Trigger Triggger Happy
Steven Poole on Broforce, Rust, and our sense of identity in games
Identity politics being the high-profile issue it is, the makers of survival sim Rust might have seen controversy coming when they decided in April that the game would randomise player avatars. Half were assigned women characters; many were black. By doing this, lead developer Garry Newman explained: “We get an even spread of races and genders that make players more identifiable – while at the same time making the social aspects of the game much more interesting.” But many players were enraged. “I just want to play the game and have a connection to the character like most other games I play,” said one. “Not have some political movement shoved down my throat.”
This reminded me of nothing so much as the contingent of players who whinged about the central, brilliant mechanic of Broforce. Their complaint was superficially different: it was not about politics but about gameplay itself. And yet fundamentally the issues are similar. In its PS4 incarnation, Broforce is for me the finest game of 2016 so far: a beautifully chaotic sandbox descendant of
Metal Slug featuring ridiculous levels of pixellated destruction and consistently hilarious emergent gameplay. And its cleverest aspect was, of course, the one that became its most controversial. Broforce has dozens of playable characters, each with their own particular weapon. There is Rambro, with a satisfying assault rifle, but there is also Mr Anderbro, who is essentially Neo from The Matrix and fights only with his fists. When you pick up an extra life during a level, by rescuing a POW from a cage, you become that character. So you might have been blasting along with a well-powered gun and then suddenly find yourself armed only with a sword or a little parcel of dynamite.
Early on in your Broforce journey, this can be terribly disappointing and seems to lead inevitably to amusing explodey mishap and death. But of course the point is that the apparently underpowered characters are not that underpowered: you just need to experiment to find their strengths. And the risk of picking up a life but not knowing who you are going to become just makes every playthrough more unpredictably brilliant. Giving the player the choice of character – as some players fervently wished – would ruin the game’s fundamentally anarchic nature.
In this way, Broforce calmly solves one long-standing psychological drawback of games that feature numerous playable characters. We all know that we’re supposed to experiment with them and see how they change the balance of the game, but in reality we tend to stick with the one we chose at the beginning, the one that seems best to fit our habitual playstyle. Broforce compels you to explore its variety of attack systems. Whereas in Rust, giving the player no choice over appearance is justified by the fact that, as Newman wrote, it “makes no difference to the actual gameplay”, in Broforce it is justified by the fact that it makes all the difference in the world to actual gameplay. And both of these opposing justifications make sense. You could even argue that, in this way,
Broforce also demonstrates that the silliest shooters can often smuggle in serious messages worthy of a chin-stroking art game. Politically, of course, it is already highly pointed, with the satirical text-only mission briefing honed to a fine art. The rubric for one level reads simply: “This is Iraqistan. Fuck Iraqistan! Americanize them!” But its democratic assortment of wildly varying identities and skillsets can be read as a celebration of diversity in the real world too.
Theorists used to celebrate videogames for the fact that they enable players to adopt an identity of their own choosing. Broforce and Rust take away that choice and impose an unfamiliar identity – whether in terms of ethnicity, gender or simply playstyle. “Rust is not a game about identity,” Newman wrote. But everything is about identity, and the imposition of unfamiliar identity is a feature rather than a bug in other artforms. After all, one cannot choose who the protagonist in literature will be either. If you want to read Karl-Ove Knaussgard’s amazing novel sequence, My Struggle, you will have no control over the fact that you are invited to live inside the head of a heterosexual Norwegian man. And it is through this unchangeable obligation that literature works to enlarge our capacity for empathy towards people unlike ourselves. So in their refusal to let the player choose from a fluid menu of identities, both Rust and Broforce are less like a digital dressing-up box, and more like art.
Broforce demonstrates that the silliest shooters can smuggle in serious messages worthy of a chin-stroking art game