(originally posted March 20, 2016)
In a Q & A over at Gamespot, a Ubisoft creative director recently referred to “the practical and tactical life” of agents, the player-characters in The Division. I’m not sure what a practical-tactical life entails (one assumes that whatever it is, it must be the opposite of a Wizarding World). It sounds like the kind of phrase you’d run into as part of the upsell for a Kevlar-lined grooming kit.
Not that it’s unusual for a game to hawk a lifestyle brand. But The Division shrewdly refashions one out of what Christopher Hooks called our “new civic religion,” our collective fetish for the special forces operative. After a supervirus hollows out New York City, a secret government contingency activates the sleeper agents of The Division. Called up from their nine-to-fives, they kiss their families goodbye, grab their guns, and make their way to Manhattan to “protect what’s left.”
In popular media, the special forces operative’s look emphasizes their position apart from the rank-and-file: decked out with military paraphernalia, but always flaunting a touch of the personal that says “My combat skills are so indispensable that they have to let me keep the backwards hat.” The Division agent’s de facto uniform comes from a curated closet of trendy hiking gear (Spec Ops: The Winter Line, attire for him and her), and allows for beanies, suede shoes, and fifty different types of scarf. Practically speaking, it might as well be a license to kill. True enough: as we’re quickly told, this emerging mercenary class has “no rules or limitations.” Counterintuitively, despite their everyman origins, they’re élites; something better than a first responder by virtue of autonomy and arsenal. Extra content for the game gives players the option to wear the uniforms of EMTs, policemen, and firefighters. Each costume, tellingly, comes with its own signature gun.
“…[the agent’s] job is not to kill people. His job is to save people, actually. So sure, there will be lots and lots of action in the game, and cool destruction, and everything you want from a shooter, but behind that there’s a layer of “Shooting is not the answer, actually.” If the agents could choose, they would not shoot anybody. That’s really why they’re there.”– DAVID POLFELDT, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF MASSIVE ENTERTAINMENT, UBISOFT
If the agents could choose. Entering the city, the player comes upon their first “Rioter.” He’s wearing a hoodie, and he’s shaking down a man at gunpoint. He’ll be playing the role of Super Mario Bros.’ World 1-1 goomba, there to teach players to jump on his head. Delay killing the gunman, the victim dies. Approach without shooting, and you’ll eat a few bullets for the courtesy. The lesson, of course, is that this is an enemy “type.” These are the people you will be shooting, this is what they look like, and you might as well just get on with it. It’s reinforced moments later, when you encounter two similar-looking men trying to move some obstacles. Linger until their (seemingly innocuous) conversation ends, and the game helpfully draws red health meters above their heads, as if to say “have we not made this clear enough?”
There are others, of course. The Cleaners, a vaguely cultic gang, significant mostly for its ubiquitous flamethrowers. And the Last Man Battalion, a PMC that’s annexed the wealthy areas of the city it was originally hired to protect. Those two factions fare well, both as foils and–particularly for the latter–as elements of speculative fiction. But there are also “Rikers,” bizarrely elevated, as the Rioters have been, by synecdoche, from individuals held at the prison recently called “a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system,” into a uniformly irredeemable faction.
Latent anxieties about 9/11, Ferguson protests, the Katrina disaster…they’re all there, pinging randomly. In one of the game’s diorama-like collectible flashbacks, agents can be seen confronting a group of defiant Rioters in the street. “We are fully authorized to put a bullet in your head if we feel the need,” one of the agents threatens. Prefacing another scene, one of the player’s allies, a former NYPD officer, growls that “These Rioters are goddamn animals.” Meaning has its sleeve stuck in the car door of The Division, and the game drags it along, oblivious, as it searches for gun fights and collectibles.
In The Division, acts of charity are transactional. If an agent gives food or medicine to a civilian, they’re rewarded with loot. At the player’s base of operations, relief officers inexplicably hawk new guns and armor. The survivors you’re ostensibly helping will gradually collect there, but only as taggers-on to the combat bonuses accrued by upgrading the facilities. A high priority is placed on those bonuses, because like slightly more traditional role playing games, The Division adds difficulty by making enemies more physically resistant to attacks. Counterintuitively, this makes the game’s deadliest opponent any guy in the city who owns a bat.
And yet, New York City does play a good host to many of the well-worn RPG systems The Division imports. Player abilities are picked from trio of proficiencies: medical, security, and tech. Each corresponds with a sector of city infrastructure, which the player frequently crisscrosses during missions. It suits NYC, where utilities make up so much of the fabric of daily life, to be climbing down manholes, flipping circuit breakers, questing like a Con Ed worker who just happens to also be a mass-murderer (“Hey listen, pal, I got three blown conduits and a busted generator I gotta deal with. And not for nothin’, but if you get a chance to kill six rats while you’re down there…”). I even enjoy the big, augmented-reality dials that show your progress towards base upgrades, sitting high on the wall like an arrivals board in a train terminal, and giving the scene a sort of commuter’s bustle.
I’ll leave any nitpicking about the accuracy of The Division’s New York City model to the people who most feel it’s their right as locals: Long Islanders. Empty as it is (other player characters only appear in hubs and a walled-off PvP area), it captures the je ne sais quois, to me. The safe houses are my favorite spaces, demarcated by spray paint and strung Christmas lights, tucked into odd corners of the city, the way barber shops can sometimes be found in its actual subway. One of them, “The Grindhouse,” sits in a theater, and plays the silent film “Mardi Gras at Coney Island” on repeat to a mute clutch of survivors.
The aforementioned player-versus-player area, dubbed the “Dark Zone,” or “DZ,” is worth a visit, too. It’s a space where cooperative play can fluidly devolve into anarchy, carved out between two more traditional spaces and walled-off with high concrete. Inside, the burst of a flare or pop-pop-pop of gunfire reliably sets me whirling. Is it nearby? I’ll edge around a corner, see another player scurry by. Running towards something? Or away from something? My most exhilarating experience with the game came in the DZ, when I pursued an enemy player into a billowing snowstorm. I gave up the chase only when I realized I’d lost the ability to see the buildings to either side of the street, so complete was the effect. The stillness of the moment was uncanny–to be alone, somewhere in the middle of Midtown, without the glowing quest markers or loot icons that gently prod to remind you what the Actual Point Of This Game Is.
Ultimately in the Dark Zone, that point remains characteristically inane: to shoot looters so that you can loot their guns and armor and then, absurdly, to extract that weaponry by helicopter. You’re there to rescue guns from a war zone, like some kind of fucked-up Monuments Men. In The Division, nobler goals are left to fend for themselves.