Harvey Smith has been thinking a lot about video game bad guys. He's been thinking of who people want to — virtually — shoot. And he's been thinking that little green or gray men just don't cut it.
That caused a bit of a problem when Midway Games hired him a couple of years ago and assigned him to work on a sequel to "Area 51," a first-person shooter about killing little gray men.
"Often people go after basic primal things, like the enemy is the other, the unknowable," he said during a telephone interview with MTV News last week. "In 'Half-Life,' the enemies are from another dimension. You can't possibly fathom them. Obviously we started thinking like ... " he interrupted himself and laid it all out. " 'Area 51' just bored the sh-- out of me, and I was like, 'How can we make this interesting?' "
Nine months ago Smith was ready to mail it in, he says now. He had a few thoughts buzzing around in his head. And in his non-game-designing life, he was getting mad. He would read things: arguments about the U.S. government's definition of torture; backgrounders on how America once backed governments the country has since gone to war with. He doesn't remember exactly which thing tipped him over, but he went into his office at Midway's Austin, Texas, studio and shut the door (see "My Gaming Block Austin, Part 1: MMOs, Pimped-Out Studios — And Pigs").
"I kept looking at this game and looking at this material and just not feeling it, until one day I realized there is completely an angle. And in an hour it all flew into my head. I sat down and I just started typing in Notepad of all things." He was scrapping an approach he thought was terribly out of touch. "Beforehand it was, 'Ha ha, isn't it funny the notion that there might be little green men under the ground in Nevada that crashed in the '40s and the government is lying to you, ha ha.' And after that it was like, 'Man, this has no teeth.' "
He had a new idea: The game would open in Iraq. The first mission would involve a search for weapons of mass destruction. Most of the game would take place in America. The enemy would be the enemy, but they would have been created with some sort of American backing. That day in his office, Smith banged out the treatment that still defines his game. "I realized, my God, I'm on fire now. All of my emotions, my anger, my passion, the things I find scary, all of that is provoked right now. I had chills."
There haven't been many options for people looking to play a video game that pushes buttons other than square-circle-triangle, A,B, X, Y or Z. Last year's "Bad Day L.A.," an action game inspired by the so-called fear culture of America after September 11, came and went with little critical or commercial impact (see "Controversial 'Bad Day L.A.' One Of Few Video Games To Tackle War On Terror"). A game about the Columbine school shootings got attention repeatedly for being such an unusually specific and edgy treatment of a recent event (see "Columbine Game Yanked From Slamdance Festival Amid Controversy, Protest"). But Harvey Smith thinks "BlackSite: Area 51" will have a chance to get people talking when it is released for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC this summer.
Yes, the game's a first-person shooter. And yes, it has some original game-play elements, like a morale system that has the player's performance affect that of their computer-controlled allies. And yes, the game is meant to be enjoyed regardless of interest in its subject matter. (Smith says: "I don't think it should ever get in the way of what you're doing. You're making a video game. It's for the enjoyment of the player. It's supposed to make people feel powerful. And if you cross that line, you suffer.")
But the hook that makes this game matter to its creator is its political charge, its twist on the typical good-guy/ bad-guy gaming relationship. "You could just make a metaphor for terrorists. But the most interesting sort of multidimensional part is, 'Wait, what if they are terrorists we helped create? What if the people supporting us in our fight against the terrorists aren't completely clean either? What if they're sending us after them now, but what if 10 years ago it was safe for them to create them?' ... So what we have in 'BlackSite' is a delta-force assassination squad hunting down and killing members of an Army training program. So on American soil, Americans are fighting Americans, basically." The so-called bad guys are called the Reborn. They were recruited from the nation's poor. They still wear American flags on their uniforms. He'd like players to chew on that.
Smith is trying to flip things. "The way games are framed, it's practically propaganda. Most games are framed with, 'Hey, these guys are really bad and we need you to go out and get them.' And so we do that too. But we do that knowingly and subvert it a little bit."
Smith can rage about all sorts of political matters. He makes enough comments about "the last six years," the current attorney general and the liberal blogs he reads that it's clear without asking who he would never vote for. That said, he promises there are some Republicans on the team keeping things fair and balanced. "We didn't just make a Daily Kos [liberal blog] kind of lovefest, even if I read that every day. So the other guys on the team keep us honest. And what we really want to do is make a fun game that touches some subject matter that other people are afraid of that people will find interesting and that it's fair in terms of presenting both arguments. The three squad-mates have an argument around you at one point. One of them says, 'We've got to get in there and get those guys.' And another one says, 'Wait a minute, this is f---ed up, we made them.' And the other guy goes, 'Well that doesn't matter. Now they're the bad guys.' It's just like, 'Well, what do you do?' "
The inspiration may have come nine months ago, but Smith's brainchild didn't have an easy birth. He said it took "months and months" to convince the Midway brass that his direction had merit. They warmed up. He said they saw the energy there. He said they realized these issues are what popular entertainment — "24," "Battlestar Galactica," "The Daily Show" — so often grapples with these days and that games should be in that conversation. "Regardless of where your viewpoint is, how is it not on everybody's mind?" Smith asked. "How is it not in every sense the right thing to do, even in terms of business? This is what people are thinking about right now."
That isn't to say Smith hasn't gotten any resistance among game industry people since then. "We're getting a lot of people saying, 'I can't believe you're touching this subject matter.' And I'm like, 'I can't believe you're not.' "
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