Making Fun of the Bullies in ‘Broforce’

Broforce is silly, unhinged fun. It has fun with the over-the-top action of these movies, but it doesn’t have to carry their exclusionary aspects.

Satire and parody are words that get thrown around a lot around videogames — often inappropriately (Anjin Anhut, “You Are Not Getting it”, How to Not Suck at Game Design, 26 September 2013) — and while mainstream games seem to struggle to reconcile certain traditions with their offensive subtexts, it’s possible to have fun with problematic content without endorsing the problems. Broforce seems designed to do just that.

Originally submitted to the Ludum Dare #23 Game Jam in 2012, Broforce is the brainchild of South African developer, Free Lives, and is currently under construction as a “brototype” beta in the Greenlight corner of the Steam marketplace. It’s an homage (bromage… I’m not sorry) to arcade and early console shooters by way of The Expendables. The player controls an onscreen bro who uses a primary attack and a finite special attack. Broforce plays similar to Contra and Metal Slug with elements of Terraria and Spelunky all wrapped up in Bad Dudes’s shamelessly silly charm. Rescuing other bros grants additional lives but forces a change in character, inducing just enough randomness to make every moment feel fresh. Each bro is a throwback to 80s and 90s action cinema; references include: First Blood (Rambro), Commando (Commandbro), and The Matrix (Mr. Anderbro… come on guys, that should be Ne-bro) among several others.

Enemies screech Homer Simpson style before bursting into red pixels, and explosions rattle the screen with every explosion. Above everything else, Broforce values fun. Bro-op multiplayer is gleefully chaotic, and friendly fire hasn’t created such hilarious animosity between friends since Magicka. Like it’s arcade progenitors, Brofroce’s bosses are absurd action toys that turn the level into a bullet hell. In between bosses, levels are as much about tearing them apart as they are about exploring them. Broforce’s love of fun is largely exuded most, though, through its tone.

The game winks at its own absurdity. Advertised as a “patriotism simulator,” Broforce is drenched in the same cold-war era yankee bravado of its source material. Checkpoints are marked by a guttural “Yeah!”, while an American flag raises from the ground. Clearing levels requires shooting down a humanoid devil in a business suit to hail a green chopper, leaping to a descending rope ladder ignites the level in a glorious cacophony of explosions while the words “Area Liberated” hover above. The game champions its own goofiness, but even while it relishes its own style of fun, it understands how preposterous action movies and games are for trying to justify their over-the-top violence.

Levels are brief, but fun and challenging, due largely to the random nature of which bro rolls out at any time. If it were a final shipped product, I’d be inclined to mark it down as one of the best platform shooters that I’ve played in a while, but the promise of more content, more levels, more bros, and more enemies makes me salivate all the more. And as far as reviews go, that’s about as good a place as any to leave things. However, when I unlocked what is for now is the final bro based on Alien’s Ellen Ripley (Who in that film series once strapped a grenade launcher to a flame thrower. So, of course, she’s included), it highlights the dearth of the game’s female bros.

In the context of Broforce, a bro is just one who guns down generic bad guys in black ski masks. There’s nothing necessarily masculine about that, as evinced by Ellen Ripbro’s presence. However, the reason why Ripley is the lone lady-bro of 15 thus far is not Free Lives’s fault, they’re just drawing from a time and genre of pop culture that presented one kind of masculinity as the single image of heroism to the exclusion of anything else. As is often the case with representation, there’s an out. Nobody is deliberately excluding women, they’re just basing their content on previous content that happens to over-represent men (Jenn Frank, “The Rolodex”, Gamasutra, 27 March 2014). Including women bros might feel forced or require sourcing material outside of the developer’s intended scope.

But how out of place would a caricature of Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo be next to the caricatures of Machete, Blade, Agent J, and Conan the Barbarian? Folding characters like Xena, the charmed ones, She-Ra, Sarah Connor, and Sheena: Queen of the Jungle into the game’s world would not stretch the game’s reference points too much, and it would open the cast up so much more than it already does. And I would trade my kingdom to see Glenda the Good Witch tearing through gunmen from her floating bubble.

Broforce is silly, unhinged fun. It celebrates Boondock Saints and Die Hard with a cheeky awareness of its nationalistic machismo. It has fun with the over-the-top action of these movies, but it doesn’t have to carry their exclusionary aspects. That said, Broforce is incomplete, and there’s every chance that they’ve considered this for the finished game. After all, the website promises the campaign will ultimately include vehicles, aliens, dinosaurs, robots, and time travel. Why not women as well?