Playing the Idiot in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier

The three highly trained special operatives surrounding my character disappear into the shadows of the blown-out buildings. A moment later they radio in to confirm that they’re ready to take out the enemy soldiers patrolling the devastated Dagestani city where the mission is taking place. My guy — I can’t remember if he’s “30K”, “GhostLeader” or someone else with an equally unmemorable name — crouches down and shimmers out of sight as his optical camouflage turns on. I start positioning him around the flank of the enemy patrol and prepare to line up my own shot before engaging. The entire fight, if pulled off correctly, will be over in less than a minute and leave my team hidden from the rest of the soldiers filling the level.

I move around a piece of cover and a little red warning indicator pops up, letting me know that I’ve been spotted. Panicked, I let off a triplet of rounds and issue the command for the rest of my squad to take down their targets. An alarm sounds, there is shouting in Russian and then a hail of bullets begins. The encounter is blown and the end of level points tally will reflect this.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier  is not shy about making me feel like an idiot.

Videogames have given us the mistaken idea that anyone with decently refined hand-eye coordination would do alright in a real world gunfight when, really, this obviously isn’t the case. Hundreds of hours of multiplayer deathmatches and shooter campaigns have exerted a subtle influence on the minds of those of us who play a decent amount of games. They have told us, by offering us an unending procession of virtual combat challenges that we are always capable of overcoming, that we are somehow gifted warriors.

I can’t imagine that much of this is intentional; the basic structure of the traditional, mainstream videogame offers a power fantasy at its foundation. Because the medium’s fallback design is centred around providing player with a goal that must be accomplished in order to progress get from the left side of the screen to the right, shoot every enemy shooting at you, etc.), we are all of us champions just by virtue of completing a given level or mission objective. Nearly every videogame on the market effectively tells its player that s/he is a gifted individual. In most every shooter this means that the person behind the controller must be an extraordinary tactician, marksman and stealth operative.

This becomes interesting when, as something of a byproduct of design, Future Soldier tells the player that they’re probably not the most skilled person in their squad of four. Sometime during the first handful of missions it began to dawn on me that while I wasn’t doing an awful job of progressing through the game’s battlefields, the artificial intelligence guiding my companions was far, far better at stealthy manoeuvring and gun fighting than I was. The scenario mentioned above — my AI buddies slinking through the levels with ease while I accidentally alerted the enemy — played out again and again. Even when I was capable of slipping from cover to cover unseen it was often by virtue of fortunate timing and panicked reactions.

Future Soldier seemed determined to break down the typical power fantasy at every available opportunity. It is insistent on letting players know that they are not unique snowflakes — that their role in the squad is, if anything, that of an enormous liability. Because Future Soldier can only do so much to turn the typical wargame power fantasy on its head, an extremely skilled player — or one playing entirely in co-op with three other human squadmates — would be able to get through the game without noticing their own shortcomings as much as I did. Even so, the fact that its design even suggests an inversion of the typical shooter model is something worth noting.

What Future Soldier accomplishes in tearing down the typical sense of videogame empowerment is important. While titles like Spec Ops: The Line work to strip away at the naïveté that allows for guilt-free virtual genocide, the squad-based humiliation of the latest Ghost Recon entry  forces us to rethink videogame war from a different approach. It makes the average player aware that any delusions they may foster — any subconscious theories that their ability to play shooters could somehow translate to superhuman real-world combat skills — are just that: delusions.