Trig­ger Trigg­ger Happy

Steven Poole on Bro­force, Rust, and our sense of iden­tity in games

EDGE - - SECTIONS - STEVEN POOLE Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­poole.net

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

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