Genocide for fun and profit: horrific irony in Army of Two

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In my Army of Two review, I promised to talk in greater detail about the game’s moral and political implications.

That’s what I’m fixin’ to do right now, with some mild spoilerage.

Army of Two may be one of the most contemporary games I’ve ever played: rather than shying away from contemporary politics as Call of Duty 4 did, Ao2 unflinchingly references 9/11, Blackwater, and the Iraq War through its rather underwhelming storyline. Call of Duty 4 had a wonderful storyline which said nothing about the modern world; Army of Two does exactly the opposite.

Army of Two has some truly effective, terrifying things to say about the privatization of the military, and the current situation we find ourselves in with PMCs like Blackwater roaming around Iraq unchecked.

The thing is — the game isn’t supposed to be terrifying. It’s supposed to be a fun, violent romp where players can spend a few hours as Blackwater mercenaries, killing Bad Guys for cash without considering the grotesque nature of their actions. The discerning, socially aware player will find unlimited horror in Army of Two, despite the fact that the designers obviously intended no such reaction: Army of Two is the most accidentally effective, relevant and meaningful take on modern warfare we have ever seen in a videogame.

Hit the jump to see why.

Choke someone to death, then play air guitar. Shoot a turban-wearing suicide bomber, then fist pound. This is the life of a private mercenary as presented by Army of Two, and it is supposed to be fun.

Army of Two never asks its players to give two shits about the enemies they are killing. The terrorists, depending on the level, all look the same: the Iraqis look like Iraqis, the Chinese look like Chinese, and the Americans look like Americans. They are, essentially, faceless bad guys; even in the last levels of the game where players break into their own private military firm on a mission to kill their boss, the players are never onced ask to consider the fact that they are literally blowing their way past dozens and dozens of completely ignorant security guards and soldiers who are totally unaware as to their boss’s corruption. The bad guys exist to be killed, not to be thought about or sympathized with.

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In any other war game, where the objective is to talk about the general inhumanity of war, this would be a serious thematic problem. But not in Army of Two. The game’s protagonists, Salem and Rios, simply do not give a rat’s ass about human life. They signed up as private soldiers so they could make money, not improve the world. When the player doesn’t care about the hundreds of nameless baddies he kills, it’s permissible simply because the characters don’t care, either. The goals of player and character are one and the same, and so this potentially disturbing moral oversight actually works in terms of developing the game’s main, unintentional theme concerning the greed and inhumanity of soldiers-for-hire.

I’ll be referring to this theme as “unintentional” quite a bit, so I might as well explain myself now. Army of Two‘s tone went through several iterations through its development. First it was goofy and lighthearted (“Who do you think you are, fucking MacGyver?”), gradually becoming more and more serious until arriving at the finished product. As a result, the characters don’t engage in childish “banter” anymore, but they’ll still fist pound and rock out after blowing up half of Al-Qaeda. In Tycho’s words, “You’ll see life and death situations juxtaposed with slapstick…the final product hacks a drunken, winding path through this complex terrain.” From the start, Army of Two was supposed to be mindless, silly fun, full of Jokes and Laffs. It’s been toned down, but one still gets the impression that Army of Two‘s priorities lie with entertainment first, message a distant second. 

This is what makes it so goddamned scary. The game is trying not to be offensive, stretching and reaching with every effort to not be as juvenile and silly as its earlier builds, but moments of misanthropic absurdity still bleed through: even ignoring the numerous, too-lighthearted ways players can interact with each other (beyond complimentary stuff like high fives and fist pounds, you can also slap each other on the back of the head and punch one another in the stomach), the protagonists will still occasionally digress from their mission to discuss the Wu-Tang Clan.

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Were the game as outright silly as it was a year ago, these momentary lapses into goofiness territory wouldn’t be as effective as they are; hours upon hours of what N’Gai Croal called “bro-ish” speech would be so distancing to players that the whole game would feel a sham, too pointless for its own good.

As it stands, however, players can easily spend hours killing bad guys without a second thought, until the protagonists suddenly start making devil horns and playing air guitar after a particularly violent gunfight. For more socially-conscious gamers, moments like this make the wheels come to a screeching halt: this is not funny or cool. This is callous, and more than a little sick. The player is forced to reevaluate all the fun he was having before, given this new and disturbing attitude toward mass genocide. 

And given what little we know about Blackwater operations, it would seem that Army of Two‘s characterization of Rios and Salem is more or less on the money. The protagonists spend a lot of money buying and “pimping out” illegal arms (seriously, you can buy a gold-plated machine gun), and they roam more or less free in their world, unhindered by congressional oversight. Salem and Rios are greedy, murderous, violence-loving jerks who really shouldn’t be allowed the degree of freedom they are given — not unlike real Blackwater mercs. 

Near the final levels, the game half-assedly tries to insert a “private military corps might not be so great” message, but the damage is already done. The fact that one of the mercs grows a conscience out of nowhere is irrelevant, considering that conscience manifests itself in the duo’s decision to blow away the dozens of aforementioned ignorant security guards. The fact that the private military corporation that hired Salem and Rios turns out to be the real bad guy is equally pointless.

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The very end of the game promises us that, with Salem and Rios self-employed, corruption and evil are somehow no longer problems within the private military sector. Salem and Rios are “good” mercenaries, while the guys they kill at the very end of the game are “bad” mercenaries. This hypocritical narrative backpedaling, while extremely irritating, does nothing to diminish the game’s thematic impact since the player has (hopefully) already realized that every ounce of relevance and profundity the game has to offer is totally unintentional.

I don’t know how to work in the fact that the game is kind of sub-average, but I’m sure that means something, somehow. Maybe the game is just barely un-fun enough to distance us from the story and get players to analyze it. Or something. I dunno. 

Either way, Blackwater mercenaries seem to be dicks, as are the Army of Two guys, and the game accidentally does a really great job convincing players of this fact. If someone could mix the storytelling of Call of Duty 4 with the relevance of Army of Two, but make it intentional, then that might very well be the greatest war videogame ever made. 

Or something. 

Anthony Burch