On the phone from Shanghai, iconoclastic game designer American McGee explained the problem he's been having with his name and the country he used to live in.
"I've had a unique perspective being American for the last 12 or 13 years, traveling the world," he said. "I introduce myself. I say my name is American, and it used to be it didn't matter where I went: From Japan to India to Korea to Russia people were like, 'What a f---ing cool name. We love America.' These days they're like, 'What a f---ed-up name.' Getting that cultural temperature of the world whenever you introduce yourself to people, that tends to drive you to wonder what's going on with America's role in the world."
On a recent trip to Thailand, he met an Afghani couple who said they left their country after "America invaded." They asked him his name. He stopped short and uttered, "Bob from Canada."
But American McGee does love America. "I love my country," he said. "I can chuckle at the country."
In an industry with few games that could be described as comedic or political, McGee's "Bad Day L.A.," which shipped to U.S. stores this week, is both. The player controls a homeless man named Anthony Williams, who starts the day pushing a shopping cart through the traffic-clogged Santa Monica Freeway. Then terrorists crash a plane into an overpass and release a toxic cloud that turns Californians into zombies. Earthquakes, meteor storms, an invasion by the Mexican Army and other disasters ensue.
It may sound serious, but it doesn't look or play that way. Los Angeles looks as if it were constructed from pop-up books, its features outlined with crayons. Williams saves people by spritzing them with fire extinguishers and shooting terrorists, and he eats fast-food burgers to regain his strength. His ultimate weapon is a nail clipper, an item famously banned from air travel after 9/11.
The Sergeant, an amalgamation of President Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger, rushes to battle yelling, "Mission accomplished" and "Let's democratize them." A meter on the screen shows the city's threat level, color-coded in the style of the Department of Homeland Security. Williams' goal is to keep that meter low, suppressing hysteria while saving the city. As one character in the M-rated game tells Williams early on, "Help people out or they are going to kill your ass."
"We were trying to strike a balance between fun, funny and some kind of a message," McGee said. The game is being marketed as a critique of America's fear culture, and its credits include sarcastic thanks to Bush and the Department of Homeland Security.
"That zombie thing being in the game is kind of a harsh message," McGee said. "A terrorist attack takes place in the city of L.A., and a lot of people get converted into zombies. I felt like that sort of subtle message was as far as I needed to take that."
McGee used to make games at "Doom" and "Quake" developer id Software. After that he worked at Electronic Arts, where he made the twisted fairy-tale game "Alice." He wasn't political back then, but Bush's presidency changed him. "I think there's a tremendous amount of hypocrisy in how the U.S. presents itself to the world and tries to spread its idea of what American democracy is and then turns around and does exactly the opposite of what it's preaching," he said.
When a demo for his game was released, some people lavished praise in the comments section of his blog. Others ripped him for his politics and simply for not liking the game. "Go back to id and maybe, just maybe, they'll give you a janitor position," one wrote.
McGee insists there may be something constructive about being so incendiary. "Seeing video game forums fill up with people ranting and raving about their political views accomplished one goal right there," he said.
For all the noise made about Bush's America in film, TV and books over the past six years, games haven't contributed much to the debate. Independent message games like "September 12th" have won acclaim, but no full-sized, commercially released game has focused on the issues. Instead it's news when a game like "Destroy All Humans" includes a spare political quip about the Bush administration or when a game draws distant inspiration from the war on terror (see "Fantasy Fighting Game Inspired By How The World Viewed 9/11").
McGee insists there is more political content in games than that, much of it implied. "So many games contain Arabs being slaughtered by American military forces," he said. "There's politics there. It's sort of a brainwashing politics of portraying these people as less than human because they are video game cannon fodder. I think that stuff is relatively easy. It's when you try to have a sort of counter-message that it becomes more difficult."
"Bad Day L.A." was made in China. A few years ago, McGee was offered a publishing deal by a Hong Kong company. It gave him a reason to move there and work with a team split between the island and mainland China. He described his team as "young Chinese guys excited to be working on a game." They weren't political or up to speed on American culture, as McGee found when he told them he wanted the Sergeant to occasionally throw grenades not at enemies but at the player.
"They thought the game was insanity," McGee said. "They had no cultural context for it. They didn't know why I asked them to have one support character every once in awhile throw a grenade at you. To them, it's stupid."
"Bad Day L.A." is published in the U.S. by Austin, Texas-based Aspyr, but that connection didn't come easily. "The feedback we got from a lot of publishers was, 'You guys need to die and burn in hell.' " A two-page screed from one publisher itemizes everything offensive about his game. McGee keeps it on his wall for inspiration.