essay, playing, video games

Neocolonialism: Just ‘Cause (2)

[I’m going to spoil the story parts of  Just Cause 2,  the ending of Crackdown, and parts of  Red Faction: Guerrilla. Yeah, like my post the other day, these games have been out for years. Still, if you don’t want to know what happens, I wouldn’t recommend reading more than the first paragraph.]

The character of Rico Rodriguez is one you’d find in a knockoff Tom Clancy novel. He’s gruff, often sardonic and vaguely European. Sent to recover some memory cards, which fall out of a helicopter suspiciously and kick off the first mission, he stumbles into a world where, going by the nickname Scorpio, he must overthrow a dictator and disrupt an entire country because The Agency tells him to do it.

The story is unremarkable in its similarity to any number of other open-world games: destroy some things, kill some people, and then run away to do it again. It’s the same tropes in a new package. One group wants you to destroy some tankers. You do it. Another wants you to kidnap someone. You do it. It’s the rinse-and-repeat series of missions found in too many open-world games.

Yet, for all it’s sameness, there is a hint of something else going on in Just Cause 2. Lost among the crumbling debris from the latest explosion, countless dead bodies, and even the over-the-top ripped-from-the-headlines story of taking out a dictator to get to their oil fields, there is the thread of neocolonialism behind all of Rico’s actions.

It’s not just one group of people rebelling against a corrupt government like Red Faction: Guerrilla. There are bits of that, sure. Nor is completely clearing out drug lords and corrupt officers,  like in Crackdown. No, it’s foreign powers propping up one person or group instead of another. It’s the dropping in weapons and money to whomever will fight against the current power, the one the power put there years earlier.

It’s troubling, to say the least. If Just Cause 2  wanted to get players to question the influence of colonial powers on islands like “Panau,” it achieved the goal despite itself. The overly convenient inclusion of oil fields,  nuclear weapons, a dictator, and a cornucopia of countries like the United States, China, Russia, and even Japan vying for control over this one set of islands is, well, crazy.

Setting aside the the paradoxical “good person” always doing “bad things” open world problem, and ignoring the fact that core mechanic of the grappling hook is the only real redeeming factor of the game, it’s the passivity of the people and predominantly economic targets that build up a body of evidence that the ideas beneath the overt message to destroy everything you can is one of pointing out how, with a crippled economy and destroyed infrastructure, a country can be controlled by only a few people. It’s not just massacring more military as a self-imposed righteous warrior. Nor is it purely about assassinating a leaders to convert their followers.

It’s right in front of your eyes. Destroying those tankers causes a major explosions, true, but it also reduces the overall supply on the island. Blowing up all those oil pipelines is fun to watch, yes, but now a section of the island is without that oil. Taking down those guards and shooting an array to cripple another communication tower might be a quick goal on the way to another mission, but it also limits any outside contact. As Rico terrorizes the island, he also opens it up to those who would control it from a distance.

It’s that distance that is at the very center of the game. Because Rico can grapple his way between cars and even up to planes, he is always connected to what he is doing. Instead of shooting guards up close, he can pull them to him. The intimacy of the act is mediated through the line itself. Rico can enter, act, and then leave without using doors, all because he can send a grapple to position himself anew each time.

Strings are being pulled. Rico is a puppet for others. As the player, you are dragged into the politics of the gangs on the island. You are promised access if only you would take care of something for them first. Everyone wants something from Rico and, of course, he wants nothing. He has no goals, only the mission at hand. As the player directs him, so too are all the others forces acting for or against him according to the various tensions at play.

There are no answers. In the end, Rico laughs. After all the work, he doesn’t even know why the countries were interested in the islands. Other than some resources, there is not much left after the final confrontation Rico has with the dictator. Yet, his conspirators all agree to mold the island in the future. They are agents from various organizations, but say they will protect the “innocent” people of the islands.

After all, they cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves. Only the enlightened interests of those handful during the conversation matter. Parts of vehicles and packets of money were shattered in villages and hidden in huts. Yet, the people didn’t touch them. Weapons can be found on the ground frequently, but no one but Rico picks them up.

Just Cause 2 had all the potential to question the very nature of NGOs and governments alike interfering with other countries. It could have provoked a conversation about the morally questionable practices of cultural or economic invasion of former colonies. There was room to explore the affect of a failing ideology on the people within it. So much more could have been at play instead of the basic driving force of being yet-another-open-world-game catering to those who want to destroy more things and get “Chaos” points for doing it.

In small places and quiet moments, the player can catch a glimpse of the gear that Rico is in the larger machine of trying to rule the world through economics and trade by superpowers. Just by involving countries with an island nation, it raises the specter of colonialism quite easily. And with Rico being of Hispanic heritage, there was the ability to touch on cultural hybridity. Yet, the game does very little with any of this.

Ultimately, all questions are greeted with the same response: “just ’cause.”