I shot two dogs in The Division Beta before I realized that I couldn’t stomach it. Had read somewhere that the game would give me experience for shooting dogs, but all I saw rising from their falling corpses was a little white damage number, the precise quantification of my shitty act. The whole episode reminded me of a time when I was a kid in France, my brother and I with a BB rifle and no parental supervision, just two young boys drawing a bead on a little feathery shape atop a building, then shooting the fella down. We both ran over with a sinking feeling in our guts, and as we watched the bird take its last breaths, we could feel our need to experiment with murder disappear. In a video game it ain’t quite the same: you can feel the bloated embrace of that old friend, desensitization, keeping it all at arm’s length.
So in the real world I’m a dumb kid who fucked up. In the video game world I’m Joseph fucking Stalin, lining up all the orcs and skeletons and enemy combatants and gang members and aliens and elves, leading them into meat grinder I’ve hooked up to a controller for ease of use. I try not to think about it too much, the way I’ve come to enjoy slitting someone’s throat or skewering them with a sword or popping their head off with a sniper rifle, for fear that if I stand in front of that mirror for too long and say “candy man, candy man, candy man,” I’ll be dealing with some bees and a hook before long. And if you’re too young for that reference, so be it, I can handle it, I’m sure by now you hate me for other reasons anyways.
But I guess what really gets me in The Division Beta are the singular moments that only video games can provide, the ones where you “come across” something, stumble onto a little scene that makes you feel a certain way, the syncing of the human impulse to explore with some particular audio-visual stimuli placed there by the developers (purposefully or not). Case in point a cloth suitcase standing upright in the middle of a snow-bombed alley, a few crestfallen musical notes, and that extendable handle pulled all the way up, begging the question: what happened here? The video game equivalent of that old perfect tragicomedy of a joke: “FOR SALE – BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.” A real punch in the gut.
Long story short, I met a guy, someone real nice by the name of WarPyro. Can’t remember how we started talking, must have been over proximity chat, but we ended up going on a couple of PVE missions together and even chasing down some rogue agents into the wee hours of the morning. The whole thing was new to me: the strange intimacy of another person’s voice in my head as we progressed together through a destroyed urban landscape. The act of meeting a new friend without worrying about where to place my hands or how to stand or whether my clothes look dumb, because this is a fucking crisis situation damnit, and we’ve gotta Take Back New York from these homicidal criminals. The headset, though… didn’t think I’d make the jump. But there’s a thrill to it, undoubtedly, finding out where a person’s from, what they do in life, imagining them at home on their couch, what they might look like. Same thrill I remember from using chat-rooms in the 90’s when the internet was but a fresh-faced cherub knocking at our collective doors.
But about the enemies in The Division Beta, who are these people? One would assume they’re just the disenfranchised citizens who, having long ago reached the mental boiling point catalyzed by outrageous inequality, finally took to looting, stealing, and fighting their own government. Or are we instead being asked to participate in some dystopian Reaganite wet-dream in which the Super Predators have finally materialized? I’m hoping the game will eventually veer away from the classic FOX NEWS Black Male In Hoodie and grant us something less morally reprehensible than a Post-Katrina White Officer Simulator. Or maybe that’s where we’re at now, and Donald Trump’s gonna be president, and we might as well enroll in this Ubisoft training program immediately. I don’t buy it: the guys over at Massive Entertainment are Swedish. Far as I know, the Swedish are mortified by political incorrectness, and pride themselves on being progressive when it comes to social inequality. Of course their own Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has them listed as the 12th-largest weapons dealers in the world, so there’s always that. Maybe they ain’t the pacifists I imagine them to be.
It’s a beautiful game though, truly. I couldn’t stop admiring those Manhattan streets and marveling at the sheer density of the environment. The insides of people’s homes are crafted so meticulously that they become vivid and believable portraits of their ex-inhabitants’ personalities. Ghostly. Haunting. This is helped by the whole conceit that these places were abandoned with little notice. The entire game, in fact, has the interrupted quality of a page from Otomo’s Akira: the graceful capture of violent movement frozen in time. And in many ways that’s what The Division Beta does best: the soft sound of NPC knees hitting the snow as they finally surrender to a reality too fucked to comprehend. And who am I to judge anyways, seeing that I’ve got no solutions to offer? Who am I to criticize the game’s ability to make some hopeless Global Citizens feel agency for just a moment in this confusing mess of a world? In fact, fuck all this criticism and sign me up for digital bullet therapy, one baddie at a time, that I might forget the guilt of our communal wrongs.