Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 5
Best co-op games for the holidays

Blacksite: Where's my subversion?

Blacksiteface_2 Blacksite: Area 51 was supposed to be a subversive game. Its lead designer Harvey Smith (of Deus Ex fame) had me thinking this game would go in narrative and thematic places few games have gone. I admire Smith and his thinking about video games, and I was particularly impressed with Peace Bomb, his response to the GDC's Game Design Challenge last year:

...a game played through the Nintendo DS, which organizes flash mobs of players to do constructive projects. A gameworld in which Earth is crushed under the jackboot of a soulless government/corporation. Players come up with ideas in a community-driven format, where the participants can create good ideas. If the idea gets enough good karma from other players, the game 'creates' the flash mob by asking players to show up and do something specific. Examples include donating money or clothes to a shelter, cleaning up an economically depressed area, or donating time to a Habitat for Humanity project. The game would feature the ability for others to vote on a project idea. It would also allow users to sign petitions with the DS stylus, and similar.[1]

How cool would that game be?! I also loved the original Deus Ex, so when Smith began talking about Blacksite: Area 51, his first new game as Studio Creative Director at Midway, I got excited and posted about it. Smith promised a game that would invite the player to consider the moral and ethical dimensions of American foreign policy in Iraq.

Look, I'm really fucking angry right now. Everything I read pisses me off. You can do this two ways: you can be super heavy-handed and propagandize -- and I wasn't interested in that -- or you can try to organically weave something through the entire work. If you do that, you run the risk of minimizing it so much that nobody notices it.

...It's very much there...It's subtle stuff, but moving into the first mission where you're about to be briefed, you're going past people and cars and checkpoints that have been quarantined. They're going, "Hey, you guys can't do this," and somebody else is saying, "The hell we can't."

Then it just gets more and more subversive from there...The whole theme is, "Who is the enemy? Look at the enemy -- do I look like the enemy to you?" One year, somebody's a freedom fighter, the next year they're a terrorist.[2]

Smith is describing a game I would very much like to play. Unfortunately, that isn't the game Midway released. Blacksite: Area 51 is a shooter, and that's basically it. Yes, it begins in Iraq and yes, it contains mission titles like "Misunderestimated" and "Cut and Run," but once the aliens start coming at you, the game unfolds like any other standard shooter. Your squad mates are cliche-spouting stereotypes, the enemies are mostly locked in place, and the game doesn't require much in the way of strategy. The graphics look good--especially the Nevada locales--but the environments add little to the actual gameplay other than scenery.

The message Smith intended to "organically weave...through the entire work" simply isn't there. I'm disappointed, but I can't say I wasn't warned. The first commenter on my original story cautioned me:

You shoot aliens. Kuma War this ain't. Just because they're willing to put a name to the country in this game where Call of Duty 4 won't doesn't make this third Area 51 game any more about the real world than the other two games in the series. [Posted by: Simon | November 09, 2007]

You got me there, Simon. I guess I'm left wondering if it's possible to combine a pure shooter with a socially compelling and thematically rich narrative. Sure, Bioshock and Half-Life 2 move strongly in this direction, and I admire both greatly. But neither really go where Harvey Smith said he wanted this game to go.

Taking him at his word (and the interview quoted above is only one of several in which Smith states his objectives), Blacksite was supposed to politically activate me. It was supposed to immerse me into a contemporary real-world war and confront me with some kind of harsh reality. It was supposed to make me contemplate the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist. It does none of these things. Instead I shoot aliens.

Is this simply the wrong game to hang that concept on? Would another genre be better suited? I'm curious about Call of Duty 4 (which I haven't played yet). Does it succeed in its storytelling where Blacksite fails?

I haven't given up on Harvey Smith because from what I can tell he's too smart and too ambitious to ignore. I hope he gets a shot at making the socially conscious game he seems to want to create. I don't know what that game would look like, but leaving Area 51 would probably be a good start.