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I’m all in on Ubisoft’s shoot-and-loot RPG The Division for a number of reasons—I like shoot and loot games; I like the feeling of stupidly powerful the player gets when character sheet DPS exceeds 100k DPS; I like the “always on” apprehension that comes hand-in-hand with a long session in the Dark Zone.

But none of those things would be enough, alone or combined, to keep me coming back for 8-hour marathon sessions day after day. They all help, of course, but the aspect of The Division that keeps me begging for more is the atmosphere surrounding dystopian Manhattan.  In a word, Ubisoft’s atmospheric creation is perfect … nearly.

Don’t tell Gareth Damian Martin at Killscreen, who posted a scathing but intellectually and emotionally bankrupt review of The Division where points are taken away from the game specifically because The Division is brutally honest and unapologetic in its depiction of Manhattan post biologic terrorist attack.

I won’t bore you with a full critique of the Killscreen review, suffice it to say it takes a special brand of intellectual dishonesty and cowardice to equate a biological terrorist attack on the continental U.S. to a hurricane making landfall on U.S. soil. 

It’s not a unique brand of intellectual dishonesty or cowardice, mind you, just special.

The Virus of The Division

The virus is the 800-micron gorilla in every room and on every street.  It is impossible for the player to avoid the consequences of a nearly 100% fatal biologic terrorist attack.  There are bagged bodies everywhere.  Take a walk through the Dark Zone, and the magnitude of death that occurred in the early days of the terrorist attack is made all the more poignant.  Ubisoft makes it abundantly clear this terrorist attack on Manhattan is more deadly than any terrorist attack or natural disaster in the history of the U.S.

Name for me the last weather event that killed 100,000 people—hell, name the last weather event that meteorologists didn’t know was coming days in advance. Hurricane Katrina’s death toll was less than 2,000.  Yes, every one of those loses of life is tragic, and yes, there’s plenty of conversation to be had about how the federal government and the State of Louisiana responded to the disaster.

The scene after a hurricane that made landfall on the 12th of Never.

The scene from a hurricane that made landfall on the 12th of Never.

But, and this is a colossal but, neither Martin nor I are talking about whether loss of life is tragic, or whether the response was appropriate for the disaster, or who was the beneficiary from the response, intended or otherwise.  What we are talking about is a storyline in a videogame about the response to a terrorist attack that killed at least 30 times the number of people who were killed in the last real terrorist attack on NYC.  

Everything about this virus, from the method in which it was created, to the method of delivery, to the timing of the virus’s introduction to the populace to achieve maximum affect is diabolical.

The diabolical nature of the virus itself isn’t the only thing that can be inferred from The Division’s story. There are more things we can infer from the events that unfold in The Division.  First, the viral outbreak in Manhattan is localized.  GPS is still functioning properly, which implies there’s people in Colorado or California that are still alive and willing to operate the GPS satellite constellation.  We also know, from the invocation of Directive 51 as well as the continued presence of the Joint Task Force, someone in the American government is around directing assets in Manhattan.

If Washington is still breathing, then continuity of government is the first order of business. There are signs everywhere martial law is in effect, so the military is the authority in Manhattan.

Let’s dive into to this point a bit further.  Division agents have access to all manner of surveillance footage from local CCTV and cell phones to drones and satellites.  The Division appears to have more data available to them than federal law enforcement and the intelligence community combined, and that’s saying something.  It’s not hard to conceive a scenario where the technology possessed by The Division has pre-identified bad actors on the street. Combine this use of technology with a declaration of martial law in NYC and the fact that Division leadership on the ground is attacked in the earliest stages of the game’s story, and it isn’t hard to imagine a scenario where carte blanche was given to any operating Division agents in the Manhattan theater.

There’s also an opportunity to talk about the surveillance state and invasion of privacy.  To do that adequately, one would have to know who is legally authorized to observe whom and the circumstances under which the intelligence community would share information with the military, so don’t hold your breath.

The People of The Division

To talk about the people adequately, there’s a need to talk about individuals.

Faye Lau: New Yorkers Believe New York Belongs to Them

The lone common element about every native New Yorker I’ve ever met is a sense New York City belongs to them.  From the owner of a tiny bagel shop near my place in Denver, to the retired small truck driver I met in Las Vegas, to the friends of friends I have met at social gatherings over the years, every person spoke of NYC like they owned a small slice of it.  I don’t talk about my hometown nor Denver like that—I certainly never felt like a slice of Denver belonged to me.

Division agent Faye Lau talks like a part of NYC belongs to her. The various factions that have carved up Manhattan have taken that ownership away from her, and she intends to get it back.  Only physical injuries prevent her from doing it, so she uses the player as a proxy to take the city back.  Mission by mission, Faye Lau comments on the good the player is doing to help restore the city.  What she really means is the player is taking back her city.

Cleaner’s leader Joe Ferro also talks about NYC like it belongs to him.  Though his verbiage and tone are completely different from Faye Lau’s, there’s an obvious sense of reverence toward New York whenever Joe has something to say.  Speaking of Joe Ferro …

Joe Ferro: The Union Leader Who Everyone Ignored

I’m not surprised no one is talking about Joe Ferro and how believable his entire story arc is.  You’d have to know things about how the people in local labor unions treat each other, and most of the “snivel about privilege from my local Starbucks on my new Macbook Pro” set have never worked a hard day in their lives, let alone been a member of organized labor.

Full disclosure, I haven’t been a member of a union either, but my dad was an officer in his local, both my parents have been members of local labor unions, and my family always ate dinner together, so I got a ring side seat of how the people in their locals thought.  Joe Ferro was written virtually flawlessly.  Let’s dig in and examine him.

Next a shot rang out, and all was silent.

Next a shot rang out, and all was silent.

Joe Ferro is the leader of The Cleaners faction in The Division.  It’s clear he was the leader of his local, based on how naturally he gives orders to his people.  It’s revealed that the Cleaners used to be garbage collectors.  It’s trivially easy to infer Joe Ferro spoke to the borough heads in Manhattan with ideas about protecting his guys, which he was elected to do by the members of his local, while doing the job which they’ve been hired to do and preventing the spread of the contagion.  It’s also not hard to infer a scenario where the borough leaders ignored his input.

This is somewhat speculative, but Ferro may have taken his ideas to city leaders, the governor’s office, and the military commanders once martial law was declared.  In the absence of being taken seriously by the “people in charge” Joe Ferro did what any labor leader worth the title would have done.  Joe Ferro instructed his guys to stop picking up the garbage. Or put more succinctly, the garbage men went on strike.

And it shows, too, because there’s trash all over the place.  When overtly not collecting the garbage failed to induce authorities into taking him seriously, Joe Ferro and his guys decided the best thing to do was to transition from trash collection to virus incineration.  Every time players encounter Cleaners, the Cleaners are trying to burn something or someone or a lot of both.

Obviously, the termination of lives and the destruction of property is not in keeping with the goals of the military or Division, as the player is eventually tasked to deal with Joe Ferro.

That’s two examples, but I can go on.  LaRae Barrett, Paul Rhodes, and Roy Benitez all have believable story arcs associated with them.  Those arcs make the game more than just another cover-based shoot and loot game.  They serve to effectively construct a frame around the shoot and loot mechanics that players can immerse themselves in.  I came for the shoot and loot, but I’m staying because I buy the setting and story.

The Symbols of The Division

NYC is a city full of symbols.  The World Trade Center, The Empire State Building, The Statue of Liberty, Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, The Brooklyn Bridge, and Times Square are a few.  If one wanted to send a deeply personal message to the people of New York and by extension the people of the United States, destroying any one of the symbols I mentioned above would achieve that goal.  In one case, it did exactly that.

Now imagine a scenario where most or all of those symbols were simultaneously placed under threat, either by direct attack, or by groups of individuals taking advantage of the chaos immediately following an attack, effectively removing hope from the people who are still alive and still in Manhattan.

At the most reductive level, it is true the symbols are just property, but their physical presence or who has possession of them at a given moment is secondary to what they represent.  Sure, restoring power to Times Square might not be the most tactically effective move in the Manhattan theater, but lighting up Times Square again sends a message to The Cleaners, The Rikers, The Last Man Battalion, or anyone else who is occupying Manhattan in violation of martial law.  Moreover, lighting up Times Square again gives hope to the survivors as well as the people working to restore order to Manhattan.  Giving hope to survivors is as good a reason to light up Times Square as any.

Bottom line is symbols matter, and as more than just property.

Kayfabe Meets Speculative Fiction

The atmosphere in The Division is not completely flawless.  One obvious example is a player can only “go rogue” in the Dark Zone.  Outside the DZ, the player loses the freedom to start executing civilians, to not execute people marked as bad actors, or to join one of the factions opposing the Joint Task Force in the The Division’s story arcs.  If The Division were a Bethesda game instead of an Ubisoft game, players would be engaged by parallel story arcs for whichever faction they wanted to join, a la Fallout 4 or Skyrim.

Another example is the way The Division’s engine differentiates friend from foe.  There’s something to be said about two people picking through a corpse on the street, and whether they’ve actually done anything to warrant extreme sanction against themselves.  At the same time, we as players are willfully accepting a story centered around a black ops program of American sleeper agents living among civilians until they are activated.  Further, we accept martial law being in effect in Manhattan, if not all of NYC.

That said, our willing acceptance of the story and suspension of disbelief is itself a part of the story The Division is trying to tell.  Ask yourself the following: Do I really believe killing a faction leader would render the entire faction inert for the rest of the time Manhattan is under a state of emergency?

This sign has meaning.

This sign has meaning.

Obviously that doesn’t work in real life, but that’s how it works in the story of The Division. Players choose to willingly accept the story as well as the world Ubisoft has crafted for the purposes of being entertained. 

Oh, and someone tell me what 30k damage to an enemy’s face looks like in real life.  Actually, don’t do that, because unlike Killscreen, I’m intellectually and emotionally mature enough to understand the difference between reality and fantasy.

The process where consumers of a piece of media accept the world and the stories presented in that world is a long standing professional wrestling trope called kayfabe.  Its application to videogames not only eviscerates a laughably weak Killscreen review, but also decimates half a million dollars of feminist videogame critique.  Here’s how it applies to The Division.

By playing the game, players accept the Shade Tech on our wrists and backpacks knows the difference between friend and foe, even when our eyes tell us a specific situation is ambiguous.  Players accept the martial law decree was made legally.  Players accept our orders are to protect the citizenry and restore order in Manhattan by any means necessary.  Players accept specific elements of the story happened as they have been told, vice trying to interpret in-game events for the purposes of finding malicious intent by the writers to gain personal politics points.

Finally, players acknowledge the events of The Division might not play out exactly as they would if the same scenario occurred in the real world.  Rather, players accept the telling of events as close enough to reality to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the world Ubisoft has created.

Your Mileage May Vary

As with all things fiction, an individual’s ability to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the world may vary.  It could be that not being able to leap over a hedge that looks identical to a hedge the player leapt over a minute ago breaks immersion for that player.  That’s up to the player to decide for themselves. Claiming consumers of a piece of media are, or should, look at that media as some sort of political statement is a transparent attempt to garner praise and/or acclaim that’s utterly divorced from the game and the narrative the game is trying to present.

I bought the world Ubisoft created in The Division totally. Because Ubisoft created a world I can relate to, I’m all in on The Division.

Todd Wohling

A long time ago on an Intellivision far, far away my gaming journey started with Lock n' Chase, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons The Cloudy Mountain, and Night Stalker. I earned both a BS-Physics and a BS-Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Today I spend most of my time on PC. I left a career of 14 years in aerospace in Colorado, so I could immigrate to Norway.