If war flares again on the Korean peninsula as it threatened to today, there will be far more dire things to worry about than a video game, but the upcoming Homefront will nevertheless feel different.
Homefront, as we've covered here before, is an upcoming first-person shooter set in the near future and scripted by the writer of Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn. It imagines a United States hobbled by economic woes and invaded by a triumphant unified Korea that is led by the real son of current real-life ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il. It is designed to make its players feel something, for me, at least, anger at its Korean invaders.
The game seems different today on a day when the frequently belligerent North shelled the South, killing two. The North claims it was provoked by artillery shots fired by the South. The South denies having done anything other than tested weaponry in their own territory and returned fire today.
Homefront feels today less like sci-fi or a what-if and more like, if not a predictor of future events — few would still expect North Korea to be able to invade the U.S. — a creative work with gut-wrenching timing. It's easier now to believe that in March 2011, when the game comes out, that the Koreas could again be in active conflict.
Most popular war video games involve battles from the past, fights drawn from the conflicts of World War II or, with this year's Call of Duty, Black Ops. Games set in the modern war in Afghanistan, nearly a decade old, already make people leery. But Homefront presents something we haven't seen much of before: A game that could well be setting up a virtual enemy that is on its way to becoming a real one again.
Naturally, the game's creators say they're not trying to piggyback on any real war. "Homefront is a work of speculative fiction, set in the year 2027," a spokesperson for the game's publisher THQ told Kotaku today. "Recent real-world events on the Korean peninsula are obviously tragic and, like everyone, we hope for a swift and peaceful resolution."
The developers of Homefront are nonetheless well aware that their work of fiction continues to intersect with real history, and they've previously not shied away from using real-life bellicosity from the North to amp up the mood they are trying to set for the game.
Consider this recent storyline trailer for Homefront, which includes footage of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's spring 2010 criticism for the North's alleged sinking of a South Korean vessel as an element to hype the U.S.'s in-game tensions with the North:
That trailer shows in a simple way how unpredictable the North is. The expected next ruler of North Korea and the chief antagonist in the Homefront game, Kim Jong-un, had been photographed so infrequently that the image created of him by Homefront's developers for the trailer turned out to be quite wrong. While he's slender in the gaming version; he's chubby in the photo that came out of him in October. Members of the development team for Homefront recently told me they're changing the face, now that they've seen the real thing.
Much of the world wishes they could predict the actions of North Korea, which has sent mixed signals about its interest in continuing or stopping a nuclear weapons program, in reconciling with the South and of having normal relations with the United States and its Asian neighbors. A group of video game developers will be no more capable of anticipating the North's actions than anyone else, and their success or failure with a game that makes the North the enemy that could be released when the North is a more active foe is unknown.
What can be sure is that, if we have more days like today, Homefront's publisher probably won't march a fake North Korean army through downtown Los Angeles again to hype their game. That kind of thing won't be as easy to chuckle at.