Murder and Red Faction: Guerrilla

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.

10 thoughts on “Murder and Red Faction: Guerrilla

  1. In the cinematics for the game, it looked like the EDF soldiers were all the same, like clones. That’s why I thought they called them “drones”.

  2. I think what is important to remember is that what we’ve got here is a foreign power subjugating a local population. Effectively, they are at war, even if it is an insurgient one. In a war of this kind, you don’t win by feeling sorry for enemy soldiers or civilian “collaborators”. I do question some of the infrastructure destruction (power generators and the like) from a pure pragmatic stance, but I have no particular issue with them targeting softer EDF targets nor would I say that infrastructure targets are somehow unacceptable. Tactically and strategically, these are what you want to hit to do the most damage with limited resources.

    The torture scene was probably unnecessary though and perhaps the only thing that the Red Faction did with which I would seriously take issue.

    1. This is true, certainly. I guess I just wanted to see that ethical discussion play out in-game, even though I wouldn’t expect it to. There is a line, though, between the killing of enemy troops and the killing of civilian collaborators. We aren’t talking folks who’ve given out troop movement information or opened the back door to let in a strike team. The assassination targets are businessmen profiting off of the EDF’s rule. They’re despicable, certainly, but it seems that going after their operations would be a more acceptable way of punishing them than killing them. Bomb some factories after-hours; don’t gun them down in cold blood.

      1. Going after operations will probably net you a larger number of civilian casualties than merely hitting management (also, what kind of factory has an “after-hours” any more?). When the decision makers think that they may be next on the list, they tend to be a bit more concerned about the possible losses rather than being concerned with the “operating expenses” that bombing a factory might incur.

        1. With how sympathetic the civilian population seems, I’m sure you could just arrange for everyone to leave the building before you blow it up.

  3. As per usual, I haven’t played this game, but I can see why the tactics being used would bother you. Red Faction in this game are apparently terrorists suffering from a major false dichotomy.
    As far as why it bothers you while other games don’t, it’s probably a framing effect. Most games that I’m aware of, you either play a good (and almost always a) guy fighting some evil force or whatever; or a total ass (which is acknowledged by the game) against a force that’s actually worse than you. Here, you’re playing as a character who’s either an ass or delusional against someone who is… bad, but the game leaves room for the player to decide if the enemy is worse. And the game apparently refuses to acknowledge this. It’s one thing to be a monster and be treated as such. It’s another to be a monster and be treated as the hero.
    Did that make any sense?

    1. It does make sense. I will say that the Red Faction fight, as depicted in the game, does seem to be a worthy cause. They are facing a powerful regime that uses direct murder and serfdom as political tools, and once you’re in that situation, armed rebellion is really the only way to enact change in the short term and save lives. The game implies that nonviolent resistance has been tried and has been met with violent suppression.

      But yes, I think that’s part of it. You use tactics that are ethically troubling at best, and no one seems to complain except the enemy. Civilians happily turn over their vehicles to a man who has bombed power plants and apartment buildings, and the most negative comment you get is “Try not to wreck it this time!”

      1. Though I it has been a while since I played the game, I do not remember any missions that ask you to actually bomb (civilian) apartment buildings. I recall a couple of apartment complexes against EDF forces, but I may simply have forgotten. Again, power plants probably aren’t a good idea for bombing, but I’d argue that EDF barracks or EDF support organization buildings are fine targets.

        1. I don’t recall exactly, but I think you bomb targets like EDF officer housing and EDF corporate apartments, and that these are labeled differently than barracks. Unless every EDF drone is a bachelor, it’s still quite worrying.

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