Insurgency: Sandstorm is a first-person shooter in which you play a Kurdish woman who just escaped slavery, and is now fighting a group of “radical terrorists” as a rebel militant in Iraq.
That’s not the kind of video game you expect to hear about at E3, is it? Usually the game show is typically a hype generator, showing off the latest Call of Duty, Halo, and Star Wars games. But a game about an escaped female slave fighting what is basically ISIS? That’s enough to make even the most seasoned game journo spit out their coffee. But can you blame them?
Treading on Thin Ice
As a rule of thumb, video games don’t touch modern day conflicts. There are a few here and there, such as Heavy Fire: Afghanistan, and they always come under fire for being insensitive. The most well-known firestorms are Konami’s Six Days in Fallujah, and EA’s Medal of Honor.
Six Days in Fallujah, announced in 2009, depicts the 2005 Battle of Fallujah, the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War. It would have been a tactical shooter, not unlike Full Spectrum Warrior, and would have followed a real group of US Marines that took part in the battle. The backlash was so overwhelming that Konami dropped the game, and it has since been canceled. Medal of Honor, meanwhile, had a multiplayer mode that let players take control of Taliban fighters and kill American soldiers. The debate was fierce, with several news outlets decrying the game, which eventually led to it getting banned from US military bases. Eventually EA gave in and removed the Taliban as a playable faction.
Developer New World Interactive has a very fine like to walk here. No matter what kind of amazing high wire act they put on, they’re going to come under fire from somebody once the mainstream press catches wind of this. And this is something the mainstream should look at, because what New World Interactive is doing is nothing short of courageous when you look at previous games that tried anything like this.
Divorced of the real life inspirations, looking at other games will tell you Insurgency: Sandstorm is still a risk. This is a game in which you play an escaped female slave – possibly a sex slave – who seeks revenge by joining a militia and fighting against them. That’s a narrative you don’t see often in films or books, let alone video games. That on its own is stunning, and when you do add in contemporary Iraq, ISIS, and the religious aspect, this game feels like a tinder box ready to explode.
Let’s Apply the Brakes for a Moment
Before we dub Insurgency: Sandstorm the Natural Born Killers of video games, let’s take one thing into consideration. The developers come from a background of multiplayer-only games, such as the first Insurgency and Day of Infamy. Indeed, they are pushing the multiplayer aspect of Insurgency: Sandstorm as well, maybe even more so than the single player.
New World first announced the game in February 2017. The post leads with their new publisher, Focus Home Interactive. They then talk about the game’s engine, Unreal 4, their history as a PC games company but newfound console support, and esports before finally mentioning the single player mode. The story mode is briefly described as “a squad of characters as [facing] increasingly challenging chapters, from the invasion of Iraq in 2003 through the insurrection period and leading to the present day.” After this, it’s back to talking about esports.
They finally revealed the real plot of the game at E3 this year, but even then, they still talked a lot about the multiplayer portion. From this, we can assume that while they are invested in the single player campaign, their primary focus is clearly on the multiplayer and esports aspect of the game. This doesn’t necessarily mean the single player or the story will be bad mind, but it is cause for concern.
A story like this can be an explosive one, and it needs to be handled with tact and grace that traditional multiplayer games lack. Multiplayer games are about one thing – having fun. A single player game can (and many would argue should) be a whole lot more than that, especially with a story like this.
The Benefit of the Doubt
It’s still early in Insurgency: Sandstorm’s press lifespan. We’ve yet to see how New World will react to the inevitably heated discussion about their single player narrative. There are a few concerns over how much they seem invested in the multiplayer, but that doesn’t necessarily come at the cost of the single player. Ultimately what matters most is the writing, and the level of respect the developers pay to the real life conflict that is clearly inspiring them.
New World Interactive deserves the benefit of the doubt for having the courage to tackle such a delicate situation, especially in the way they’re doing it. They have an opportunity here to not only deliver a powerful message, but inform many of us in the West about what’s really going on in the fight against ISIS. Whether or not they can live up to those expectations, we’ll have to wait and see.