by C.T. Hutt
Recently, I’ve been playing an open world game where the main character is a member of a secret organization outlawed by the puppet government which is propped up by an occupying foreign power. As a member of this organization, you are dispatched on a variety of missions to destroy this occupying power using any means necessary, with an almost total disregard for civilian casualties and property damage. Your methods include car bombs, assassinations, and hiding amidst the general populace to avoid detection. Interestingly, this game is not the latest recruiting effort from the Al-Qaeda R&D department, but rather an open world shoot ‘em up based on the French resistance to the Nazi occupation of Paris. The game is called The Saboteur and it was produced by the now defunct Pandemic Studios.
Before I’m hauled out of my house and beaten to death for the comparisons I just made, let me say that the French resistance was a heroic endeavor undertaken during impossible times by some of the truest patriots in France’s history, I have nothing but respect for the men and women of the United States armed forces, and Al Qaeda are a collection of fanatics who have chosen violence of the most depraved and indifferent sort. The Saboteur is played from the perspective of a character who utilizes terrorism to achieve his goals, and as such I believe that it is a highly relevant piece of work given the contemporary “war on terror.”
Your character in The Saboteur is named Sean Devlin, a stereotypical Irish rogue based on an actual WWII English operative, William Grover-Williams. Whatever else this game may be, I have to give the developers credit for publishing a historical piece loosely based on a real person; we don’t see nearly enough of that. Visually, the game is quite striking: sections of Paris which have yet to be liberated are black and white, with the exception of the burning red surrounding every swastika and propaganda poster. The game play is adequate, the controls are intuitive, and the game flows from combat to sneaking to driving with few seams. There are a few impressive action set pieces in The Saboteur, and more than enough free-running mayhem to keep any open world fan busy for hours. With the exception of a few glitches, The Saboteur is a solid, if unremarkable, gaming experience.
What struck me about The Saboteur was not the game itself, but the perspective from which it is played. Sean Devlin is a video game cliché, his motivation is revenge, and he’s tough but rather charming, in a mass murdering kind of way. It’s not who he is, but what he is that sparked my interest. Sean Devlin is an insurgent, a man who uses violence and naked aggression to harass his enemies and win over the general populace. What’s more, despite the horrors of everyday life in occupied France, Sean has a grand old time doing what he does best: blowing up Nazis. Every time a player bombs one of the hundreds of viable targets in the game, Sean chuckles and mutters some ridiculous catch phrase in an over-the-top Irish accent. The Resistance is really just an excuse for Sean, a chance to let his inner demons loose. The fact that he is fighting for a good cause is purely incidental. Terrorism is an inherently immoral and unethical activity, and just because Sean Devlin is on the right side of a conflict doesn’t make him a hero. On the contrary, if he were a real person we would label him a megalomaniacal butcher, not a hero.
Since the September eleventh attacks on the United States, I have struggled to understand why a group of people would be willing to dedicate themselves to terror and destruction without a tenable long term strategy or goal. And through this title and a little research into the matter, the answer became clear.
It is widely and incorrectly assumed that religious and political terrorists carry out their attacks because they are working toward some kind of broad social change. Hamas fighters who launch rockets at people’s homes from the Gaza strip claim that they are doing so for Palestinian independence. Timothy McVeigh who blew up the Murrah Federal building in 1995 claimed he did so in retaliation for the U.S. Government’s handling of the Waco Siege two years earlier. The terrorists who brought down the world trade center reportedly did so because of a disagreement over U.S. foreign policy towards Israel and a general disapproval of our way of life. Whether each particular brand of justification leaned toward religion or politics, all are equally fallacious. I will grant that terrorism has often been a bi-product of social movements, such as the French resistance or even the American Revolutionary war, but it has never been the central goal of those movements. The employment of terrorist methods to further a given goal is neither effective in the long term nor ethically sound. No matter how many rockets are fired, Israel will not be packing up and moving to Europe. No matter how many buildings are destroyed, the federal government will remain the federal government. And finally, no matter how many of our planes are destroyed, Americans will keep on eating cheeseburgers. In short, terrorism alone is not an effective means of achieving anything beyond the spread of chaos and fear.
Why then do Al-Qaeda and similar organizations carry out these terrible actions? I believe that they do so because their supposed causes are merely a means to an end; terrorism itself is their very raison d'etre. Like Sean Devlin in The Saboteur, terrorists commit terrorism because to them it is a game. Unlike Sean Devlin, they have not attached their proclivities toward violence to a feasible or genuine social movement. Because they are unbound by any drive to achieve a productive end, but rather to simply perpetuate the game, they feel justified in every action they take because within the confines of their perceptions, it’s fair play, and what’s more, it’s good sport. To them, pulling off a particularly devastating attack under the nose of our modern security is a great triumph. It doesn’t matter if no positive change occurs as a result of their actions because they have already taken everything they wanted from the event. As time goes by, the game changes, maybe it gets harder, but because there are no real long term objectives for them, it will never stop. It’s a frightening concept to consider in its entirety.
Our national response to international terror has been to try to beat terrorists at their own game. Sadly, by engaging them in an endless conflict with no specific goals, we haven’t lessened the appeal of terrorism; we’ve simply upped the difficulty and provided them with additional excuses to perpetuate the contest. We can’t kill them into seeing our side of things anymore than they can kill us out of our way of life, but we both keep trying. I think we would have greater success if we were to concentrate on removing the conditions necessary for the other side to play the game. For example, if Al-Qaeda were unable to recruit more young people to its cause, it would be incapable of perpetuating itself. If the victims of suicide bombings were to receive more media attention than the bombers themselves, public sentiment could turn against the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. If a generation of young people were to receive contemporary levels of education and access to other points of view, it could help to reduce the viability of terrorism as an option for solving their problems. It’s the digital age; our greatest weapon is our enhanced ability to communicate and disseminate information, but for some reason we have not been employing it effectively in the war on terror, and I can only guess as to why.
I believe that The Saboteur was created primarily as entertainment rather than social commentary. Furthermore, it is a work of fiction; no one gets hurt by playing it and it doesn’t teach children how to become insurgents or any other such nonsense. That being said, I think that Pandemic Studios made a bold choice in releasing this title during a period in our history during which some of the greatest military, political, and judiciary minds in our society are struggling to find the lines between terrorists, enemy combatants, and freedom fighters. All operate in very similar ways, but without truly understanding why our enemies do what they do it may be impossible to bring the “war on terror” to an end. In any case, The Saboteur provides an interesting perspective on the subject and an enjoyable gameplay experience. I think it is worthy to note that without restraint, purpose, and critical thought, war becomes an endless game where people like Sean Devlin may have a chance to shine, but where most of the population and civilization as a whole can only lose.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
by C.T. Hutt