals that games like The Division aspire to. Domestic drama along with the health packs and action. Like him, I look forward to games that capture small sadnesses and poignant moments. But if the game is anything like its demo, The Division is the last place those moments should be.
As we put more resources into realistic graphics and interesting settings, action games — Ubisoft’s in particular — are turning into uneasy pastiches of real-world pain. Assassin’s Creed has always thrived on historical disaster, taking on the Crusades and the American Revolution. The latest game, Unity, pushes the limits of this strategy by putting players in what creative director Alex Amancio called "one of the most brutal and tumultuous periods in recent history," the tragic and bloody French Revolution. Host Aisha Tyler praised the series for "making history seem insanely real."
Making history insanely real
This was a few hours after I watched four almost identical men swoop down on a group of aristocrats and stab them to death to demonstrate Unity’s new four-player co-op mode. This isn’t a moment of excess that we can move past. It’s the core mechanic of the entire series. And it’s a good mechanic, one that can require real skill and provide emotional satisfaction through its cartoon logic. I wouldn’t play an Assassin’s Creed game that wasn’t about the freedom of leaping and sneaking and, yes, stabbing. I’m just uncomfortable with the idea that this is anything like hearing real stories from the revolution. There are many tales you can tell with AAA action games, many styles you can write them in. Realism is not one of them.
Spend enough time with a video game character, and you may feel bad if they die. But with few exceptions, life is cheap in even the most restrained shooters and other action games. You can personally murder more people in a single BioShock Infinite mission than are killed by heroes and villains alike in the entirety of the first Die Hard film. By any realistic standard, a morally ambiguous protagonist wouldn’t be a soldier who went too far, he’d be a murderer on the scale of Timothy McVeigh. Add a multiplayer component to something and this issue grows exponentially. It doesn’t matter whether it’s "in self-defense." You’re a single person casually killing in orders of magnitude that real-life human beings can barely begin to conceptualize. And that killing is fun.
Like the Greek pantheon, the worlds of AAA action games play by different rules than ours. And like the pantheon, their larger-than-life symbolism makes them a perfect place for pulp, fables, and allegories. One of the best-written shooters of all time is BioShock, precisely because its personal stories are told in the context of a Randian world of towering archetypes, far removed from our own.
It’s when the mythic element is removed, when we try to ground the finely tuned mechanics of Tomb Raider or Call of Duty in the everyday, that we realize how deep these differences run. Imagine if the creators of The Road Runner Show decided to show the tragedy of violence by having Wile E. Coyote’s Acme bomb blow him to realistic pieces, then sending in his family to mourn his death. Then imagine that he got back up and kept chasing the Road Runner. This is a "poignant" AAA shooter. It’s trying to have its cake and eat it too.
AAA action games play by different rules than ours
There’s no reason that genres can’t "grow up" as the people who enjoy them age. We just have too a narrow definition of what that means. We equate maturity with middlebrow sentimentality, treating sadness as the be-all and end-all of meaningful fiction. Roger Ebert hurt gaming when he issued his ultimatum that games could not be art, but it’s not because he muffled our artistic voice. It’s because he created a generation of gamers desperate to prove their credibility, latching onto the markers of respectable fiction in order to reassure themselves that no one could call them childish, but never examining whether the function was right for the form. We have created the cargo cult of Oscar bait.
At the same time, though, we’ve found mechanics that mesh perfectly with certain kinds of realism, whether that’s slow first-person exploration or a harrying matching game like Papers, Please. We’ve even found a twisted and shattered version of The Road in the grim and unconventional DayZ. Deciding that some things don’t work doesn’t mean we should settle for "big dumb shooters," give up on interesting plots and characters, or give racism and sexism a pass. If anything, this is an opportunity to forge new ground.
Amidst a million deaths, it’s hard to turn a single one into a tragedy instead of a statistic. For us, death is vast and final. For our violent digital avatars, it’s a speed bump. As long as a game has killing as a central mechanic, it’s difficult to reconcile those two facts. I love shooters. I don’t want them to go away, and I want them to talk about the human condition. There are just ways of talking about the human condition that don’t require ignoring everything else that a game is about.