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Destroy All Humans!

(THQ; US: Jul 2007)

Alienating Humanity

If you take a look at the original script of The Matrix, you will find at least one scene that appears in the film missing. The scene I am talking about is the one in which Morpheus takes Neo for a walk through a simulated Matrix and Neo is distracted by the woman in the red dress. While I do not know for certain why the Wachowski brothers chose to add the scene to the film, I can hazard a guess. In the scene Morpheus explains to Neo how easily he can be caught unaware in the Matrix by his enemies and that, in fact, everyone in the Matrix should be considered to be his enemy—both the computer controlled agents that seek to destroy the awakened citizens of Zion but also the unawakened humans that are victims of the Matrix. The scene seems necessary to me to justify to the film’s audience the massacres that Neo will eventually perpetrate against his fellow humans in the name of human liberation.


While most violent games ask you to become a killer on a massive scale, they usually do so by making enemies monstrous and obvious representatives of evil… or at the very least something other than human. A game like Destroy All Humans! asks the player to place himself into Neo’s shoes—in some sense—picking on both those that are weaker than yourself and also those that are—as the title straightforwardly reveals—human. The notion of taking on the role of an alien invader in a Cold War environment that fears all things alien—both the reds behind the Iron Curtain and those little green men in flying saucers—in order to destroy all humans is, of course, a tongue in cheek gimmick for Pandemic’s free form action game. Nevertheless, while destroying all humans may seem like a bit of giggly fun, escapism, and maybe even a bit of wish fulfillment (the ability to climb into Godzilla’s city stompin’ shoes has been a hit with video gamers since the ‘80s coin-op version of Rampage), nevertheless, when you get down to the actual business of flash frying the flesh off a seemingly innocent stranger or prodding them with an anal probe so hard that their head explodes (both of which you can do in the game), the humor of the situation could become at times a bit less than amusing and more so rather grisly and appalling as Neo’s antics might seem when considering his nonchalance at gunning down the innocent slaves of the Matrix.


In this era of playing the antihero in a video game or even a criminal (both God of War and Grand Theft Auto immediately spring to mind), it would seem the necessity of justifying the actions of a character are largely unnecessary amongst gaming audiences. However, consider that both games that I mentioned do actually either consider the morality of the player’s actions in some serious way (as God of War does by showing how its main character, Kratos, has suffered the consequences of reckless murder by losing his own wife and child to one of his own murderous rages), or it tends to treat your victims as folks that are mostly less than lovable human beings (as GTA generally does through its missions, which most often have you taking on other criminals or corrupt cops or listening to the less than friendly dialogue of the inhabitants of Vice City or San Andreas).


Destroy All Humans! takes an approach similar to The Matrix or GTA or countless other games that feature the player against monstrous hordes—it “others” the enemies by making them less than ideally human. While the protagonist Crypto may be an alien, the humans quickly become as alien to the player as little green men would. First, through the most obvious means of “othering” other humans by identifying them as culturally alien from the contemporary gamer through Destroy All Human!‘s setting of a Cold War haunted America of the 50s generated largely through the game’s retro sci-fi era look and environments. But, also by matching the game’s satirical recreation of the era with the era’s own attitudes about what makes humans “monstrous”.


Beyond toting a death ray and an anal probe, Crypto also has some rather nifty psychic abilities, one of which is to read the thoughts of the humans that populate his various mission sites within this mid-20th century America. This ability does serve a game play function (it allows Crypto to refuel his “concentration meter”—the power he draws on to use other psychic abilities), but it, of course, also allows the player to see the thoughts of his enemies and gives him a little insight into who these “monkeys” (as Crypto refers to his human enemies) are.


These short dialogues are mainly intended to be parodic and humorous jokes at the expense of these straight-laced and ultraconservative Americans of the past, but the underlying suggestions of that humor does have a tendency to curiously reinforce the very values and ideals that they intend to satirize given the nature of the game’s protagonist and his relationship to humans as aliens to himself. Some of these comments are fairly humorous and range (as much of the humor in the game does) between extremely juvenile potty humor and rather clever parody, much of both ends of that spectrum relying on sexual innuendo. If the humans in the game, are understood to be “other” than the player, it is because, as we learn through their thoughts, they are really suppressing the sorts of urges that this “prudish” era of American history has come to represent and as America is represented to be in this game.


Scanning the thoughts of one male pedestrian will elicit his thoughts on how he hopes that his wife will not discover an adulterous liaison with her sister at the couple’s wedding. Another thought from a cop reveals his preference for the sadomasochistic implications of Bettie Page as a pin up girl to the more “normal” all American lust for Marilyn Monroe. Socially repressed women express their true desires to be call girls rather than homemakers. Soldiers affirm their thankfulness of their military’s anachronistic “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, while some male bystanders attempt to repress their urge to label Rock Hudson a dreamboat. In other words, these humans are othered because they represent the very sense of vice and deviance that this recreated era is supposed to abhor—adultery, promiscuity, and homosexuality.


Thus, the social implications of creating a “historical” sandbox for the player to explore, learn in, and terrorize become a rather mixed and muddy affair. The very repressiveness that Pandemic seems to seek to poke fun at also has a tendency to serve as a means of justification for your role as executioner. You need to destroy these deviant humans.


To be fair, its satirical critique of the era does clearly seesaw from morally and socially conservative to morally and socially liberal throughout the game in a somewhat balanced manner. The final villain in the game is revealed late in the story to be a woman who controls the Majestic, the men in black who hunt Crypto. This boss, Silhouette, has been shrouded as a mystery figure throughout the game and when her mask comes off near the game’s conclusion, her comments about the necessity of a masculine disguise for a powerful woman in this era to avoid the “grabass” politics of the patriarchal culture are as progressive as the moral “othering” of the enemy is conservative.


Additionally, Pandemic has done what few other game makers have seemed unable to do in the post-GTA game world. They have been able to take the innovation of the GTA formula, placing an antihero in a vast environment with lots of opportunities for emergent gameplay and creative/varied approaches to solving mission goals, and have actually created a fresh approach to the sandbox genre. For example, while Crypto is able to hijack bodies (disguising himself as human for more stealthy approaches to missions amongst the populace) as CJ or Tommy Vercetti are able to hijack cars, this new hijacking is innovative and a more creative approach to resolving potential problems than simply stealing a car. It allows for sometimes less aggressive and often more creative problem solving than simply running someone over or making a quick escape.


In general, the various things the game allows Crypto to do—wielding several rather cleverly designed weapons with multiple functions, highly versatile psychic powers, and the arsenal of a flying saucer—makes the game unique and more than a rehash of what we have seen in the genre standard.


Destroy All Humans! is a much needed coat of fresh paint on the sandbox formula and a real step in the right direction away from GTA cloning and unimaginative similarly gritty, urban themed games. It shows that more creative approaches can advance developers’ approaches to the genre, however, the social critiques it offers are either interestingly complex judgments on a bygone era or a rather offensive or reaffirming vision of values depending on whether your view comes from the left or the right of the political spectrum.

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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