From Realism to Rhetoric and Back Again: Galloway’s Social Realism Versus the Just Cause Franchise

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November 17, 2012 by johnroberts373

Are Just Cause and its sequel Just Cause 2 (Avalanche Studios, 2006 and 2010) realistic? To what if any extent does the 3rd-person action franchise make claims to realism, particularly the social realism called for by Alexander Galloway? In one sense, the games’ cartoonish representations of James Bond-meets-Commando action hardly even seem to satisfy the conditions of mimetic realisticness, let alone social realism. It would appear unusual if not downright improper to consider as realistic in any sense a game in which the player can jump out of one jet fighter mid-flight and use a grappling hook to attach him or herself to, and then climb inside and fly, another plane. Yet I would argue that over its two games the franchise develops a procedural rhetoric that satisfies Galloway’s definition of realism as politically engaged representation and player action. Moreover, the issue of procedural rhetoric in videogames, as illustrated here by the case study of Just Cause, complicated Galloway’s conception of realism by revealing that the kinds of games Galloway is calling for have little to do with the lineage of cinematic realism that Galloway dubiously traces. Instead and quite interestingly, the capacity of videogames to model systems of behavior in a rhetorically engaged manner more closely aligns with a conscientious reading of Bazinian realism as Bazin himself presents it.

In all probability, Galloway would not find the Just Cause games to fit his definition of social realism. In fact, they would seem to more closely resemble the “sinister realism” (82) of America’s Army, which Galloway describes as a “bold and brutal reinforcement of current American society and its positive moral perspective on military intervention, be it the war on terrorism or “shock and awe” in Iraq” (79). The narrative of the game is that the player controls an American CIA agent who is deployed to enact regime change in fictionalized facsimiles of Noriega’s Panama and Marcos’ Philippines. In addition to the piece of stunt work described above, which is a required part of a mission in the first Just Cause, the player is required to assassinate at least a head of state, destroy vast amounts of national infrastructure, and kill many, many low-level soldiers, all in the name of fun and freedom. (The soundtrack album for Just Cause 2 is aptly titled “Music to Blow S**t Up By” [asterisks in original].)

However, the Just Cause games conflate the ecstasy of lethal explosions and the imperative of protecting democratic interests abroad in a way that mounts a critique of American foreign policy while simultaneously resisting any semblance of sober realism, and although the first Just Cause primarily employs visual rhetoric to undermine the moral authority of the actions it solicits of the player/protagonist, the sequel actively constructs its criticism through gameplay. Most of the first game’s commentary is delivered through cutscenes, in which the (latino) protagonist’s two (pasty white) handlers are depicted as if on vacation: they live out of an RV and are frequently shown drinking tropical cocktails while spectating Rico’s explosions from afar. In one instance one of them is shown reading a book titled “Regime Change for Dummies,” later the other is playing a videogame that resembles Just Cause itself. By contrast, the sequel treats the cutscenes less flamboyantly, but introduces two integral game mechanics. First is the Chaos system, in which the player/protagonist is required to destroy via incendiary combustion various structures including communications and fuel refineries, in order to unlock and advance through the story missions. The other major mechanic is the improvement of the grappling hook/parachute combo, which enacts a further conflation of parasailing and drone attack by allowing the player to sail above enemies and reign destruction down upon them from a relatively safe position while simultaneously enjoying the scenery due to the game’s far render distance. Although neither of these mechanics claims any representational verisimilitude to actual foreign policy (or even physics), as parts of the game’s procedural system, they help to construct a rhetorical simulation, a dynamic system that implores the player to think about and act out US foreign policy in a way that is critical in its very resemblance to the laissez-faire attitude of the Bush administration. If criticism of current social policy is the yardstick by which realism ought to be measured (I presume so since it is just about the only feature that survives across Galloway’s four redefinitions of his term), then the Just Cause games, I would argue, do satisfy that condition despite lacking the “minutiae of everyday life” that Galloway identifies (at least initially) as important.

The possibility that the Just Cause games could conform to Galloway’s conception of social realism is especially significant because it is the sequel’s procedural rhetoric which enables that conformity. For Galloway, context seems to matter more than content. He finds Under Ash to better embody social realism than America’s Army, despite the fact that the former game does “nothing” to critique the form of the first-person shooter genre: in fact he calls it “a cookie-cutter repurposing of an American style shooter for the ideological needs of the Palestinian situation” (82). Yet he locates the game’s social critique precisely in the fact of a congruence of affect between the political reality of the game and the gamer (83). Without this congruence, Galloway argues, “there is no true realism” (78). How can it be the case that the same gameplay engine can be realist for one player, and illusionist for another? Galloway identifies narrative, not visual representation, as the definitive factor (80). Essentially, Galloway argues that the same gameplay, when juxtaposed with “text-based briefings presented at the beginning of each level, which initiate the player as a holy warrior fighting against Israeli occupation” (80-1), establishes an affective context that undergirds its social realism.

Andre Bazin famously proclaimed in his essay The Evolution of the Language of Cinema, that film history was distinguished by “two broad and opposing trends: those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality” (Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. 1, pp. 24). Bazin located that difference formally as an opposition between montage and mise-en-scene in cinema, the latter being superior because it allowed the spectator a modicum of freedom in relation to the image, which (as Bazin notes here about deep focus) “brings the spectator into a relation with the image closer to that which he enjoys with reality” (Bazin, 35). This does not mean that an image is more realistic if it more closely resembles the spectator’s affective context (read: addresses a Palestinian gamer as oppressed), but rather that certain formal and narrative strategies like deep focus, long takes, and narrative ellipsis promote a relationship between the spectator and the screen image that more closely resembles the phenomenological relationship between a perceiver and the phenomenal world. Misreading Bazin, Galloway argues that narrative text juxtaposed with gameplay, itself a form of multimedia montage, establishes realism. On the contrary, the Just Cause franchise, by soliciting from the player a relationship to the game-world that is intended to mimic and criticize the relation between the US and developing nation ‘sandboxes’ via the construction of a coherent and rhetorically engaged game world, functions as an extension of Bazinian realism in the sense that Bazin himself articulates it. It is a game that places its faith in its own virtual reality.

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