Last week I bought a game I swore I wouldn't buy: Just Cause. I swore I wouldn't buy this game when I read that its politcal premise--the overthrow of a corrupt South American regime through guerrilla warfare--would involve the typical American rhetoric that, it would seem, no war-themed game can exist without: the protection of American interest. Thus a game that could have been, provocatively, Che Guevara meets Grand Theft Auto became yet another emulation of Chuck Norris barf bag cinema, the kind where some helpless country needs a swaggering yank to pull it, kicking and screaming if necessary, to democracy. This is why in Just Cause you are some CIA dude, and not just a suffering citizen of the (fictional) country who's finally had enough. One might imagine that a horrific dictatorship would be reason enough to go guerrilla, but in Just Cause we need the threat of WMD's which could possibly be used on America to justify ass kickery. Viva la Revolucion!
The notion fills me with disappointment. I know better than to expect a serious, documentary-like experience from a mainstream videogame, and yes many games are just elaborate power trips. But what's wrong with a power trip in which the indigenous population gets empowered in a way that isn't filtered through America's big brother mythology? Ugh. Still, I bought it last week.
I bought Just Cause because I played it at a friend's house, and it turned out to be pretty fun. The American aspect of the story is more or less in the background. Your avatar is Latin American at the very least, though he does appear to work for the CIA. The story itself is still moronic, full of Hollywood cliches. But those cliches make for fun gameplay at times, like when you perform all manner of ridiculous stunts. My friends and I had a ball riding cars, boats, and even planes like surfboards as we ran from government stooges. After that, I decided to swallow my political angst and pick it up for cheap.
Then, yesterday, my girlfriend and I went to see Persepolis.
The movie had a huge effect on me. I actually didn't know much about it, aside from the fact that it was based on a comic and was an autobiographical account of an Iranian woman's life. I wasn't expecting it to go so far into the politics and cultural fallout of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. I found the film deeply moving for many reasons, but I think what affected me most was how the protagonist was portrayed, as a wonderfully intelligent girl who was just trying to have a normal life while simultaneously dealing with a deeply repressive political shift. It humanized the recent history of Iran form me in a way that I hadn't experienced before. On another level the film worked simply as the story of a promising life tragically complicated by authoritarian religion... a concept that, at least in the abstract, strikes home for me.
I came home after watching this movie and didn't feel like doing anything. I just needed to sit and let the film sink in. My girlfriend kept asking me if I was okay because I basically stared into space for the rest of the evening. I thought maybe I could break out of my reflection by playing some videogames, but I stopped short at the thought of playing Just Cause. In light of something as moving and personal as Persepolis, the idea of playing a game that dealt with repression and revolution like Just Cause did made me recoil. My initial revulsion at the game's shallowness came surging back even more intense than before. Disgusted, I asked myself why it seemed impossible to make a game that dealt with social upheaval the way Persepolis did. Why couldn't Just Cause have been like Persepolis? Did I have to be embarrassed at the thought of picking up a controller every time I came home from a movie like Persepolis?
I don't have an answer to these questions, suffice to say that if it's not possible to make a game like Persepolis I've clearly been wasting my time with this garbage we call videogames. I wonder what it would take to make a game like Just Cause express ideas closer to what Persepolis is expressing. Leaving aside the typical objection of "you'd never get a game like that funded!" it seems a game design question worth exploring.
One striking aspect of Just Cause is how, for a game about a repressive regime, the regime doesn't actually seem to be repressing anyone. The NPC's--whom you see everywhere going about their daily lives--don't seem to do anything other than walk around and drive cars. They don't seem particularly unhappy. They are, essentially, exactly like characters in GTA: more of a decoration than a meaningful aspect of the virtual world. In GTA this is fine since the world is not about the NPC's, but in a game that's about revolution and freedom in the name of The People you'd think The People would be... well, people. Not that we need hyper-advanced A.I., but we at least need a game design where political repression is part of the world you are trying to simulate.
How do you do this? There's obviously no single, right way to do it. But we can start by observing that repressive states are, in essence, extremely limiting rule systems that every citizen must learn and deal with. This is something that Persepolis illustrates extremely well, especially in the first half where the protagonist is struggling to deal with all the new rules that are being imposed on women in the first years of the Islamic Republic. The women in the film learn to survive by quickly mastering this rule system, by learning exactly when to wear the veil, how to behave towards men in public, etc. As time goes on both men and women learn the system well enough that they are able to subvert it in small ways, such as having illegal parties with alcohol and banned western music.
It's easy to see how one can take the logics of state repression and model them as a game system. Because a citizen in a police state is in a game of sorts, a game with extremely dire consequences. But citizens try to game the system in order to survive, to express their sense of self and hope. A select few of those citizens might go further, and game the system with the intent not just to survive it but to change it. When the rules of the game are successfully rewritten, you've had a revolution.
Why can't Just Cause follow a model like this? One can imagine a virtual world in which citizens have simple behaviors. They wake up, eat, socialize, work, and go to bed... sort of like in The Sims. But they have to do all these things within a strict framework of government rules that sometimes conflict with their desires. For example, citizens might be expected to dress a certain way, stand at attention during a patriotic hymn, etc. If any deviation from this behavior was witnessed by patrolling police, citizens might be arrested, which would affect the happiness levels (like in The Sims) of the citizens around them.
The goal of a game like this, from the player's perspective, would involve two distinct aspects:
Firstly, the player would have to learn the behavioral rules of the repressive society. This would be necessary so that the player could be invisible within the society in order to be able to subvert it. This layer would be somewhat like a stealth or spy game, in which players must learn to dress, act, and talk a certain way in order to avoid suspicion. Only instead of some military espionage scenario, the environment would just be everyday life.
Secondly, the player would have to perform acts that would affect the happiness levels of the society at large. This could be manifest concretely as a list of civil liberties which the citizens don't have. Restoring each one of these liberties would be a goal of the game, like a series of non-linear missions. Once all the liberties were restored, the society would be transformed.
This idea is interesting for its emergent possibilities. I am not imagining a game where society changes instantly, as the hard-coded result of a cut-scene or boss battle. I'm thinking that each "rule" that the police enforce (i.e. what clothes you can wear) correspond to a certain civil liberty on your list. Once that liberty is restored, the police stop enforcing it, changing the dynamics of the game. Thus "freedom" is something you experience as a player by having restrictions removed, and it is also something you see in the citizens around you because they no longer have to deal with those restrictions (i.e. there are less arrests, therefore happiness levels increase.)
And how exactly do you restore all these freedoms? Well, that's the real trick. Do you assassinate and intimidate? Do you organize peaceful protests in secret? It might be interesting to have a game where you could do both kinds of things, and each would have an affect on the citizens you are trying to help. For example, if you want to assassinate a government official by blowing up his house, that might work. But if you blow up his house, it will also affect the happiness levels of the population. Is the trade off worth it? What if you affect political change but end up alienating the population? Have you accomplished your goal? Is your goal to check all the liberties off your list? Or is it to make the population as happy as possible?
I don't know if the game I just described is subtle or complex enough to do justice to the personal nature of something like Persepolis. Of course, Persepolis isn't about being a revolutionary. It's about a citizen trying to keep her life and identity from falling apart under repressive rule. A game where you played a citizen under a repressive regime could be its own kind of game, with maybe some similarities to the game I described above.
Perhaps we're not ready for a Persepolis game on Xbox 360. Perhaps we're not ready for a Persepolis game at all. Perhaps I am dishonoring the reality of the author's life experience by even suggesting that we entertain such a notion. But I hang onto the notion that I am not doing that, that games are not somehow intrinsically superficial in their engagement of political ideas. Political and social ideas need not be trivial in videogames. They are not trivial by default. They are full of reality, tragedy, and emotion. The only reason they become trivial in videogames is because the makers of games choose to trivialize them.
I have no idea if a game like the one I described would work, but I believe that a Hollywood bubblegum crapfest like Just Cause could only benefit from such an experiment. Then maybe I could come home from a movie like Persepolis and not feel like a moron for having spent $400 on an Xbox 360.
I could feel proud.