So recently I’ve been playing Sunset Overdrive, a game I have been itching to play since the early days of the Xbox One. Well, it finally made its way to PC and I finally had a bit of money to spend on it. The core concept of the game is that the launch of a new energy drink has caused people who drink it to turn into mutants who run amok through the city. FizzCo, the company who sells the energy drink, puts the city on lockdown and hides the drink’s failure from the rest of the world. FizzCo also sends robots into the city to clean up the evidence, i.e. any survivors. That’s a lot of power for a corporation to hold over an entire city. So I started thinking about evil corporations in games, especially when these games are made under publishers who do some dirty things in the name of making more money.
There are quite a few evil companies in games. Umbrella (Resident Evil), Vault-Tec (Fallout), and Aperture Science (Portal) are all R&D companies who turn to the unethical. Ultor (Saints Row) is in the business of aggressive gentrification. Shin-Ra (Final Fantasy), Hyperion (Borderlands), and UAC (Doom) are all interested in resource extraction at any cost. Rupture Farms (Oddworld) is in the business of making meals out of anything and anyone. Sarif Industries (Deus Ex), Blume Corporation (Watch Dogs), the Agency (Crackdown) and Atlas Corporation (Call of Duty) are all security services who have some ambitions about global domination. Finally, Abstergo (Assassin’s Creed) is a front for a shadowy cabal. Some of these have corporate villains because they are firmly planted in the Cyberpunk genre (Deus Ex, Watch Dogs), a genre that is heavily focused on evil corporations because it was born as a counter-culture to the 1980s neoliberal politics of figures like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The deregulation that took place in that decade led creatives to worry about an extreme future with massive income inequality and monolithic companies who dominated the landscapes of the cities they inhabited. So glad that prediction didn’t happen, right? Right?
So, beyond taking inspiration from cyberpunk, why do we love to have corporations as villains? I think there many practical reasons to make your villain corporate. First, it gives you the writer to create an entity with vast resources but without a national identity. A national villain carries with it a geopolitical quagmire no matter how much you obfuscate your inspirations. A corporate villain gives you that out because companies like FizzCo aren’t going to boil the blood of Coca Cola. Mostly because Coca Cola doesn’t make CokeBots. The other thing to consider is that while video games may be the product of vast corporations, they are created by humans. Folks on the ground floor who are working for these giant corporations, especially in the video game industry which is fraught with abuse by big companies. Big companies still give the go-ahead on stories like this, though? I think it’s easy enough for them to disassociate themselves with the companies they portray. Ubisoft can have games about the evil Abstergo because Abstergo is a company that makes everything and all Ubisoft do is create games. No video game is also a Private Military Company so they can create their Blackwater expy and wash their hands of it. We are not the bad company, we are a good company.
It reminds me of the recent examples we’ve had of companies co-opting social movements to increase their own social capital. As that video by H. Bomberguy shows, corporate co-opting of social good is often because they have made a calculation that whatever ‘controversy’ erupts will be free publicity for their product. Having corporate villains in your game is potentially a way for companies to create a sense of corporate woke-ness while being awful in ways that aren’t like the companies they portray. Now, let’s look at the one place uncorrupted by capitalism. DOOM (2016) takes place on a Mars infested by demons. This is because the company of DOOM, the UAC, took to harvesting Hell Energy as a way of resolving an energy crisis on Earth. Interesting that this company discovered the existence of hell, proving Christian theology right in that universe, and immediately thought ‘how can we make money from this’? I’ve talked before about the billionaire boys who want to go into space and how they’re just the worst but Curio has some good points in their video here.
Finally, I want to talk about Crackdown. The Crackdown series has you playing as a super-cop who works for a PMC called The Agency to take down a series of street gangs in a war on crime. At the end of that game, it’s revealed that the Agency funded the street gangs as a means of taking complete control of the city. There’s a saying that I’ve seen around the various internet left-wing circles I travel in. ‘Fascism is capitalism in decay’. The phrase seems to have originated with Lenin and basically breaks down like this. The inequalities of capitalism can lead to adverse effects for those who are less financially well-off. This can cause them to become angry. At this point, demagogues can convince them that their unhappiness is not a failure of the system, but based on threats from a section of the population (Jewish people, immigrants, whoever they want to blame). Thus, those who were in power under capitalism get to keep their power. For a simpler but more-language laden idea, fascism is the bourgeoisie convincing the proletariat to cannibalise itself instead of going after the bourgeoisie. The video I linked earlier, however, shows that this subversive idea that runs through Crackdown is hidden at the end of the game and in the sequel it’s hidden in collectable audio logs. Sunset Overdrive does a similar thing with its smartphones, revealing the nepotism and political sway that FizzCo holds that allows it to cordon off the city.
So what was the point of all this? Many games use corporations as bad guys because they can be flexible as a bad guy. Corporations don’t fear these representations because they’re always abstracted from the companies they represent. Games never show people working in the content mines or companies dissuading workers from unionising. Big Joel notes in his video on PragerU that a right-wing critique of capitalism is that the individual is wrong but the system is sound. That’s the way that corporations are portrayed in video games. Crackdown and Assassin’s Creed are perhaps the most subversive in this regard. In Crackdown, we have the whole fascism angle and in Assassin’s Creed, Abstergo is a corporation because at some point the Templars switched from using the church to pursue their goals and tried working within a corporate framework instead. That series suggests that a cabal of people will always hunt for the dominant keys of power whether that be religion, empire, or capitalism. There is a nugget of something subversive and counter-cultural about these games. However, counter-culture can also be co-opted. As I understand it, Fred Turner has some incisive work about how sixties’ counter-culture led to early tech culture which then became the dominant hegemony. So, let’s not forget that corporations can be easy villains but capitalism is the real enemy.
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