For a long time now, maybe since the beginning of the medium, games have been trying to pursue photorealism or something like it, and I’ve never understood it. Sure, a gorgeous game can catch my attention just as well as anyone else’s, but the desire to recreate the real world in digital spaces has always perplexed me, especially when it comes to violence-centric experiences. When Crysis came out almost ten years ago, everyone was stunned at how damn good looking it was. It floored me too, the gorgeous tropical island, varied plant life, and incredibly detailed ocean ecosystem. But then the shooting started. I got close to a group of enemies before opening up on them and what I saw was fucked up. The enemies had believable looks of fear on their faces and they screamed orders to each other in terrified sounding voices. Their eyes rolled back as they died. Looking back, Crysis seems cartoonish and dated, but I developed a feeling of unease at the idea of these sorts of games trying to replicate reality. And yet, here I am ten years later playing The Division.
In case you haven’t heard anything about The Division — congratulations on avoiding one of the most overwhelming marketing campaigns in recent memory — it’s a visually stunning game that takes place in New York City in the aftermath of a devastating viral outbreak around the holidays. The streets are full of inviting looking snow, torn apart Christmas decorations, and signs of a city hastily abandoned. As a member of the titular Division, it’s the player’s job to help the city get back on its feet. And what’s a better way to do that than shoot a fuck-ton of dudes in the face?
When I started, I was told that the city has people in need of help and medical aid, which is difficult to do due to the various criminal elements that have taken over many of the city’s neighborhoods. And when I first entered the city it was obvious that NYC has seen better days, but it looked incredible. Look at this shit:
It’s the first time I’ve seen a digital city that looks truly lived in. The trash is realistically piled up in absence of city employees taking care of it, the Christmas lights make the snow glow beautifully, and the buildings are nearly perfect recreations of their real life counterparts. It’s a joy to wander through the city and feel like a tourist. I passed a few people here and there, not too many since the city has been effectively abandoned, including a couple of guys looking through an abandoned bag for supplies. And like the rest of the game, these people looked great, with proper winter clothes and hesitant looks on their faces. Out of nowhere, someone came over my earpiece and told me that these are bad guys and need to be shot. No reason is given other than “these guys are looters.” Since this is the very beginning of the game, I couldn’t proceed without completing the task. So, reluctantly, I snuck up and shot these two black guys in hoodies (c’mon, video games), who were just looking through a bag they had run across, and then the game let me loot the same fucking bag they were. The game established literally no difference between me and them save I had a badge and they didn’t.
Beyond the problematic optics of referring to the vast majority of villains (mostly black) in this game as looters or rioters — which in the wake of Ferguson and other protests has become media code for black people wearing anything short of a three-piece suit — The Division has dozens of problems when it comes to social issues. The other group of bad guys you face are escaped convicts from Rikers, the large NYC prison. Which seems ok until a character in the game lets you know that most inmates in Rikers are there on bullshit drug charges. So cool, shoot more groups of historically oppressed people.
It’s because of this, especially, that the commitment to realism bites the game in the ass. Seeing a group of five black twenty-somethings in hoodies doesn’t look like just another horde of video game enemies. It looks like any photograph of Queens in December. Visually, they just look like a group of dudes hanging out. But these are black male bodies in an urban setting and so the media we consume tells us they are dangerous and as a person with a badge, it’s your right, duty even, to shoot them. And after you shoot them, they look just like anyone of a dozen photos from the past few years. All of a sudden the incredibly detailed city feels less like a cool place to explore and more like an all too accurate representation of policing gone horribly wrong or a nightmare scenario where fascism wins out.
Players cornering a looter vs a SWAT team pointing guns at a protestor in Ferguson.
The fact that, strictly from a gameplay perspective, The Division is incredible feels like an afterthought compared to all of this. I’m still playing it, because it’s a great game to play with my brain turned off or while listening to podcasts. It controls great and getting a bigger and better gun or piece of body armor sets off all the right endorphins. But every time I get pulled in by the gorgeous visuals, start to become immersed in the game, and actually think about what the game is having me do, I’m repulsed.