Jul 292009

Given the ongoing struggles against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s perhaps a bit shocking that Red Faction: Guerilla ever got made. Although his cause embodies a different philosophy, the game’s ironically-named hero Alec Mason adopts the same tactics and general approach as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Iraq. While the game rigorously penalizes the death of almost every civilian, Mason uses hit-and-run attacks, exploding vehicles, and ambushes to push an occupying force off Mars. The game certainly doesn’t lack for fun, but it’s inappropriately ambivalent about engaging its subject matter. Red Faction‘s weakly-constructed fiction is too flimsy to hold up a serious consideration of real guerilla war, but too strong and topical to dismiss those implications.

The weaknesses of the game’s fiction become apparent very early on. Although there are relatively few housing facilities on this version of Mars, and these are fairly small, the surface is crawling with vehicles. They drive aimlessly around the various zones, never really seeming to arrive at or depart from anywhere. The many cargo vehicles are all empty, which is hardly a surprise given that so much ore is left just lying around the ground, in plain view of the road. The industrial facilities seem to have been imagined by somebody who saw a factory one time on TV; they’re full of buildings that largely lack machinery, and smokestacks with no origin for the smoke. Some buildings that would certainly be critical for any real colony on Mars and would make natural points of emphasis for an occupying force — hydroponics, water purification — seem to be totally absent. Instead we have refineries (refining what?) and countless tanks of indeterminate, highly-explosive gas. Mining operations appear to be confined to a single pit in the Dust zone, clearly explaining why Mars cannot meet Earth’s demand for metal.

The occupying army, the EDF, wants to improve productivity but apparently learned labor relations from George Pullman. Rather than squeezing efficiency by increasing automation or improving equipment (or possibly opening up another mine) they have chosen the tactic of brutally repressing and murdering the colonists they shipped across the solar system at enormous expense. Morally ambivalent approaches such as using their vast army as cheap labor or importing workers who are willing to tolerate worse treatment apparently did not occur to them. For their part, the Martians react not by going on strike (fair enough, since the EDF would shoot them), but by reforming their freedom-fighters, the Red Faction, and blowing up the irreplaceable equipment that is their only source of wealth and leverage.

Even though all of this seems like a set of caricatures, part of an easily discarded entertainment, Red Faction keeps pulling towards a more intelligent take. The terraforming effort uses reasonable tools (such as the mohole), and has made only slow progress, rather than turning Mars into a tropical paradise. The collusion between industry titans and the twisting of events by propaganda outlets is all believably presented. Red Faction doesn’t feature some absurd sci-fi sexpot — instead, we get Samanya, a rarity among female video game characters in that she is smart, strong, and plausibly dressed. Many of the main missions feel quite believably like the actions of a small band of fighters taking on an overwhelming force, including a sharp and harrowing sequence in which we hear a woman who was mutilated by EDF soldiers torture one of her abusers nearly to death.

Yet, though many of the missions individually feel like plausible guerilla actions, this view seems to fall apart when they’re considered as a whole. The player gets no sense of strategy or a larger war — instead, the missions (especially the seemingly incessant emergencies) give the player the impression that Mason is a one-man army fighting the EDF. Although “guerillas” often show up when you need a hand, nobody ever attacks a convoy or hijacks a truck without your assistance, this despite the EDF’s tactic of regularly sending lightly-protected, high-value convoys to destroyed bases in territories it no longer controls. When the EDF abandons one of the Mars zones, it’s rarely clear why; their “control” level can often be reduced to at or near zero with very little damage to their military facilities. Moreover, the “control” level for a given territory doesn’t seem to have any impact on EDF behavior until the final mission is won. It’s a binary system disguised as a continuous gradient.

The control in a zone is reduced by carrying out missions or destroying particular buildings. While many of these are military facilities, a nearly equal number are economic in nature. Given the narrative of plutocratic collusion with a corrupt occupying force, it’s natural that power plants and industrial sites are protected by EDF troops. However, the people of Mars will eventually need those facilities, too. Red Faction rewards wanton destruction and mayhem without consideration for the long-term economic effects. The Red Faction wants a free Mars, but surely it desires a free Mars where everyone can make a living.

In a tactical sense the game also falters. One of the keys to guerilla warfare is to keep the enemy off-balance and out of position, but the game’s conventionality removes this tool from the arsenal. EDF soldiers and vehicles spawn in rather obvious fashion, without changing their distributions elsewhere in the zone. Moreover, they arrive near-instantaneously, whether you’re at the Martian capital or in the furthest corner of the Badlands. While this prompt arrival has the beneficial effect of encouraging classic guerilla hit-and-run tactics, you never get the sense that you’re fighting a real army, one that can only get men and materiel into position by taking them from somewhere else and sending them along a real route of attack. The EDF clearly has an inexhaustible supply of soldiers and weapons, a concept that’s difficult to swallow given the obvious sparseness of human settlement, and one that’s inconsistent with the idea that the Red Faction could ‘control’ any region of Mars at all.

More troubling than its habit of glossing over strategy and tactics, the game generally refuses to philosophically engage the ugly side of insurgency. When “collaborators” are targeted, they are always plutocrats or crooked politicians, never ordinary Joes who go along with the EDF out of necessity, apathy, or fear. EDF-controlled industrial facilities have plenty of soldiers on guard, but apparently no civilians to run them who might get hurt in the blast. The Red Faction safehouses are loaded with explosives, but these never go off prematurely and kill innocents while they’re being smuggled. Even though the Red Faction’s leader, Hugo Davies, has a fanatic’s devotion to kicking the EDF off Mars, the game never acknowledges the danger he poses to civilians. For the most part it is only the EDF’s response to the Red Faction that harms Martians, not the deeds of the Faction itself. When the war moves into urban areas the risk to civilians stays very low, even though we all know that’s not how insurgency really works. Nor does the game ever wrestle with the possibility of a lenient or even friendly EDF commander: would the Red Faction try to subvert such a man, or assassinate him to prevent a reconciliation?

Perhaps a more serious, considered attitude towards this subject matter is too much to expect from Volition, the makers of the notoriously raucous Saint’s Row games. Red Faction treads a fine and uncomfortable line, however — realistic enough that it seems like it wants to be taken seriously, but too conventional and simplistic to live up to that promise. Because of its thinly-constructed fiction and shallow take on insurgency, Red Faction degenerates into little more than a tale of mayhem on Mars. Thanks to the engaging gameplay, that results in a compelling hoo-rah entertainment built around an innately troubling and relevant idea, which is less than that idea, or the gaming public, deserves.

  2 Responses to “An unhappy medium”

  1. Excellent post with which I agree completely. Two things to add on its combat realism. It would have been nice to, as you say, too have the military feel like a military in movement. Then I could use diversions to actually wage a guerrilla-esque war against a fallible army.

    There was also one point where the long-term thought repercussion thought you mentioned came to fruition while playing. I destroyed a bridge to stop the pursuit of the military, and later found the path destroyed for myself later. At least the destruction causes you inconvenience.

  2. I was really interested in the last two paragraphs where you criticized the game for not showing the "ugly side of insurgency" and the like.

    I have not played the game but I think it's unfortunate that it's so uncritical as I would really like to see something like what you're advocating for in a game. I'm a bit tired of games presenting such 'clean' and clear-cut worlds where everyone is a goody or a baddie.

    Where are the corrupt 'freedom fighters', who say they're doing it for the people, but really just want to set themselves up in the place of the oppressing enemy? And where are the sympathetic members of the opposition, those people who are just trying to do the best within a crooked system?

    Ah well, we can dream and hope for whatever Clint Hocking is working on next. =P

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