I can summarize 20 hours in The Division, the Grimdark multiplayer game set in a post-terror attack New York City, with an anecdote.
Early in my journey, a colleague and I stumbled across an arresting recreation of the World Trade Center subway station. Uprooted from Lower Manhattan and plopped into the The Division's version of Midtown, the structure's iconic bleached arches, which jet into the sky like a cracked rib rage, are unfinished and abandoned. Something terrible happened here.
Unsure if any stragglers remained, we approached the monument slowly, looked into the darkness of the station, then walked down the stalled escalator, firing shotgun rounds into heavily armed goons. We descended further underground. Deep within the cavernous subway tunnels, we found a giant furnace, and in the room alongside it, dozens of caskets, each draped with an American flag. Whoever lived here planned to burn the bodies with the indifference and efficiency of a production line.
The loaded bit of imagery — the architecture built in the shadow of a real terrorist attack reimagined as a battleground in the fictional follow-up — was distracting enough that I didn't notice a man in a biohazard suit leap from behind the nearby doorway. Before I could lift my weapon, the goon's flamethrower doused my friend, killing him instantly.
My colleague excused himself from the video game for a moment. While I fought deeper into the subway-turned-morgue, I could still hear my buddy through the headset: chatting with his wife, making plans for the weekend, and letting rip the loudest, wettest, most percussive fart.
And so you get the gist of the loop I enter when I play The Division: I'm awed by craftsmanship, disturbed by the setting, distracted by gunplay, and jolted by somebody in their underpants a hundred miles away passing explosive gas, triggering some intangible renewal of the cycle.
Multiplayer games are an unpredictable mix of reality and fiction
I'm trying to bridge the divide between how game designers imagine their games will be played, and how games are actually played. When Ubisoft first presented The Division years ago in a flashy Los Angeles theater, a team of developers thwarted terrorists with SWAT-like precision, barking orders and call signs like they'd been raised on military bases. The game still maintains that seriousness, however superficially. In the alternate timeline of The Division, a bioterrorist used tainted dollar bills and Black Friday sales to spread smallpox, kneecapping the US government in less than a week. As a member of a secret agency that's paged to save the world when the police and army have failed, your character is asked to abandon your family, catch the first chopper to Brooklyn, and exterminate an infestation of thousands of criminals, rioters, and rogue government employees.
I wonder if the divide between how the game would be played in a vacuum versus someone's living room is what has allowed studios to feel comfortable green-lighting fantasies that would seem too uninviting to be fun. The world is as unapologetically lifelike as it is glum. An introductory video splices news snippets and steadicam footage to sell the player on the plausibility of our nation's infrastructure toppling like a row of dominoes. As the vignette concludes, footage shifts to the video game world, which embraces its photorealism. It's weird to consider a video game publisher investing years (and hundreds of millions of dollars) to create a hyper-believable recreation of the worst-case scenario of a domestic terror attack, and doubly weird that the publisher believes this world, above all others, is one in which people will want to spend hundreds of hours.
Inviting players to trade the real world for the apocalypse isn't new to game, but usually adventures like Fallout 4 and the glut of zombie shooters distance themselves from our reality with cartoonish design, a distant time period, the inclusion of monsters, or some combination of the three. The Division is set in version of the present, and its human targets are conjured from an uncomfortable theory that should the terrorists win, some good-hearted government agents will need to kill all the looters and rioters.
Manhattan isn't as safe or fantastic as Destiny's sci-fi setting
Like Activision's Destiny, from which it takes constant inspiration, The Division is a cross between a traditional shooter and an expansive online game with hundreds of thousands of players. Destiny is an accessible space opera with the moral stakes of a fairytale, making it a thrilling escape from reality. The Division's Manhattan is more of a burrowing into reality, an exploration of its nastiest possibilities.
It's easier to digest this world if you embrace the absurdity, molding the gritty tale into your personal comic book. This New York isn't so different than Gotham if the Joker won. Prisoners have chosen to forego the opportunity to find their families for a life of senseless murder in an irradiated Manhattan. Rioters have stuck around so they can riot about... I don't know, stuff? And most comically, the NYC Sanitation Department has ransacked a costume store for its Pyro costumes, and it's begun burning the virus away — along with the rest of Manhattan. One tussle with the Sanitation Department culminates with The Division battling a squadron of flamethrower-wielding civic employees in Macy's, its towering Christmas tree serving as a effigy over the naked mannequins. What do these people do when they're not murdering people? If I knew, I probably wouldn't like shooting them so much.
I suppose that's the twisted bit: more so than both Destiny's alien ships and Fallout 4's stylized retro-futurism Boston, I like to spend time in The Division's waking nightmare. And I'm not alone. Last weekend, over 1.2 million people were concurrently shooting folks in virtual Manhattan.
Over a million people want to spend free time in a nightmare
Underneath the precise art design and icy plot, The Division somehow feels like a light and spritely action game. The blueprints for large missions mix claustrophobic hallway or yawning, open spaces in which you move from one piece of cover to the next, filling enemies with ammunition until they drop, unlocking a closet full of more powerful enemies that require even more ammunition to topple. The kill, collect, and upgrade dance is proven fun, and The Division performs it well.
Hunting people on the streets of Manhattan is so perversely playful that the game's bleakest concept is its best. The Dark Zone is the competitive multiplayer area of Manhattan. Quarantined from the rest, its couple dozen blocks are where players travel to kill powerful baddies and each other for rare, high-end weaponry. The Dark Zone like Charlton Heston's nihilistic fantasy made real. Without cut-scenes or exposition, the player-on-player scrimmages tell the story of thousands of people who, in an end-of-days scenario, choose to spend their final hours manically sprinting through the streets, fighting one another for the best remaining guns. The mode aligns cognitively with the image of thousands of women and men in their underpants, belching, farting, and scratching themselves as they slaughter digital representations of one another. Our ancestors living in caves couldn't have dreamed of something most satisfying.
I enjoy the Dark Zone both as a game and as an unintentional work of political commentary. As I roam its avenues and alleyways, I complain to friends in-game about jerkwads who prey on lower-level players, hunting us like defenseless deer. Then I find a couple deer of my own and drop them for a couple extra bills of in-game currency. To keep weaponry found in the Dark Zone, you must call for a helicopter at poorly guarded meeting points, wait for the chopper to arrive, then attach your gear to a rope, so that it might be airlifted to safety — assuming you aren't mowed down in the process. Each helicopter instance triggers a stand-off between people who've been trained by decades of shooters that firing your weapon isn't just the best solution but the only one. And yet here in the Dark Zone, firing the gun is often the wrong choice. The Dark Zone shrewdly allows players to create their own drama by making each interaction with a stranger an opportunity at cooperation or exploration.
With almost zero spoken story, and The Dark Zone's more narratively stable than the game's campaign. I begrudged having to return to the official plot which, depending on the scene, is a pantomime of Oliver Stone, Christopher Nolan, Paul Greengrass, or Paul W.S. Anderson. In one moment, forklifts transport stacks of body bags; in the next, you're shotgunning pyromaniacs in Madison Square Garden; in the next, you're giving a homeless person a soda in exchange for a fancy scarf. The tone is fickle, trying to graft comic book characters onto a street corner littered with corpses of citizens that didn't live long enough to compete with each other for hot loot.
This is NYC, for better and for worse
What a beautiful recreation of New York City, though. I just can't say it enough. Like a bespoke suit or a designer gown, the art design elevates the humble body on which it's dressed. That Macy's level is a game of follow-the-glowing-arrow in a giant cube that you can find in decade-old games, but the rendering of individual boutiques, articles of clothing, check-out stations, jewelry cases, and waiting areas is awe-inspiring. The plot setup — Black Friday, the holiday time, a fallen government, a Manhattan in recovery — lives in the tiny details, like a still glowing plastic tree or a wooden Santa Claus that's waving endlessly to an empty clothing store.
Perhaps other apocalypse games haven't gone far enough. I wonder as I look forward to spending dozens more hours in The Division if what I like about its world is what I think would repel me. Maybe a cure for my post-9/11 anxiety is taking control of my worst fears. After all, what could be more empowering than walking through a worst-case scenario, than doing so heavily armed, surrounded by friends, belching and farting in your underpants?
Think of where Ubisoft can go from here. Bring the The Division down to Wall Street, the real world Dark Zone — is that too much? Or could The Division ever make a stop at the World Trade Center? When does our obsession with the abyss stop being fun? Where's that line? Because I thought a crematorium in a New York subway would be it, but as I collected my rare level-25 shotgun, I confess I was wrong.
The Division doesn't answer my questions or extinguish my paranoia, but in a time when I worry my country could slip off the cliff and plummet into darkness, a game with clear targets, infinite ammo, and the support of your close friends is a unexpected and timely fantasy.