header is screenshot from Outriders
War Machine
Khee Hoon Chan

Long burned into the back of my mind is the image of the lone protestor, staring down at a column of tanks at the site of the Tiananmen Square protest in China in 1989. Like many weapons made for frontline combat, these heavily armored tanks were impervious to most attacks, purposefully deployed to ram through tents, buses, and other structures. At the same time, they lent an imposing presence to the troops accompanying them, who shot into the crowd with expanding bullets: ammunition that, as its name suggests, expands on impact to inflict larger, more painful wounds and which incapacitates its targets faster. These war machines are designed and purpose-built to quell violence with violence: to break through enemy ranks, even if those "ranks" are primarily made up of student protesters without the military-grade armaments to defend themselves. Tiananmen represents man versus machine, humanity versus brutality.

Likewise, the blockbuster shooter Outriders is created with laser sharp intent: to penetrate through its market of new and veteran shooter fans alike. Or, in other words, to land a shot that expands on impact among their target audience, leaving behind an indelible mark that never quite leaves their minds. You can almost see the gears of the studio management turning as you go through the game. Slap in a moving tale about the follies of humanity and their propensity for war, but also make the combat feel good. Reward players when they pull off the acrobatic stunts of perfect headshots with critical damage, but remind them of these fights’ moral gravitas. Let players choose among four archetypes of warriors that resemble the combat classes of popular multiplayer shooters, while explaining that the characters they inhabit are unique, extraordinary mutants imbued with supernatural powers. 

In truth, Outriders is a more mechanical piece of videogame machinery than most shooters―an automaton that’s designed to perform specific functions for a defined goal. The metal gleams just beneath the skin. Beyond the trite narrative of human colonization gone terribly wrong is a series of quests that are, mechanically, variants of the same shit repeated over and over again. Someone―anyone, really, from the leader of a crumbling governmental body to a vendor who asks you to pick up some holograms and old-timey artifacts―assigns you a quest, and you’ll be jetting off into the wild on your favorite war tank to accomplish it. Of course, you get to customize the damn vehicle too with massive spikes and gaudy ornaments, like an armored truck straight out of Mad Max. You’ll set up a small encampment, where your crew will wait for you to come back from whatever hijinks you’re scuttling off towards. Then you’ll enter an area through a big metal gate, followed by an unnecessary cut scene, spot a few appropriately placed obstacles and walls, and brace yourself for the exhilarating brutality of combat. Its environments are dressed for the carnage of endless war, rather than one that looks to be inhabited by real people. 

Even the mere sight of walls will quickly send me scrambling and taking cover, for it’s a sign of an impending firefight. I’ve unwittingly been inducted into the process of machine learning, an approach to data analysis that allows computers to learn from identifying data patterns, and then make split second decisions automatically. This is particularly useful when combating unceasing waves of enemies. Killing becomes an instinctive motor skill; lob a few grenades, take cover, set up a few turrets, snipe at the enemy, and dodge roll away from air strikes. That said, there are inevitable moments where you’ll face death, but, in Outriders, it’s a trifling matter. After being gunned down, you wake up a few moments later with all your armor and weapons intact, a well-oiled combat tank ready for your next rampage across enemy lines. And when melded together, machine learning and military systems are a lethal concoction in modern warfare―empowering armies to launch autonomous attacks free of human input. For Outriders, this, too, has turned violence into a farcical excuse for mindless fun, devoid of meaning other than the senseless enactment of war. Enemies storm from their forts in waves, their only purpose to be taken down in a perverse game of bloodsport.

Outside of these cycles of combat, cutscenes, and assignments are the peripheral functions of the shooter―the embellishments to maximize the player’s investment in the game, if you will―that can be used to rev up the Outriders engine. You can barter and trade weapons at a marketplace, upgrade and modify your gear, and collect memos and journal entries from the broken world around you. These are the same features present in other narrative-driven commercial shooters like Mass Effect, Bioshock Infinite, and Borderlands. Outriders offers the same ornaments without much meaning beyond its creators' vision of profits and market share. Outriders is viciously hammered into the mainstream shooter mold with an arbitrary checklist of things to be included, as if these are necessary criteria for the game to be considered among the pantheon of successful shooters.

Much less can be said about Outriders' story, which is presented as yet another perfunctory aspect of the game's design, with a roster of barely memorable archetypes: the battle-hardened veteran, the hopeful scientist, the weary mechanic. In stark contrast to the game’s superficial and vague cast of personalities, there’s an exacting precision to the details of its combat and weaponry. In a separate menu, you can examine the intricate wood grain and contours of your rifles and handguns, alongside the exact amount of firepower it packs, marked out in numericals and percentages. It’s another demonstration of the sheer, destructive power your weapons are capable of.

I’d admit, this entire essay is just a lengthy, 1,000 words spiel about how creatively bankrupt―even boring―Outriders is. But what more can be said about Outriders, other than that it’s simply the product of a deeply militaristic western games industry? Here’s where the mechanical joys of war are programmed and amplified, problems are solved by pointing at them with the barrel end of a shotgun, and satisfaction peaks with the frenetic maneuver of a pump action. It’s this constant fetishization of the military and its weaponry that saw games give way to persistent jingoism. That has risen to the point where even wartime atrocities can become virtual playgrounds for players―executed without concern for the trauma and horror they inflict on the other faction.

This progression reaches its natural conclusion with the announcement of the tactical shooter Six Days in Fallujah, which is set in the period of the Second Battle of Fallujah, two years into the United States’ invasion of Iraq. What has somehow become most sacrosanct in this genre shitstorm is the enticing lure of martial force and gunfire, coupled with a zealous appetite for imagined authenticity, with Six Days turning one of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq war into a virtual, interactive war zone to entertain players with. You can take cover behind destroyed trucks to avoid enemy fire, direct your troops to assist your incursion through suppressive fire, and barge into the personal spaces of the Iraqi peoples' homes. To deliver a more realistic depiction of the unpredictability of war, the maps of Six Days in Fallujah are also procedurally generated with the help of algorithms. It’s a game that’s designed and executed with the detached coldness of code and warfare.

There are few that can stop the unfeeling, insuppressible force of a militarized machine, save for the human soul. Take the Tank Man of the Tiananmen Square protest, who has become an international icon of freedom and defiance, and his picture one of the most recognizable photographs in the world. It’s humanity that defined these conflicts, rather than the brutal technology and machinery behind the bloodshed. Yet there’s little of such humanity in Outriders, a game that’s emblematic of a war machine, finely and meticulously developed for the sole purpose of enacting digital violence for our entertainment. It will blaze a warpath through to the reward center embedded deep within our neural system. It will follow the exact blueprint of blockbuster shooters if it means maximizing the profit margins of its studio’s biggest stakeholders. It will let you pulverize your virtual foes to meat, gristle, and bones if it brings you any ounce of grotesque satisfaction. And what’s the point?


Khee Hoon Chan is a freelance writer from Singapore, with bylines in Unwinnable, Polygon, Eurogamer, Edge Magazine, and more. They edit for The Indie Game Website and Haywire Magazine, and have never stopped daydreaming about being a professional Street Fighter player. Ask them about the weather on Twitter: @crapstacular.