I have a few dozen hours invested in Ubisoft Massive’s latest always-online RPG shooter. The protagonist, a sleeper agent for the Strategic Homeland Division, has been called out of Brooklyn to help restore order in a terrorized Manhattan following a deadly smallpox outbreak on Black Friday. “Green Poison,” also dubbed the “Dollar Flu,” spread quickly throughout the city via contaminated currency on the infamous shopping holiday. Manhattan fell fast as the government was ill-prepared to address such large-scale biological terrorism, including the subsequent panic and unimaginable death toll. Different factions quickly overran the city: rioters and escaped inmates from Rikers Island preying on those weak and left behind, deranged sanitation workers who’d rather see the city burn than rebuilt, and a private militia thriving on the chaos. The player is tasked with restoring order while investigating those responsible for manufacturing and disseminating the virus.The mementos of New Yorkers from recent past told a much finer, detailed narrative more interesting than the cookie-cutter apocalypse story I thought I wanted to play.
The Division finds its raison d’être in the grandiose “save New York, save the world” story, but the fine details, such as artifacts left behind by New Yorkers for the player to find, are what really construct the game’s atmosphere, environment, and meaningful narrative. Open-world video games are notorious for small, seemingly meaningless collectibles scattered throughout the environment. They usually expand upon a game’s lore, but the task of finding them is often monotonous and typically only for the dedicated player seeking 100% completion (yeah, that’s me). By exploring these collectibles in The Division, however, I learned that listening to stories unrelated to my own offer meaning and purpose previously hidden.Collectibles in The Division take several forms, the most common of which are cell phones left behind with unplayed voice messages and ECHOs, a digital holographic technology that recreates local events as they originally occurred. I initially began my search as a means of clearing out sections of the map for that 100% completion, but as I encountered these mementos of New Yorkers from recent past, I realized they told a much finer, detailed narrative that was more interesting than the cookie-cutter apocalypse story I thought I wanted to play. I immediately side-stepped the main story in order to search out what happened to individual New Yorkers during the Dollar Flu outbreak.
I have a bad tendency of grabbing in-game collectibles with a particular mundanity. If it’s text, I quickly scroll through it; if it’s audio, it’s background noise. That’s how I approached the collectible task in The Division — until I picked up an audio recording of a young girl winning tickets to see The Nutcracker at the Lincoln Center. Upon (barely) listening, I immediately remembered a previous recording I came across with this same 9-year-old girl, Naomi, calling in to identify the composer: “It’s Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky! My grandma taught me that,” she joyfully declared.
Aside from the epiphany that these collectibles were related and actually trying to tell me something, I immediately became concerned with the girl’s fate. Did she collect her tickets and get to see the show with her grandma? Did she avoid the plague and make it out of the city or is she gone, memorialized only in these recordings?After finding the recording of the little girl, I became much more cognizant of the world in which my character lived. The Division‘s main story no longer drove my interest for play as much as the more emotionally driven side stories of life in New York City before and during the outbreak. What were once banal, everyday conversations and interactions became the fine details the game needed to make this New York City feel real. I just needed to go out of my way to find them.
Other examples of such stories include a young woman who comes out as a lesbian to her mom in a voicemail because she doesn’t expect to leave the city alive:
There’s something I wanted to tell you, in person, but now I don’t know if, err… I’m gay, Mom… I hope you’re ok, Mom and… I hope you’re ok about this and that you don’t hate me and that you’re ok… I love you, Mom. I love you.
A cell phone found later contains the mother’s response, voice shaken, wrestling with the news of her daughter’s sexual choices that suddenly seems meaningless in light of her physical fate:
Renee, it’s your mother. I got your message… and [sigh] I know, honey. I’ve known for a long time. And it’s OK. Nothing you could do could stop me from loving you. But Renee, I’ve seen the news and I’m so worried about you right now. What I need you to do is to be strong for you and [pause]… Julie, to stay safe and look after each other.
Regardless of one’s position on the subject matter, such a small detail of life adds a level of real stakes and humanity completely absent from the main story. Renee and her mother’s exchange don’t impact the player; these lonely messages of love and reconciliation don’t drive the The Division’s narrative. They are completely inconsequential, laid out for the player to find should he or she so desire. They can be sought out or completely forgotten, with no particular relevance for me — and if I’m honest, such is the case in real life as well.Most of my life revolves around my own goals and desires. I too often go to work to get ahead — not to teach or better students’ lives, but to earn a paycheck and gain experience that will suit my professional goals later in life. I buy my kids stuff because I want them to love me. I go to church and take on leadership roles because I want people to look up to me. I manage this site, not always for the pure purpose of publishing insightful, nuanced cultural analysis, but to feel like I’m doing something good for the world to see, to receive praise and attention for myself over the Kingdom. Writing is one of the few things that gets my mind off of my ego because I am pushed to engage stories outside my own — that is, until it gets published and I franticly refresh webpages for comments, likes, and shares to appease my insecurity and reinforce said ego.
The collectibles and side stories in The Division don’t make the game great. Some would say they even cheapen such stories in real life because they’re placed as filler in a dead city, meaningless to the game as a whole. But at least for me, they reorient my experience. I initially sought out collectibles for my own purposes (that 100% completion), but was surprised when they became more meaningful than the main game and redirected my actions toward exploration rather than shooting. These stories pulled me out of myself and encouraged listening to someone else’s experience despite its relevance to my own.
At one point while traversing New York City’s streets, I came across an ECHO (titled “Shepherd”) of a pastor confronting a group of rioters. He saw the escalating violence around him and called for peace, pleading for a better way. The Division fails in that the player then continues on his or her mission with the shoot-first tactics required for success throughout the game. The pastor’s plea was meaningless within the context of the gameplay. But real life isn’t so linear. I can go out of my way to listen to others’ stories that may seem completely inconsequential to my own — and have the opportunity to engage in a real, meaningful way — or I can shoot ahead towards my own goals, giving attention to only that which suits me. Games like The Division are predicated on the notion of player choice, but this digital New York City in no way replicates the gravity of real life choices. But then again, it’s just a game.