Games That You Can't Let Yourself Think About


#1

By complete coincidence, I spent the week leading up to Ubisoft’s announcement of The Division 2 playing opening hours of the original game’s campaign, with your operative’s first tentative steps toward “retaking” New York from a bioweapon-induced disease outbreak. It was a perfect game for a long, lazy weekend where I could mindlessly run around a hauntingly beautiful, disaster-stricken New York wasteland, listening to the sound of automatic weapons fire reverberating off the silent buildings, and diving for cover amidst the detritus of an interrupted holiday season.

I had to be mindless, because there is hardly anything in 2016’s The Division that the intervening years have not made somehow uglier and more fascist. In the midst of a lethal disease outbreak, somehow everything hinges not on emergency workers and health infrastructure, but a bunch of heavily armed militia—whose uniform is varying shades of tactical-chic gear and accessories—unleashing hailstorms of high-velocity ammunition on “rioters and looters.” You know, people trying to “take advantage” of the situation, as the politically agnostic conspiracy radio station describes it.

And yet I am a sucker for stories and depictions of apocalyptic social collapse, the kind of person who started buying copies of Station Eleven for his friends and insisting they read it immediately. I adore the grisly and frequently satirical vignettes of World War Z, and the long journey into the underbelly of a hellish fascist ethno-state in Children of Men. So even if The Division is coming from a place of affluent, provincial paranoia, I still can’t quite bring myself to pass-up the images of an ice-entombed brownstone. Or to indulge in a raging, snowbound firefight outside Penn Station.

So The Division has become another one of those games where I compartmentalize the experience. Most of the time I am playing a gorgeous open-world shooter with a wintry look that I love year-round. Or I’m in heist-movie standoffs around a Dark Zone pickup point, waiting to see who around me is going to flinch first. Even if there are a dozen games that handle combat in more dynamic and interesting ways than The Division’s point-and-click grind, few take place among such beautiful ruins.

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But every few minutes the game reminds me of its worldview and politics (made more pitiful by the ways it assiduously tries to be apolitical). Whenever The Division tries to portray its characters as heroic, their work and mission somehow noble, it’s a tone-deaf travesty. Paramilitary commandos exhort you to “take this city back,” ignoring the fact they’ve accomplished nothing except ensure their own security and comfort while the rest of the city is abandoned. There’s your CO, who points out that you’re both part of an organization that planted sleeper agents among American civilians and encouraged them not to forge any connections with the people in their lives—lest they develop empathy after they are “activated.” Nobody ever anticipated anything like this, she says, which raises the question of exactly what Division agents did expect to be doing by infiltrating American civic life.

Even though the Division later reveals its own awareness that there's a fascist streak underlying its heroes' mission, the game never really interrogates what that means, or questions your own actions dispensing summary justice in the streets of Manhattan. You're never made to question whether you might also be a bad apple from a tree that might just be poisonous.

The narrative justifications deployed through The Division are silly, but its politically-inflected fantasies are much more immediate now than they were in early 2016. The sight of special forces wannabes (in and out of uniform) strutting around in their catalog-ordered kit is a near-daily feature of American life. The belief that there is no greater calling than to maintain order at gunpoint and save the fallen, cosmopolitan American city from itself, is less a fantasy than the animating principle of the various facets of American revanchism. So while The Division is just a game, it's also a dream that longs to be made real.

Mind you, there is a lot of media that requires a healthy dose of doublethink or skepticism. But it’s rare that I find something that is such a bifurcated experience, where my feelings only switch between appreciation and outright loathing. This isn’t a game with “problematic” elements. It’s more like a video game Dorian Gray: something beautiful and captivating that, if you glimpse its true nature, is also utterly appalling.

I don’t know if The Division 2 can ever build something genuinely good atop such a rotten foundation. Almost any direction the series can go as it evolves the storyline is bound to be disastrous, unless it develops some self-awareness. But I’m doubtful that I’ll be able to keep the good in view alongside the bad, if the sequel continues to be a game that worships an order maintained at gunpoint, by people who continually try to pass-off their random, indiscriminate violence as a form of altruistic public service. One can only indulge in deluded villains portrayed as heroes for so long.

What about you? What are some games that you’ve had to mentally distance yourself from even as you enjoy them?

Let me know in today’s open thread!


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/qvey95/games-that-you-cant-let-yourself-think-about

#2

All of them to some extent or another.

The number of games with combat in them I can think of that are absolutely morally in the clear are few and far between. DOOM is pretty uncontroversial, hard to argue in favor of not killing physical manifestations of pure evil. It’s always kind of funny to apply real world logic to game systems, just the other night playing Into the Breach, I abandoned 4.6 billion humans to die because I wasn’t interested in saving them as much as I was interested in lining up four bugs in front of a laser.

Open world games are usually the worst for this, especially post-apocalyptic settings. I’ve grown out of love with the Fallout games as time has gone on for a number of reasons, but at a certain point the way those games are designed just really started to grate on me. Even playing as a “good” character, I’m still a walking genocide. The world design is becoming the worst kind of generic apocalypse shlock. Oh look, a skeleton inside of a bath tub along with a bottle of whiskey. How tragic. Pretty amazing that despite being open to nature, this exact scene hasn’t been disturbed in the past three centuries. Also pretty convenient that despite hundreds of years passing, no one has apparently scavenged at all because every drawer I open is full of useful crap. Oh well, time to keep this murder train a rollin’ because apparently no one has a reason for doing anything in this world but me. Sure me and these raiders are doing exactly the same thing by wandering around and stealing everything, but fuck 'em they don’t have a narrative and I do.


#3

Makes me wish that The Division 2 would pull a Crackdown.


#4

I don’t mentally distance myself from much, but then again, most of the media I love is kinda awful politically. My favorite movie is The Dark Knight (tied with My Neighbor Totoro), and I’m a big fan of Die Hard, Schwarzenegger movies, and other such macho guff. I find that the best things in those situations is not to distance myself but to actively analyze the wrong things about the work, and also analyze why I still like it despite being cognizant of those things.

When it gets to the point that I can’t ignore my issues with a game, I tend to not play it in the first place. It’s why, despite recognizing the games’ quality and the fact that they share a lot with games I love, I’m never going to play a Monster Hunter game. I just can’t find the motivation, as a player, to partake in the slaughter of really cool creatures that, at least from the little I’ve played, don’t seem to be an active threat to anyone.


#5

Based on the headline, I was kind of hoping this article would be about games you can’t think about otherwise you’ll start playing them again, even after you’ve sunk hundreds, maybe even thousands of hours in to.

In which case, my answer would have been Phantasy Star Online.

For me, it would be Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. I come from a somewhat religious family – not too many of us are the church going type, but my Mom is kind of devout (and my brother is so devout he’s even done some official preaching in his days).

Me, I’m not especially religious, but I guess I’m religious enough that games that glorify demons and have you punishing angels makes me uncomfortable. Which is a theme that shows up in a lot of Japanese media. I can swallow it when it comes to Bayonetta and Devil May Cry (because they aren’t glorifying evil, really; their characters are more straddling both sides), but there have been other games (Shin Megami Tensei) that I haven’t been able to get past because of certain elements of their subject matter.

Y’all are free to think I’m a wuss


#6

I played a ton of Hitman (2016) and Hitman: Blood Money, so I spent a lot of time in a “yeah, I could stuff this unconscious guy safely into a laundry hamper, but this industrial mulcher is right here and I’ve got shit to do” headspace.

But to be perfectly clear…
Drowning someone in a toilet in a video game: hilarious
Drowning someone in a toilet in real life: extremely uncool


#7

Not a wuss at all! Everyone has things they are uncomfortable with. This is unrelated, but I cannot deal with any hospital imagery or surgery imagery present in a lot of medical reality tv shows. However, I adore over-the-top, hyper-violence of games like Bayonetta, Devil May Cry, and Doom. With me in particular, I think I internalized the very real effects of actual blood and violence as unsettling and heinous. I even remember being so disturbed by the pseudo-realistic violence in GTA Vice City as a kid that I asked my dad to hide the game from me. It just shows all families have something they hold dear that can be difficult to detach from our perceptions.


#8

For me it’s The Binding of Isaac.

But not necessarily because I think there’s anything inherently wrong about themes of religion-fueled childhood trauma and abuse, which I think can be powerful (even depicted in the gross way they are in the game). It’s more that his comments about g_merg_te a couple of years ago made me really queasy and re-colored some parts of that game in a more hateful light.

I’m not mad at my past self for loving the game or anything, but it has prevented me from buying it for PS4.


#9

The games I have a problem when thinking about them are usually based around conflict.
Take BF1 for example, it attempts to paint the war as an easy black and white good vs bad when in actuality it’s a lot more complicated.

Similarly Call of Duty campaigns, tend to be problematic as there’s roots in colonial entitlement, usually America coming in to fix somewhere.

I’m also very anti military for various reasons, however I love playing Arma.

Also I think murdering innocent civilians is inherently wrong. But I’ve played GTA and my kill count is likely to be genocidal


#10

A little different, as it’s the real life association that is the harmful part, not the other way around, but still:

I’m at the point where I have to work hard mentally to play a Smash Bros game and enjoy it because it has become so associated with the toxic, bigoted, vile, hateful competitive scene.

Sad, as I really did enjoy Brawl and 4.


#11

Gonna second Bayonetta here, and also throw in recent Bioware RPGs, since a lot of the parallels between disenfranchised people => mages and the like are really hamfisted and shit. Any video game that tries to work off of a metaphor where the oppressed party that is being directly paralleled to a disenfranchised group, but also have godlike powers and are therefore justifiably frightening to the public, is fucking terrible. I can’t even finish Dragon Age: Inquisition because I can’t look past how absolutely gross that is.

Also, I don’t play JRPGs (outside of FFXIV), so I can’t speak personally for the genre as a whole, but considering the reputation they have for being hmmmmmm… less than good when it comes to women and queer folks? I don’t think I’m missing out on anything worth my time!


#12

The Uncharted series. I really love playing those games, but boy, if I take even a second to think about all the people Drake’s murdered, the fun atmosphere breaks down pretty hard.

This is more of a broad stroke than a specific example, but anything set in the Warhammer 40K universe. It’s a very fun, ridiculous setting with some rad art stylings that’s also wrapped up in fantasy tropes and all the baggage those carry with them. Mostly the characterization of the Orks.


#13

Pretty good distillation of why I hate the shift from Origins to II to make the central conflict of Thedas Mages vs. Templars. If there was ever a game that makes me think twice about supporting an oppressed group of people it’s Dragon Age, and that’s just shitty.

I suppose in that vein, my actual answer to the Open Thread is Dragon Age Origins’ Dwarf section, which I find politically shitty. You have two sides in this election, basically. You have the progressive, young candidate who wants to open trade and immigration with the surface and wants to abolish the caste system of the dwarves. Then you have the conservative old candidate who wants the status quo, which is, you know a fucking caste system.

But of course, the reveal is that the progressive candidate did some shit to get where he is and it’s actually the evil option to choose him, so if you’re playing a character who ostensibly stands up for the people of Thedas or whatever, you choose the option to leave a bunch of dwarves in a horrible oppressive, classist nightmare.

I was playing a Dwarf, too, doing the Noble origin in which you’re cast out by the aristocracy for a murder you didn’t commit, but was actually committed by the progressive candidate, which gave my character some extra incentive to not support him. Like I don’t know why a lot of CRPGs feel like need to be like “maaan all these progressive ideas there has to be a dark side to make you question your decision here” when in reality the decision, in terms of the game’s core morality, is pretty black and white.

EDIT: KotOR 2 actually presents a similar situation with it’s section on Onderon, where there are two political factions. The traditional Royalists who want to retain power, and a fascist militarist faction who are using the language of resistance to stage a coup and install the Sith as rulers of Onderon. I think this dynamic works here because that whole game is about the broken morality of the Star Wars universe. Neither choice is truly progressive, it’s just a reflection of the stagnancy of the Star Wars galaxy and fits well with the game’s themes.


#14

To elaborate, it’s not a problem specific to JRPGs, but considering how willing people are to overlook in that genre what they would normally lampoon in others, I find it a lot more noticable.

To a degree, @CrimsonBehelit is absolutely right in that there are always aspects of a game you’re trying to distance yourself from.


#15

It’s an inescapable, universal problem right?

On these forums especially, a lot of us are, to varying degrees, aware of political and social, systemic and institutional inequalities, active in our political lives, obviously more left of centre than your average gaming forum. That’s not to say this space is better than everyone else, that’s just how a lot of us are, and that informs our engagement with media, right?

Personally, there is no categorisation of feelings for me regarding this. Depending on how I feel at a given point in time, I will either engage constantly with the game, or ease off and mindlessly grind the loop in the same game. My overall opinion will be coloured by my politics, but I have the luxury of turning them off or at least setting them in the background when I just want to chill.

What I would say, though, is that often my enjoyment of a game is increased exponentially if it aligns with my politics, or if I can interpret in a way that aligns it.

AC: Origins is a good example of all these aspects. Sometimes, I can just travel around and do various side-quests in order to level up and gain that next ability I need. Or, I can dive into the narrative and gleefully participate in the destruction of colonial systems that the game world is framed in, helping out rebels and locals in their fight against the Greco-Roman hegemony, whether it is cultural, such as that quest line about the artists Alexandria, political, by assassinating targets, or economic, by helping fight off overeager Roman tax collectors. (obviously each of these aspects is more than just that one label, but you get my drift)


#16

I’m gonna throw in Deus Ex Mankind Divided in a similar camp to the mage/templar stories because it replicates exactly what you say. The augmented people are clearly indicated to be parallel to people of color and the impoverished, but it frames these issues from the aftermath of a horrible tragedy in which thousands of people are murdered by augs. It was really on the nose, (even saying “Aug Lives Matter” frequently throughout) and has almost nothing to do with the oppression of people in reality due the way it sets up a false equivalence.


#17

The Dwarf Commoner Origin in that game makes that choice a lot easier imo. If you play the Dwarf Noble, you have a personal stake in it because of how the progressive candidate is your brother and you know what he did in a more intimate way. As the Commoner, all you know is that he did some suspicious shit and is dating your sister and giving her a chance at a better life, as well as being supportive of abolishing the caste system, which is in your best interest at and honestly the interests of that society.

Imo, when they tried to present his murders as this horrible thing, as someone who RPs a lot in those games and who also dislikes the concept of nobility, I was like “oh who gives a shit? He killed 2 nobles who wanted to keep the system we were working with in place. jerkoff hand motion good riddance”. It’s especially not a place you can judge him from, since you used to be a gang enforcer. Glass houses and shit.

Honestly the real shit in that is that, if you keep the conservative candidate and the Anvil, he has Dust Town razed to the ground and forcibly conscripts the Casteless to become golems.


#18

The angel/demon dynamic in a lot of Japanese games has always been interesting to me. It probably helps that religion and I parted ways a long time ago, but the approach they take to that kind of Judeo-Christian mythology is ripe for unpacking. I don’t know if anyone has ever done a long form work on it, but from an outsiders perspective it always seems like they treat the two halves less like good and evil, and more like two self serving sides who choose a different aesthetic.

Using Bayonetta as an example, the angels aren’t really good. They don’t particularly care about humanity and they’re working to bring about the end of the world for their own purposes. They aren’t saviors, but they’re not exactly evil either, they just have their own motivations and don’t care about anything else. The demons are agents of darkness, but they too seem to be ambivalent to humans and only care to the extent that they can further their own agenda.

I’ve always wanted to know where all of that started. Is this a kind of cultural appropriation where they are co-opting religious symbols and ideas only for looks, are they specifically divorcing them from the greater context because it’s easier to sell the notion of being a demon and murdering angels if angels also suck, or is it just what their perception of the theology is filtered through their own culture?


#19

By the end of the Dwarf Noble origin I was RPing someone trying their best to, in good faith, relate to the people the they once were complicit in oppressing and maybe naively didn’t want the circumstances of their birth to effect anything, but I have a tendency to want to min-max everything so I ended up going with Harrowmont since it’s what the game deems “good” in it’s morality (in that Wynne, Alistar and Lilliana are down with it). Maybe I was secretly playing a softboy though, even if I didn’t mean to? I feel like Jack De Quidt playing Lem King at the end of Winter in Hieron right now.

I think I’m just bad at RP in video games since I start to think about all the systems that are actually making my decisions work rather than making the decision the character I’m playing would actually make. I would rather that stuff be done around a table, but sadly I don’t really have the time for it these days.


#20

DICE is moving back to World War 2 with the next Battlefield game. Battlefield games allow players to play for both sides of the conflict they choose to depict, and so, upon hearing of this new game in today’s political climate, the first concern that popped into my head was for the loaded meaning that some players will likely attribute to playing for the Axis.

This made me wonder: what would it mean to make a realistic warfare game that depicts a conflict between entirely fictitious nations which are themselves not actually metaphorical stand-ins for real nations? Would players find it engaging? I feel like we have seen things like this in the past, but they tend to be draped in sci-fi or fantasy trappings in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance that can easily come with real-world elements like present/past technology and cultural/societal progress, but in wholly-invented countries.

This would be a super interesting thing to explore, both as a fictional work and as a thought experiment: is it possible to extract culture/tech/civilization from human history without veering into science fiction/fantasy, or are they absolutely, necessarily inextricable from one another? I’d love to use modern guns and shit without thinking about the very historically-accurate moral ambiguity (at best!) of the setting in which im shootin em.