Ghost Recon Wildlands: Art or Politics?

In 2017, there was a minor diplomatic incident between Bolivia and France, with the Bolivian government filing a formal complaint at the French embassy. The incident revolved around Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands, a game made by the French studio Ubisoft, that depicted Bolivia as a war-torn narco state needing to be saved by the American Ghost Recon team, in all of their Tom Clancy-esque glory. Bolivia took offense at that premise, and registered their offense through the highest channels. Of course, specific countries being unhappy with particular games isn’t that uncommon. Battlefield 3 was banned in Iran for depicting an invasion of Iran, Homefront was banned in South Korea for depicting a united Korea under the rule of the North – hell, even Wonder Woman was banned in a bunch of Middle Eastern countries because Gal Gadot was a soldier in the Israel Defence Force. Games (and other media) are embedded in and draw on political material from real life. It’s not surprising to see media sometimes provoke a political response at the highest level.

And if you wanted, you could write a whole essay about how Wildlands is another instance of patronising Euro-centric attitudes, how it reveals a Western neo-imperialistic desire to reduce non-Western countries to consumable products, re-enacting colonial patterns of economic exploitation in the racialised division between the countries that are consumed, and the countries doing the consuming. You could spend an easy thousand words on how Wildlands is a form of neo-imperialism, reducing a country and culture to a thin gruel of racial stereotypes as an entertainment backdrop against which players run round shooting drug dealers. You could – for instance – compare it to Narcos, which white people loved, and which Spanish-speaking South Americans found boring and unrealistic, especially given the apparently outrageous accent problems (“like having someone with a strong southern American accent play Sherlock Holmes”).

But I don’t want to write that article. I could, but I don’t want to. I feel like I’ve been pretty clear on the problems of these sorts of games – I wrote my Honours thesis on Spec Ops: The Line, and its implosion of the modern military shooter – and in all my work since then (for instance, here and here), I’ve been trying to focus on more nuanced, subtle details in and around the genre, without necessarily just banging on about the bad bits. They’re there, they’re not good, but there are other things to say about this genre beyond ‘thing bad’.

That’s especially the case with Ghost Recon Wildlands, where it’s such a bland, gutless game that it’s almost hard to work up any strong feelings about it. It’s racist, sure, but the most offensive thing about it is how absolutely disinterested it is in its setting and context. The plot and story structure are paint-by-numbers. There are four big bosses, each responsible for some component of the drug empire. You roam around the map and take out their underlings, and if you do that for long enough you’ll be allowed to kill the bosses, and maybe even work your way up to the head of the cartel. I was going to call him the game’s antagonist, but I’m thirty hours in and he’s not made an appearance, so you can’t even really call him that. When it comes to the whole South American drug cartel thing, Wildlands genuinely doesn’t care. It’s hard to be angry about a game that’s this disinterested in its own setting. If you’re going to criticise something, criticise Just Cause 2. That’s a game that took a perverse sense of joy in being deeply, unabashedly racist. It’s a game that has some level of emotional investment in its own premise. Wildlands has none of that. It’s a heartless game from a company that does not care to reflect on the significance of the worlds that it builds. It’s the exact same game they’ve been pumping out for years. It’s The Division, but this time set in Bolivia. It’s – I mean, it’s pretty gorgeous.

This fucking game, man. Ghost Recon Wildlands has an amazing art team. There’s a really clear aesthetic focus on depth, or layering. There’s always something tucked behind something else. In the image above, the player stands in the foreground, and then you’ve got the construction site up ahead, with the brown mountains behind that, and the snowy caps another layer back again. The furthermost mountains also have that blue tint, which is a technique stretching back to Da Vinci. It’s a way of communicating distance – the scientific phenomenon is aerial perspective, and you can see it (for example) in Da Vinci’s ‘Madonna Litta’. Other vistas regularly showcase three or four layers at a time. In the image a couple paragraphs earlier, the mountains just stack up, one behind the other, with the water and that little island nestled in the front. I’ll add in a gallery of a few other shots below – take a look. It’s clearly a key technique.

And you could argue that focusing on this sort of art stuff is a political move, that it’s designed to maintain the status quo by ignoring pertinent political questions – such as ‘Why have we got another game portraying South America as a drug-dealing hellscape?’ In turn, though, you have to wonder whether that’s taking the Bolivian government approach – a bit of saber rattling, a bit of performative discontent, without any real expectation of change. Obviously we can’t read minds, so we can’t know for sure either way, but you have to wonder whether that political approach is stemming from a desire to look proactive and engaged – to be seen as anti-racist, to be seen standing up for Bolivians and South America more generally. And obviously I think it’s good to be against racism, but I also wonder about being too simplistic in how we treat problematic texts. I mentioned Narcos earlier – if you’re not familiar, it’s an ongoing Netflix show that started in 2015 covering the escapades of South American’s druglords, with Seasons 1 & 2 focusing on the Pablo Escobar. One of the key criticisms of the show relates to the accents, which, as I said, are a bit of a mess – most notably the Colombian Escobar is played by Wagner Moura, who is Brazilian. Apparently it just really ruins suspension of disbelief for Spanish-speaking South American audiences – it’s like seeing Hitler played with a French accent. And those criticisms are all totally valid. I’m sure South Americans would love to see media about their continent that doesn’t focus on communists or drug wars. And yet, for me personally, Narcos sparked my interest in South America. It got me learning about liberation theology, about Marxist priests and the Catholic church. It got me learning about how the US had interfered in politics throughout the region. We can always do better, but maybe the portrayals that we have are doing more than we immediately appreciate.

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