Video games let us be heroes. They let us don the cape, wave the flag, put on the badge, hoist the blue lightsaber or simply face the fires of dragons to save the princess.
They could let us be anyone, though. Terrorists, for example. They could let us be them.
If you take your video games as fun machines, you wouldn't much like the idea that a video game can let you role play a terrorist. You'd be happy being an Angry Bird or Batman or the person controlling dropping Tetris blocks simply because that's fun. Terrorism? Not fun.
But if you're interested in video games as role-playing devices, as time machines or actors' scripts, then you, like me, may have been eager to be a terrorist in the new game Brink. Unfortunately, though, it's all a cheat.
Brink is a multiplayer-focused first-person shooter with a strand of narrative justifying a series of skirmishes that pit two factions against each other. One faction is Security, the police force on a floating city called The Ark. The other is the Resistance, dubbed "terrorists" by the Security forces. The game is futuristic. Most of civilization on Earth has supposedly been wiped out, wrecked by, among other things, the melting of the polar ice caps. The Security does the bidding of the Ark's head honchos, The Founders, to keep The Ark safe. The Resistance, made of scrappy refugees from the outside world who fled to the Ark resist being treated like unwelcome dregs.
(Spoiler warning: I'll be discussing late-game missions from Brink.)
As grievances go, The Resistance's objections seemed reasonable. They didn't want to be rationed water and only be given the worst jobs. They didn't want to be consigned to shantytowns. They were, understandably, ready to get off The Ark to find real freedom. Perhaps these problems excused armed rebellion, though terrorism felt like a stretch, as, you know, it tends to.
The Security forces in the game refer to the Resistance as terrorists and—wouldn't you know it?—early in the game we discover that the Resistance is building a dirty bomb. Later in the game, they are aiming a surface-to-air missile at the tallest building in The Ark, a sort of mash-up of Hamas and Al Qaeda tactics all in one. These guys are terrorists? By mid-game, playing as the Security, and learning their side of the story mission by mission, I bought it.
Brink lets you play as both sides. The game lets you see either side of the story. This is one of the things games can do well. Take the Halo series, for example. In Halo 2, you can flip-flop from fighting as the heroic Master Chief or see moments of the war he's waged from the other side, in the boots of one of the supposedly malevolent Covenant. To be specific, what games can do well is actually let you play both sides. Whether you actually feel for both sides is another story. For example, in last year's Medal of Honor game, which was set in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, you could compete online as Western forces or as members of an "opposing force." Until the 11th hour, that opposing force was going to be called "the Taliban," but outrage from veterans' families compelled a change. That outrage and that change implied that playing as the Taliban would have felt meaningfully...anti-American and presumably pro-all-the-things-the-Taliban-supports. But that's not how it works in games. (It's no surprise that a recent video game version of the U.S. raid on Osama Bin Laden's hide-out recast the conflict as a balanced gunfight bereft of ideology.)
According to the storyline, those Resistance guys really are terrorists. Dirty bombs? Tower attacks? To hell with them. But... I could play as them.
There is seldom any sense of ideology baked into the roles people play in multiplayer games. Distasteful as it may seem to play as the Nazis in a competitive World War II game, for example, few if any multiplayer games define the Nazi side by anything other than the class of tanks they command, the cut of their uniform and the shape of their guns. While games often let players wear the boots of either side of a conflict, they've seldom made the wearing of those boots uncomfortable.
Brink had a chance to be different. According to the storyline in the game's Security missions, those Resistance guys really are terrorists. Dirty bombs? Tower attacks? To hell with them. But... I could play as them. The game offers eight missions for the Security side and eight for Resistance. I was eager to hop into those other boots and learn just how they justified their actions.
Oddly, the Resistance doesn't justify their actions. Brink's mission structure is the product of smart recycling, so even though it supposedly has 16 missions across both campaigns, it really only has eight, each one played from opposite sides. After a few missions of the Resistance campaign, I reached that dirty bomb mission. Surprise! The Resistance doesn't talk about building a dirty bomb. They talk about crafting a vaccine. To be clear, the mission that infolds after those different narrative set-ups is exactly the same. Played from either side, the action involves a gunfight in a shantytown, one side escorting a robot through gunfire while the other tries to stop them, some intel being stolen (or not). I thought Brink's creators were sending a message here about the manifold understandings of a conflict. I thought I was being asked to accept both the Security take on the mission and the Resistance one as equal, valid and simultaneously canonical. The Security people had been misinformed, perhaps; The Resistance's aspiration to terrorism wasn't real, just misunderstood benevolence.
I was reading Brink wrong. In the Resistance version of the game's events, the so-called terrorists never fire a missile at a tower. They just try to get off the Ark. This confused me, until I realized that four of the game's missions, the last two in each campaign, are "what-if" missions. In one of the Resistance side's "what-if" missions, we actually do get the missile strike. That mission's summary: "What if [Resistance leader] Chen's extreme rhetoric inspired his followers to extreme actions?" That, I realized, is Brink's real message. The sides aren't equal. The terrorists are terrorists, in the reality of the Security's world. The Resistance do horrid things. And they are not me.
When I'm not the Resistance they are terrorists. When I am the Resistance, they are not. It's not a matter of interpretation. It's not a symptom of subjectivity. It's not an apology that deems one man's terrorist as another man's freedom fighter. It is, instead, a warping of the game's virtual reality. For whatever reason, the game's creators don't want me to be uncomfortable. They don't want me to wrestle with the opposing side's views. They have instead created an enemy faction I can simply hate, and then, when the roles reverse, they cleanly endorse a revised ideology and let me be that enemy guilt-free. There's no tough choice here. It's just checkers. I was no terrorist in Brink because the game never gave me a chance to be.