The world was black and white
And the cops carried swords
And I wasn’t alive
— “1964”, Too Much Joy
I wasn’t alive in 1964. But based on what I’ve learned from television and comic books, the world was, indeed, black and white in 1964. The grainy black and white sitcoms recorded a black and white history for me like the pulpy pages of Silver Age comic books recorded the black and white moral history of the times.
Irrational Games’ first foray into a superhero RTS/RPG, 2002’s Freedom Force, presented a similar record of history by telling the story of a group of superpowered heroes imbued through the mysterious Energy X with superpowers. The brilliance of the game was the way it served as both an homage to and a pastiche of the Silver Age of comics.
Besides being perhaps the first truly great superhero game, Freedom Force, was — through its masterfully comic and melodramatic narrative — able to balance Irrational’s very clear admiration for that era’s comic book heroes and those heroes’ seemingly naive and — at times — stereotypical ideology against a very clear understanding of the melodrama and binary ethical positions such ideology presented. The series newest installment is no different.
The title of the game suggests the similarly optimistic and morally unsophisticated sense that those of us who only remember the World War II era and the beginning of the Cold War through reruns of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis or Leave It To Beaver have about the Golden Age of comic books — an era in which Superman and Captain America fought for justice and freedom against the Hunnish barbarism of the Nazis and later the sinister subterfuge of the Reds. Fighting the Third Reich is an old trope not only in comics but in video games (from 1983’s Castle Wolfenstein to 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein), and, in doing so, gaming has resurrected the black vs. white, good vs. evil sensibilities of those eras. Although, perhaps, we are naive to think that such sensibilities only belonged or were even necessary to those “black and white” ages.
It is, perhaps, unsurprising that Freedom Force’s outing this time begins in the Cold War era fighting the Russkies, has the team time traveling into the past to fight the Nazis with some new Golden Age heroes, and then returning once again to the future to combat a more basic and primal evil — one that both villains like the Reds and the Nazis have always represented in comic book ethics.
In an early chapter as the team attempt to disarm a nuclear threat in Cuba (yeah, that may sound a tad familiar), the team’s leader, the Captain America-esque patriot, Minuteman, instructs his team to save a Cuban citizen, “We’ve got to free that peasant from the clutches of the Russian bear!” Fare of this sort — Minuteman’s “American” prejudices and assumptions about foreigners — serve as the meat of the parody in the game, as do melodramatic and, again, self reflective battle cries like Minuteman’s “For Freedom!” or “Might Makes Right!”
After saving the aforementioned “peasant” and receiving his thanks, the blustery Minuteman follows up with an equally condescending and “meaningful” message of both patriotism and its clearly morally right motivations, “No thanks necessary, my Caribbean friend. Just remember this when El Fidel speaks poorly of America.” Such moments are at once hilariously silly and painfully revelatory of the way America has perceived itself in the blacks and whites of history as told through the propaganda of American media.
Such brilliant and chilling ironies are not simply found in the dialogue of the heroes, though, they are embedded in the plotline itself. That the team inadvertently aids a time traveling Nazi in seizing a powerful and evil entity called the Timemaster (the first Freedom Force‘s final adversary) after teaming up with a Russian superpowered villain, the witch Red Oktober, to end the crisis in Cuba is morally appropriate in the black and white terms of the Silver Age. Enabling evil is a given, if you are foolish enough to ally yourself with the equally evil representatives of Communism.
Yet, despite this critique of our perceived attitudes that media artifacts like the comic book have instilled in us of the simplicity of the heroes of prior American epochs, nevertheless, Irrational is able to balance this parody with our other sense of some of these earlier and more “naive” times. If Minuteman is naive, he is seemingly innocent of what would be considered a crime in politically correct times of dividing the world between America (and what it represents to him: freedom, justice, and might) and the Axis of Evil in the context of his own time.
Within the innocent naivety and blustery melodrama is a romantic appreciation for justice, freedom, and heroism. Freedom Force, despite its seemingly prejudicial depiction of “foreigners” (like the barrio born hero El Diablo, whose fire-based powers mirror his stereotypically “fiery” and “macho” Latino heritage) is still composed of a culturally diverse spectrum of heroes from whites to blacks to Latinos to even the ultimate Other, aliens. Like Gene Rodenberry’s efforts to populate the bridge of the Enterprise with a diverse spectrum of colors that represented all of humanity (even the alien Spock who struggled between otherness and humanness much of the time), Freedom Force reminds us of similar efforts in the seemingly black and white history of the Silver Age. If Minuteman can at times be seen as offensive in a contemporary sense, he is remarkably broad minded for befriending and standing along side a ghetto Latino in the context of the 1960s.
If parody is embedded in the plotting of this installment of Freedom Force so to is Irrational’s homage to a romantic view of freedom and justice. After defeating the Nazis, the game is not over. Instead, one of Freedom Force’s own members is corrupted by tapping into the power of Timemaster to defeat the Nazi supervillain Blitzkrieg. Again, associating with evil leads to dire results and the Alchemiss is transformed (in a clear nod to the classic Dark Phoenix plotline of the X-Men) into a powerful being of chaos called Entropy, becoming the true “big bad” of the game despite its title.
This, the climax of the game, erases the previous ethnically and nationalistically drawn lines of good and evil, shedding nationalism for the clear black and white collision of good and evil. The game here pays homage in particular to the romantic notion of heroism as self-sacrifice as Alchemiss realizes that the team’s only hope of defeating Entropy is to use her power to alter reality to cause herself to cease to exist.
The previous game had a similar conclusion, in which one member of the team, Man-Bot, volunteers to stay behind in an alternate dimension in order to allow the rest of the team to return to their home dimension. But Man-Bot’s sacrifice is at least acknowledged and memorialized by the rest of the team. Alchemiss’s sacrifice is more profound. She will save the world and no one will remember or celebrate her for it.
It is at these moments in Freedom Force that critique and parody seem to give way to admiration and homage to what is now our “other”, a culture with a more innocent sense of the world, but, perhaps, a more profound sense of nobility in that world. In the game’s twist ending (which I won’t entirely ruin), a higher being of sorts acknowledges just such a sense of nobility and actually suggests that such nobility is really beyond even the black and white sense that human beings have of evil and good. It also suggests that Alchemiss and Freedom Force’s story is not yet over and another installment, like any good comic book narrative should, will pick up this tale of good and evil in the near future.
The serialization of the comic book is suggestive of the persistence of the romantic impetus to watch good overtake evil and of the, perhaps, more realistic and pragmatic framing of this seemingly naive way of seeing the world as an always unending battle. At the end of the day, Spider-Man can hang up his tights, but tomorrow, he will need to put them back on again. Because no matter how morally sophisticated we become in our more colorful vision of the world, someone will need to fight… for freedom!