The Division: Realism and Batman

Alright, it’s been three – nearly four – years since Tom Clancy’s The Division came out. Right now is clearly the best time to stick my oar in and say some stuff about it. If you’re not familiar with The Division, it’s a game set during a massive bio-weapon attack on America, which results in the total breakdown of everyday life. You play a super sneaky soldier person, and you go round killing rioters and maintaining city infrastructure. It is fucking hilarious, by the way, how one of the main evil groups are part of New York’s infrastructure maintenance – I’m talking of course about the Cleaners, who’re largely sanitation workers.

Anyway: in press releases, the developers pitching The Division were very clear about how it Was Not A Political Statement, an attitude they retained with the more recent release of The Division 2. Long-suffering media critics have continued to point out that Everything Is Political, Including Your Fucking Game About The Breakdown of Fucking America, seemingly to very little effect. I just want to touch on one funny little point in relation to this whole political/non-political debacle, and then we can talk about Batman. The Division is fundamentally a game about maintaining social order during a crisis. There’s an enormous focus on the city’s infrastructure, including missions to turn on the power, check the pipes for water flow, and fix up communications. Unsurprisingly, the most basic types of enemy in the game are rioters, or looters – people violating social order in the most rudimentary ways. As noted in that article above, it’s not great optics to have the player going round shooting dudes in hoodies. There’s just something vaguely class warfare about it – especially in contrast to the way the ‘normal’ civilians are dressed.

In these images, for instance, the lady on the left is clearly a civilian. She’s got big white gumboots, a warm pink parka, and that cute little blue hat. On the right, we’ve got a dude in a hoodie, a gangster cap, and a bandanna mask. There’s some pretty obvious class and race connotations.

That’s all well-established though – everybody’s already made that point. What I found particularly funny was that these criminals are demonized very specifically for looting. You may not be aware, but The Division itself is a looter-shooter. It’s like Borderlands or something: you shoot, you loot. As a player, you carry out basically all of the same actions as these ostensibly evil looters. You go into people’s homes and businesses, and pinch everything that isn’t nailed down. It’s even – and this is fucking hilarious – your actions are explicitly called looting by the game. Here’s a picture of me in someone’s house rifling through their closet:

In case you can’t read the options there, it’s got ‘Loot Item’, ‘Equip Item’, ‘Loot All’, and ‘Close’. Fucking oops. And this isn’t even some vital piece of combat equipment, either; you’re not looking for guns, or ammo or supplies. You’re stealing an indigo jacket. It’s purely aesthetic – it has no gameplay function, and exists in a separate section of your loadout that’s reserved specifically for aesthetic-only vanity items. You walk into an abandoned house, loot shit from the closet, and then shoot those naughty looters in the street for doing the exact same thing. This sort of awkward contradiction is indicative of a creative team that put virtually zero thought into the relationship between gameplay and fictional world. The Division is nonsense bullshit.

Alright then, let’s get to Batman. I don’t know if anyone’s made this point, but have you noticed that The Division and Batman: Arkham Knight have a remarkably similar plot? Sure, Arkham Knight has fear gas instead of a bioweapon, and it’s set before the city-wide infection rather than after – but aren’t these relatively cosmetic changes? In both cases, the city has ground to a halt, with criminals freely roaming the streets, doing all those naughty criminal things. Both games revolve around one key hero figure restoring a crippled city to its normal working status. The Division is set in New York, which Gotham is usually based on, and, curiously, both games are set amidst cold, snowy weather. Cold is something of a recurring setting in the Arkham games: Arkham Asylum isn’t clearly set in winter, but the other three games are around that period, with Arkham Origins very specifically taking place during Christmas, and Arkham Knight on Halloween. Given these sorts of similarities, it’s instructive to compare The Division and Arkham Knight, if only for how they fall on the spectrum of realism.

The thing is, if you really wanted to you could probably level the same criticisms at Arkham Knight that you do at The Division. Arkham Knight is definitely about a government-enabled dude-bro going around beating up looters on his way to saving a city from bio-weapons. Everything we’ve said about The Division‘s portrayal of looters equally applies to Arkham Knight: they’re all bad dudes in hoodies and gangster caps. So why doesn’t the critical discourse around Arkham Knight really focus on any of that stuff? I think it would be wrong to just hand-wave this oversight away, to just to treat it like an accident. I reckon we’re actually less inclined to focus on that sort of thing, thanks to Arkham Knight’s cartoony narrative style.

And let’s distinguish here between narrative style and art style. Graphically, Arkham Knight leans towards realism. It’s not particularly abstract or cartoony. But on a narrative level, yeah, it’s definitely cartoon. You’re not meant to take it totally seriously: it’s goofy, hyperbolic, overblown Batman. There’s a level on which the whole thing is self-consciously ridiculous – that’s almost the premise of Joker’s whole character. Within that cartoon structure you’ve got a certain elasticity around your tropes and stereotypes and so on. We all recognise that it’s not real, and so we’re kinda willing to give it a bit more breathing room. But when you’re pushing into a realistic narrative, like The Division does, it’s kinda harder not to draw parallels with our contemporary political situation. When it’s more realistic, it brings us closer to where we are today.

In the final analysis, The Division‘s weakness is arguably characteristic of one of the key weaknesses of the video game medium as a whole: the graphics continue to improve, allowing games to model increasingly realistic environments, but none of the motherfuckers involved are willing to put their hands up for the corresponding political responsibilities that come with making such a realistic looking text. When a game veers too close to a realist genre, like The Division‘s foray into what is essentially the disaster-conspiracy genre, they get slammed as all hell for their total inability to produce a mature political vision. Ubisoft should just make Batman games.

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