Fighting in the Neighborhood: What Guerrilla Games Can Teach Us About Sympathy

In March 2011, a game called Homefront was released. You may have heard of it. It was THQ’s attempt at joining in on the fun in the modern shooter genre. It was also a dull experience that relied on holding the player’s hand through the entire game and pouring onion-juice into the player’s eyes in its many desperately emotional cutscenes. In addition, it focused on spectacular battles, Call of Duty-style, which made it seem like even more of a clone of COD than an actual attempt at originality. The setting felt fresh though, as it took the fight to suburbia. A safe haven, for most, turned into a hellish pit of rubbleg. Instead of fighting through yet another fictional country with an unpronounceable name, we fight by our homes. Homefront is not alone in trying to depict guerrilla warfare as other games – Red Faction: Guerrilla, for instance – have achieved reasonable success. Unfortunately, the guerrilla “genre” suffers from one big problem: One that can be said to affect a broader spectrum, but is illustrated well with this minor aspect. Both Homefront and Red Faction: Guerrilla failed in eliciting one very important emotion: sympathy. So how should future developers delving into this “genre” go about fixing those mistakes?

Homefront begins with a long sequence where you’re seated in a bus, driving by the horrors that North Korean rule has brought. Rows of dissenters awaiting an unknown fate, husbands and wives being split up, and – most disturbingly – a small child watching his/her parents execution, left behind as their limp bodies fall to the ground. The child’s cries are audible as the bus passes by. By launching all of these attempts at the same time, I was overwhelmed. Not by emotion, but indignation at how cheaply Homefront thought it could purchase access to my emotions. Another key, perhaps infamous, moment occurs after the main character, Jacobs, and some members of the Resistance have fought their way through a North Korean prisoner camp. As the North Koreans mobilize, Jacobs the others are forced to hide in a mass grave, which has been dug-out in the center of a baseball field.  I think it’s safe to say that Homefront was trying too hard. I will admit, though, that there’s an extremely fine line between emotional and tacky.

Oh, come on!

Likewise, Red Faction: Guerrilla tried to make me care about the eponymous Martian liberation force “The Red Faction”. While I agreed with the protagonist Alex Mercer’s stances in RF: Guerrilla, his methods seemed reprehensible to me. Sure, the Earth Defense Force (EDF), who enforce the power on Mars – the location of the Red Faction games – are generally a bunch of totalitarian scumbags who will stop at nothing to get the information they need, but that does not excuse the brutal way Alex treats them – e.g. bringing an entire building crashing down on them. Likewise, the resistance in Homefront is fighting for a just cause, the liberation of their country, but in the meantime they have no quarrel with murdering North Koreans in enormous quantities, often in exceedingly brutal ways. There was actually an achievement awarded if the player, in one of the combat sequences, refrained from shooting burning North Korean soldiers, and instead allowed them to suffer – aptly named “Let ‘em Burn”. In the end, I suppose it is a bit revealing that the story was written by the screenwriter behind Red Dawn, a movie not exactly famed for its nuanced worldview.

You also have big guns that are very helpful in blowing up stuff

Making the cause and the actions of the guerrilla group appear in a sympathetic light is very hard, though, and in this regard RF: Guerrilla fails, despite intentions. In the beginning of the game, after Alex Mercer arrives on Mars. he is greeted by his brother. That brother is killed by the EDF, as he is involved with the resistance movement, the Red Faction. Mercer, who was initially skeptical towards his brothers attempts at recruiting him, now sees no other opportunity than joining the Red Faction. But I had no relationship with Alex Mercer’s brother at this point, so I never felt any of Alex’s anger. It never became part of me, because how could it? To me, his brother was just another flat character. The key to generating sympathy with the guerrilla is to develop the relationship over time, but RF: Guerrilla expected it to be in place from the beginning. As a result, I was never fully convinced that the EDF were completely evil. Even if it was an extrajudicial killing, the EDF rightfully saw Alex’s brother as a threat, which he showed by fighting back when they were arresting him. And throughout the game, the EDF never struck me as being all that evil. They may have been unnecessarily authoritarian, indeed, but at least they assured a modicum of stability to Martian society.

As Anthony Burch, of HAWP fame, notes in one of his Rev Rant videos, it is not necessary for the audience to feel any sympathy for another character other than the main character in a movie or a novel. The only reason we care about them is because they affect the main character in some way, and in addition we in the audience are capable of feeling empathy with the characters and their conflicts. In a game, though, you take the role of main character. Thus, it is not possible to expect the player to have an intrinsic sense of connection to that character, and from this: sympathy. Maybe the reason the storytelling in Homefront seems incompatible with how games work, is that they hired a famous screenwriter to pen it. Like Burch mentions, this line of thinking is problematic in the games business, as you cannot – although it’s tempting – simply emulate the way movies tell stories. A game must instill that anger, sorrow or happiness, or whatever other emotion is necessary, in the players through developing their relationships with the characters. Otherwise there’s no reason to care.

One such instance, where I felt real sympathy for a character, occured in Metro 2033. Playing as Artyom, the main character, I had been following a man named Bourbon through the dilapidated – and occasionally also haunted – metro tunnels of post-apocalyptic Moscow. Bourbon may not have been the most talkative nor colorful guy, but he had helped me out in some rough spots, and I had helped him. Thus, a bond of sorts had been formed. When Bourbon was captured and murdered by bandits, I felt genuine anger. He wasn’t just some annoying NPC, he was my best buddy down there, in the darkness.

Any company is welcome in the tunnels, really

Metro 2033 also tries to grab sympathy with an execution but in a far more refined manner. At one point during the player’s passage through the Nazi-infested part of the tunnels, the player may come across a situation where some Communists are about to be executed by the Nazis, much like Homefront’s tacky execution scenes. The key to why this scene works so much better is that it is not thrown directly at you from the start. It’s subtle, happening in the periphery of the player’s sight. In fact, it is very possible to just sneak by the whole scene, pretending you haven’t seen anything, unlike in Homefront, where the bus literally halts as the pivotal execution of the parents occurs, forcing you to watch the ordeal. In Metro 2033 it merely becomes part of the scenery, and is useful in generating the background for the game. In addition to this, you are given an option, as you are armed and capable of killing the Nazis, but doing so will alert the entire outpost of your presence, increasing the likelihood of you being shredded by their combined firepower. Most importantly, perhaps, it was the final stage of gaining sympathy with the Commie grunts, as I’d previously witnessed them being herded into a cart, being sent off to the battlefields, and even a deserter being executed by a superior. It seemed so unfair, and even though it might have been more “rational” of me to turn my indignation against the communist officers, I had far less mercy for the Nazis, even the grunts, after that incident.

Sympathy is one of those basic emotions that defines us as humans. When we witness others in pain, we – in most cases – feel bad ourselves. As we are gregarious animals this is a necessity for us if we are to work together like a group. However, there are times when our sympathy with some leads us to feel antipathy towards others. Imagine being a tribesman in primordial times, and your tribe encountering another, hostile one. Naturally, you defend your own without thought for the pain those in the other tribe sustain, physically as well as emotional. Now imagine that tribe being a cause or a movement, like those in Red Faction: Guerrilla and Homefront. No one could expect you to fully sympathize with them from the beginning, yet that is exactly what both games expect of you. They tried to make the enemy seem truly vile, but ended going overboard with emotional moments early on. Like Metro 2033 showed us, or at least me, sympathy has to be built up gradually. Few are willing to put their lives on the line for someone they’ve only just met.


  1. Ah, Homefront was a dull affair, wasn’t it? It tried so hard not to be. The art of subtlety is something many Triple-A games would do well to learn. I am reminded of the intro in Skyrim. That game is full of subtle details that I enjoyed thoroughly, but the first hour or so is this really linear thing that’s just shoved in your face without any consideration of pacing or exposition.

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