Osama bin Fragged: a review of terrorist propaganda games
By Frank Caron | Published: October 09, 2008 - 11:30PM CT
The quest for wholeness
While I can't claim to be a great scholar or art critic or movie buff or historian, there's one appeal to credibility that I can make: I've played a ton of video games. On countless systems and across countless genres, I've played pretty much everything there is to play, including some of the serious games that Andrew Webster described in yesterday's article. But in my lengthy gaming career, the one type of game that I'd never dabbled in was the "terrorist propaganda" genre. I'd long heard stories about evil terrorist games designed to indoctrinate youth with evil terrorist agendas, but I'd never actually played such titles. Indeed, it seems that few game reviewers have.
The more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that no good game reviewer could claim to have a total, all-encompassing knowledge of gaming without dabbling in every possible form. So, I began my quest to perfect my game reviewer resume: I would search out and review terrorism games. Are any of these "horrific, bone-chilling" games fun? How do they stack up against their non-terrorist competitors? Are any of these games worth playing? And, most importantly, can I play such games and emerge with my patriotism still intact? (Who am I kidding, eh... I'm Canadian!)
These were the questions I sought to answer, and in this article, I give you the results of my experiment: a review of two representative terrorist propaganda games.
Night of Bush Capturing
Night of Bush Capturing is the grand-daddy of the propaganda games that can be found readily on the internet. Relatively speaking, the production values are high, and there's a surprising amount of content that appears to be designed specifically to provide a somewhat compelling gameplay experience wrapped in an anti-US message. In fact, when compared to its contemporaries, NOBC, or as it's more popularly referred to, Quest For Bush, could nearly pass for a retail release.
Surprisingly, Quest For Bush isn't the worst game ever made. Sorry, Superman 64.
Developed by an independent "studio" called the Global Islamic Media Front, Quest For Bush attempts to fit into an already-stuffed first-person shooter genre by introducing a novel, anti-American twist. The game picks up where its "predecessor" and full stateside retail release, Quest For Saddam, left off. While the Americans have managed to finish off Saddam, the Islamic forces have discerned the location of President Bush in a secret hideout deep within the desert and have begun a campaign to eliminate him.
The game revolves around the exploits of a single Islamic soldier on the hunt for Bush. Through the course of the seven-mission campaign, players will be required to fight against elite American soldiers, solve some pretty grueling puzzles, fend off the natural enemies of the desert, and eventually, confront US President George W. Bush himself.
Quest For Bush takes the increasingly-complicated aesthetic of today's first-person shooter (FPS) games and throws them out the window for a decidedly more minimalist and natural feel. At its core, the game abstracts the FPS genre back to its basics: you have a gun and you have an enemy, and the speed of your mouse click is what separates you from victory or defeat.
Weapon selection is relatively limited. There are no grenades or special items, but the trademark weapon archetypes of any normal retail FPS are present. You'll start the game with a basic assault rifle, but eventually you'll be able to procure a shotgun, a chaingun, and a grenade launcher. And, should your weapons fail you, you'll be able to resort to your own strength by attacking enemies with your feet—which looks completely ridiculous, as you don't kick forward so much as you swing your foot side to side, as evident in the first gameplay video.
You really won't need a huge arsenal, though, as the game rarely throws up anything other than the most tiresome of genre norms. Exploding barrels to blow up strategically-placed enemy encampments? Check. Relentless "find the blue key" fetch quests to get from area to area? Check. Confusing, maze-like levels with numerous enemies and absolutely no health packs? Check. In terms of level design, Quest For Bush is basically a beginner's guide to worn out first-person shooter clichés.
Not helping the already limited amount of play value are the poorly-implemented difficulty settings, which offer little in the way of replayability. Players can choose to engage the infidels on novice, intermediate, or advanced, but the differences between the difficulty levels are pretty basic. True to form with most generic FPS games, the only changes made across difficulties are the amount of damage taken by the player and the accuracy of the artificial intelligence. The limited attack and position routines of the game's AI do little to help it stand out in an age of titles like F.E.A.R. and Crysis, let alone Half-Life and Doom 3.
But it gets worse. Just wait until you see the videos I captured.
Neither gold coins nor virgins
NBOC's final boss fight is by far the most disappointing part of the game. The game's central encounter —the final showdown with George W. Bush—simply falls flat on its face. Though the boss's character model bears the likeness of Bush and stands about three feet tall, you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish him from any other enemy in terms of both his AI routines and his in-game demeanor.
The developers started down the right path: Bush's evil lair is hidden underneath an abandoned port-a-potty out in the middle of the desert. Within this lair are a variety of pictures depicting a distinguished-looking Bush in the company of various world leaders and diplomats, so it has all the makings of a dramatic final encounter. But the developers, for whatever reason, completely passed up the opportunity to stoke their target audience's anger at the American president as a way of motivating them to defeat the final boss. For instance, they could have had him spout random Bushisms as he attacks (might we suggest, "Bring it on!"), but there's nothing so creative about this fight. Bush simply attacks you with no apparent master plan, shooting away with his M16.
For what is supposed to be the ultimate and final enemy that the player character's faction has so long sought to defeat, though, the game's final boss battle is relatively anti-climactic, especially since upon defeating the enemy there are neither gold coins nor virgins.
Admittedly, I am willing to accept the fact that, on some kind of philosophical level, one could argue that the simplicity of the gameplay is part of its charm. Simplicity has become a selling point in the new era of "casual gaming," and some might argue that those who have never played an FPS may be better off easing into the genre with something like this, rather than starting out with the bigger mainstream titles.
But whatever ground could be gained in the simplicity of the gameplay is lost when seeing the game in motion. To put it politely, the graphical presentation leaves much to be desired. The animation is stiff and stilted, the character models are of such a low quality that it's possible to count the amount of polys used on your two hands, the weapon models (with the exception of the relatively well-modeled shotgun) are hideous, the environments are geometrically basic—I could go on and on.
Then again, there are some areas where it's hard not to be impressed given the limited tech available. The game features a ragdoll engine for the death animations that actually performs pretty well—especially when compared to some contemporary games such as skate, where the stiff ragdoll effects shatter the illusion of reality. And it's hard not to appreciate the amount of effort that the team put into presenting the anti-America theme with such limited tools.
At first glance, it's easy to dismiss the game. The cut-and-paste insertions of various American pictures, including countless shots of Bush, Dick Cheney, Yasir Arafat, and other prominent leaders, seem to be out-of-place. But after a while, you will truly begin to hate looking at these mugs over and over and over again, and in this regard, the game succeeds to a certain degree as propaganda. Other nice touches include the various in-game text bytes, such as the load screen that informs the player that the "Jihad beginning" is imminent.
The aural presentation really reinforces the game's overall sparse, violent mood. While the sound effects are admittedly limited, the hypnotizing background music, drawn from a pool of unidentified Middle-Eastern vocal tracks, is impossible to ignore, and at times it fits the action disturbingly well—especially during the final encounter with Bush himself.
For all the criticism, though, Quest for Bush is a surprisingly playable game. I've played worse games in my time. Ironically, the game has more polish than a lot of popular retail releases these days in that there really aren't very many bugs: I played the game from start to finish with no trouble. Even if Night of Bush Capturing isn't exactly on the same level as contemporary software from big-name Western studios, there's a decent game here that would've been pretty impressive fifteen years ago and still remains largely functional today.
Grassroots efforts and the poorly distributed
Sadly, Quest For Bush was the standout among the games I tested. The majority of the other propaganda-driven games that I found were completely detestable. Most were buggy, broken, and just generally unplayable. Few were worth the time, effort, and bandwidth it took to procure them, and most were simple rush job mods that did little to differentiate themselves in an already crowded gaming market. One such example was War on Americas.
War on Americas
War on Americas is a small downloadable PC game that bills itself as "designed for Kids to Fight the U.S. Army." A brief segment of gameplay footage can be found on YouTube, and GamePolitics recently ran a story on the title.
This is the lowest level, and by far, most common type of "propaganda gaming," if you will, and it falls in line with what most grassroots efforts are. War on Americas is basically what's known as a "sprite-hack." A regular commercial title is taken and modified at a rudimentary level by replacing its art assets. In the case of this game, some of the vehicle sprites have been changed, and the title screens, mission screens, and a few GUI elements have been modified.
As some of you may notice from the screenshot below, the original game behind War on Americas is actually Heavy Weapon, a PopCap Games title that has enjoyed relative success. The unmodified game can be played on various game portals around the web, and even on the Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade. In every way, the modified game is virtually identical: the only difference is that there are a few ugly white blocks flying around the levels.
Fun to play but hardly convincing, War on Americas probably won't start a revolution.
Because the game is a mere sprite-hack, there really wasn't much work done by the group who modified the title. The few substituted sprites do nothing to change the core gameplay, which involves a fairly harmless bout of side-scrolling shooter action. Furthermore, the cartoon vibe of the original game persists even in spite of the sprite-hacking. This is largely a result of the fact that the inserted sprites do not properly use alpha transparency: if you refer to the video, you'll see giant white blocks flying by with images of planes within them.
As far as propaganda games go, War on Americas is a game that's playable solely because the underlying game—the one that has been so clearly ripped off—is fun. This is the lowest of the low, and it's hard to imagine how the title could be anything other than a cheap ploy for attention.
Rescue The Nuke Scientist
There was one game that I consciously set out to find because it actually received quite a bit of mainstream press, and this exposure may have hurt my chances of finding it. The game is called Rescue the Nuke Scientist, and I'm still looking for it. Unlike the vast majority of these games, RTNS has real production values; the game was designed with the intent of being a commercial-caliber title. In a certain sense, RTNS is the Metal Gear Solid 4, the Halo 3, the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess of terrorist games. I simply must have it.
This would be the game that would truly rival America's Army in terms of scale and scope, but despite all the torrents I downloaded and newsgroups I searched, I could never find a working download for it. The game, designed by the Union of Students Islamic Association over the course of three years, was put out to counteract the Western bias of war games where the enemy is perpetually non-American—it's part of what the group calls an on-going "cyber war." In the game, the player is an Iranian soldier seeking to rescue two Iranian nuclear experts who were kidnapped by U.S. forces. The game was designed in response to an American-made game called Assault on Iran that featured almost exactly the same situation, but in reverse.
Nevertheless, my search for the game soldiers on, even if it appears to be a futile effort. Few of the games that I was able to find are as high profile as Rescue the Nuke Scientist, and this is one game that I still must play. Should anyone have or know where to find a copy of the title, please don't hesitate to let me know.
Quest for terror
With the exception of Rescue the Nuke Scientist, I'm pretty confident in saying that I've seen a fair sampling of the terrorist propaganda games that are currently on offer. Nonetheless, I'm continuing my search for more of them, and I welcome readers to send me leads on other titles. It's fascinating as a game reviewer to play games that don't fall in either the "mainstream" or "indie" camps, and yet wind up still being entrenched in the industry's norms.
I amassed a collection of terrorist propaganda games and documents.
It took me a few weeks of research to actually locate the kind of game-related propaganda that are in use outside of North America. Such games were often discussed quietly in the online forums I frequent, but the quest to actually find and play them proved incredibly difficult. The challenge of finding genuine "propaganda" is increased by the fact that it's hard to determine the true origins of any one title—was it really made by terrorists, or is it a joke? However, the three games discussed in this article have been widely confirmed as legitimate examples of violent, jihadist, anti-US propaganda.
The debate about whether video games are art has become more and more prominent in the past few years, and that debate casts a large shadow that looms over the topic of propaganda games in general. Insofar as games can be a simple medium for entertainment, they have already proven capable vehicles for expressing emotion, telling stories, reciting history, and everything in between—key aspects of any piece of art (in my non-art-critic opinion). And like other art forms, nowhere is that emotional connection more palpable than in a piece of propaganda. Given the unrivaled immersion offered by games, it's incredibly easy to sink the user into a situation and slowly pass along a message.
In SpecOps: War on Terror, players get to beat up Osama to their hearts' content.
Terrorists aren't the only ones who employ games for propaganda purposes. Witness, for instance, America's Army, the free game designed by the U.S. Army to attract youth to serve in the military. There's really no hidden agenda with this game; its intent is clear, and it has served its purpose well enough that the Army has continued to pour money into it as both a pseudo-advertisement and a training tool. There's also a plethora of smaller-scale games, such as MiniClip's SpecOps: War on Terror, which can have the same effect.
But I leave it to you to debate the merits of whether or not games are effective when used as propaganda. In the mean time, I'm going to continue to search out these games and try them. If you're looking to do the same, I suggest you do as I did and just hit Google. Admittedly, my Google search logs for the last month must look like a database of the "red flag" terms that will get me detained at the airport the next time I try to go to the States.
I hesitate to link to any of the shady back-alley sites that I resorted to in order to find these games: it's unclear if the downloads are free of spyware or malware. But if you choose to search for the games as I did, Google is your friend. And if you find anything interesting, let us know.