I just got finished playing Red Faction: Guerrilla. It’s an excellent game; the breaking-stuff gameplay is so fun and natural-feeling that I anticipate disappointment when I play all the other games where you can’t knock down a wall to get to the enemy on the other side. It strikes a nice balance between open-world and narrative styles of gaming. There’s something else about the game, though. Guerrilla makes me uncomfortable with its violence.
This is something that I haven’t experienced outside of so-called “art games” like Jesse Venbrux‘s “Execution.” When I play Guerrilla, I feel a disconnect with the actions my player character is taking: not ludonarrative dissonance, but a genuine case of disagreement with my character’s motives and callous lack of concern for human life. I’m a pacifist. Alec Mason is not.
In Guerrilla, you control a demolitions expert, Alec Mason, whose brother is killed by the brutal, exploitative Earth Defense Force just after Alec arrives on Mars. He joins the Red Faction, a terrorist/freedom fighting group dedicated to freeing Mars from the EDF. The EDF is evil, certainly: almost comically so. They kill civilians at pro-union rallies, hold hostages, and maintain a “Free-Fire Zone” outside their headquarters city where any trespassers are destroyed by massive artillery. By the end of the story, the EDF is essentially threatening to kill everyone on Mars if the Red Faction doesn’t submit to arrest and, presumably, execution. The Red Faction is entirely justified in rebelling against the EDF.
But it’s not the motives of Alec and the Red Faction that bother me. It’s their methods. They bomb targets and kill people. Some of the targets are purely military or political: barracks, propaganda billboards, and pro-EDF monuments. But then there are the power stations, the corporate apartments, and the headquarters of the Mars colonial government. As far as Alec is concerned, there doesn’t seem to be a difference between blowing up a military fuel depot and destroying the windmills that power both military and civilian targets. As for killing people, many die at Alec’s hands. Thousands of soldiers. The game penalizes you for killing civilians — it lowers the population’s faith in your cause — but it doesn’t count exploitative CEOs as civilians. They’re complicit with the EDF, so they deserve to die.
Two moments stand out in my mind as especially egregious. The first is when Alec kidnaps a high-ranking EDF officer and drives around while a Red Faction “interrogator” openly tortures him in the back seat, then kills him. The game is quick to point out that the interrogator was tortured by the very same officer in the past, and that he is what drove her crazy enough to torture another person. But Alec, to my knowledge, never even objects. The second moment is the very end of the game, where the Red Faction destroys a battleship that’s about to turn the planet to glass. The battleship explodes, and everyone on it presumably dies. The game never pauses to even ask if escape pods made it out. It just celebrates the death of the EDF admiral with his ship.
Why does this bother me so much? I’ve killed millions of virtual people in my gaming career. I’ve assassinated in Hitman, sold drugs and murdered hundreds in GTA III, and killed a dozen people at a time in Starcraft. It bothers me, I think, for two reasons. First, Alec Mason and the Red Faction are presented by the game as the good guys. They’re the oppressed, the noble freedom fighters, the ones who lost their family and are now fighting back. And yet they kill so casually, so efficiently. In Grand Theft Auto, I was a thug and a murderer. I was playing a character with no ethical hangups. But in Red Faction, I’m supposed to be a man who cares about workers being able to unionize, but doesn’t care about the families of the EDF soldiers he’s killing. He’s a good guy, but he kills reflexively and without remorse.
And that’s the second problem. The EDF soldiers are people doing their jobs: they’re soldiers hired from an apparently overpopulated and poverty-stricken Earth, who probably believe they’re helping to keep the peace. The EDF soldiers aren’t zombies or mindless cyborgs or ravenous aliens. They aren’t even soldiers evenly matched against another legitimate army. The Red Faction call them “drones,” but there’s nothing to suggest the EDF aren’t just people who ended up on the other side of a political divide. Sure, they kill civilians at the drop of a hat, but there’s so little difference between them and, say, US soldiers in Iraq who shoot suspected insurgents to keep from getting blown up themselves.
I believe in the Red Faction’s fight, but their callous disregard for human death and suffering bothers me. If Alec showed regret, second thoughts, or simply stopped to say “I’m sorry I have to do this, but it’s necessary to prevent injustice,” I think I’d be okay with it. Instead, the EDF are the other, inhuman, each one of them the same as the next and worthy only of death. Every time the game assures me that they are monsters, that they’ve been given the opportunity to surrender but haven’t, that they murder innocents, I believe more strongly that it can’t be the whole story.
When I shoot at them with a nanogun, and their squadmates dissolve into golden mist, they desperately yell “What kind of gun is he using?” It makes me remember the first time an EDF soldier shot at one of my teammates with glowing blue projectiles. When the EDF assure me that if I surrender, I won’t be harmed, I imagine what their response would be to the same offer. Of course they wouldn’t surrender to the terrorist. He’s killed hundreds of people. Tortured. Fought through waves of peacekeeping forces to blow up a ship that carried a crew of two hundred. You don’t surrender to Alec Mason.
Alec Mason has no mercy.