On November 3rd, “target gameplay” footage was released for Rainbow 6 Patriots. The Tom Clancy-licensed brand has been lying dormant in the game space since Vegas 2 was released in 2008, capping a decade of annual releases for PC and console, ranging from PlayStation and Dreamcast-era through the modern Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation. The video is embedded below in case you haven’t seen it on GameInformer or elsewhere.
The first thing that struck me was the lazy, bordering on absurd, tactic to invest the player in the hostage and his life. How do we establish an investment in the well-being of the cipher’s wife? Well we should have birthday sex on offer within the first thirty seconds. Having her in sexy bed clothes will also make the threat of violence in the coming scene more loaded and effective. High fives all around, team! But that’s not what I’ll be writing about in this post.
I want to look at contextual actions to start. In the opening scene, we have what a top comment on the YouTube video described as “Heavy Rain…… bow six.” Comparing these actions to those shown to the player in the role of an elite counter-terrorist, we see a strong contrast in the nature of their agency. To wit:
Civilian: Use iPad, Turn on TV, Blow Out [candle,] Kiss Wife, Prevent Detonation, Push Body
Rainbow Squad Member: [Shoot,] Rappel, Vault, Eliminate Threat
The range of civilian actions reflect a domestic and passive man, reacting to objects presented to him for interaction. In contrast, the counter-terrorist appears a man of momentum and initiative, acting to create his own reality. In situations with moral implications, the player-controlled Rainbow team member never hesitates in making the “tough decision.” In context, though, both the “man of agency/initiative” and “tough moral decision” concepts are belied.
For the first, orders are explicitly given at nearly every stage of the scenario. Targets are prescribed for sniping, friendly-fire is ordered and qualified with the old “there’s no time!” chestnut, and the decision to throw a man from the bridge is made by a squad member who orders the player-character to come and assist in the depontication.
The moral decisions are facile at best, even illusory given the mandates above. You must shoot the police because “there’s no time!” to do otherwise. There’s no choice but to toss the human bomb over the railing, because you see an explicit countdown after the remote detonator is triggered. Some of your squadmates question the orders in what I imagine is an attempt to remind the player that some people may have trouble acting on these “tough decisions.”
Not you—the player—though. You know that this is what must be done. You know that questioning orders or weighing options is a surefire way to miss your kill shot. You know that no matter the situation, you’re doing the right thing because you were told what to do and you did it. You know that serious people make serious decisions to solve serious problems, and whatever decisions are made must be the right ones. You know this because you’ve played a lot of video games, and they never tell you to do the wrong thing.
Games have the potential to expose all kinds of agency and experience to players. The medium allows for meaningful experience through (the simulation of) meaningful choice, and the investment in those choices that practomime engenders. When presented the specter of choice to mask a foregone conclusion, alienation of player from player-character isn’t the greatest risk; this sleight of hand potentially renders the entire experience hollow. The game world becomes a space to navigate instead of a world to experience, affect and be affected by.
If there is no option but to throw the man from a bridge, you are signaled not to care about this man. If you must shoot the police, you should not care about the police. If you are only following orders, you should not care about yourself. In a game scheduled to arrive 6 years after BioShock exposed this conceit in a widely-played and critically-acclaimed lampshading of the whole genre, am I asking too much to actually have choices and decisions to make? When will someone accept Ken Levine’s challenge to let us play—in his words—a man, rather than a slave?