Most of the time, when I die in PlanetSide 2, I'm not sure who killed me. The battlefields are large and often chaotic, and the game makes no effort to point out where your killer was when they took that fateful shot. A stray sniper shot, or the splash damage of an explosion, or a volley of bullets from an infantryman I didn't know was there – and I'm dead.
It's possible I'm just terrible at PlanetSide 2, the large-scale, massively multiplayer online shooter from Daybreak Game Company (formerly Sony Online Entertainment). But I think this is a universal part of the experience. PlanetSide 2 can be a hazy game, so active and violent that it becomes alienating. I'm often at a loss for who or what killed me in the game, and if I stop to think about it, it's not the only thing I'm at a loss to explain. Even at its best, PlanetSide 2 as an experience is always a little indistinct.
The main draw of PlanetSide 2 – the place where it really excels – is spectacle. When you download it, this is what you're signing up for. Set on the fictional planet of Auraxis, the game is about the never-ending tug of war between three factions battling for control over the geography: the evil empire of the Terran Republic, the plucky freedom fighters of the New Conglomerate, and the Vanu Sovereignty, who have lasers. As a player, you pick a faction, rocket down to one of the game's four continents (five on PlayStation 4, including a small tutorial one), and join the fray.
Each continent is designed to accommodate up to 2,000 players, with battles over the individual bases regularly including a hundred live participants from all three factions. They're chaotic, busy, loud and beautiful. I've run alongside walls of tanks rolling over the icy tundra of Esamir, firing rockets at approaching lines outside of the walled stronghold of Mattherson's Triumph. Tracer rounds thunder to each side of me as drop-ships and enemy fighters engage in lazy dogfights above. I've ridden in small, stealthy convoys through the darkened rainforests of Amerish and engaged in blind infantry rushes in the wide, sun-soaked canyons of Indar.
It's striking, and occasionally when playing I find myself putting the controller down and just watching. From a distance, the battles look like splashes of fireworks, or an ant colony flowing back and forth, lines of tiny insects carrying their spoils back to the mound. I've never played anything quite like it. Modern Warfare has nothing on this. There's a rush here to go along with the scale, and I've never played anything that felt more like what I picture in my head when I think of the word war.
It's nearly as incomprehensible as it is beautiful, though. It's dense and layered, not friendly to new players, and some servers, particularly on the PS4, get sparse, leading to long moments of boredom as you roam and warp around continents, looking for a fight.
Even when you're fighting, PlanetSide 2 does little to fill in your motive. Goals are always of the "capture or defend this facility" variety, and the game delivers even less narrative than it does tutorial. It's not clear why you're fighting over Auraxis or where your orders are coming from. You simply run from place to place, popping at whatever moves and trying to figure out where you need to be. There's no "lore" or story segments, and objectives are delivered objectively, just appearing on your HUD as the goals shift. Undoubtedly, Daybreak has a story bible somewhere, or some short stories or manual text that explain what's going on and why everyone's fighting everyone, but none of it made it into the game itself.
Other multiplayer shooters don't have this problem. Counter-Strike, Battlefield, Call of Duty, they're all based on a match structure. They need a story as much as football does; the character you play is you, and your goal is to kill your friends. But PlanetSide 2 borrows an MMO structure, taking place in a persistent world, but offers the player little information within the game to contextualise that world. It exists bereft of meaning, which makes the experience somewhat discomfiting the moment you give it any distance. War in PlanetSide 2 is endless and senseless, and it fails to lend meaning to the spectacular carnage it engenders.
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As a citizen of the West, born and raised in the United States, non-stop war isn't exactly an unfamiliar premise to me. The War on Terror began just as I was becoming conscious of my political surroundings, and it shows no signs of ending. A lot of ink has been spilled – on Mother Jones, at Foreign Policy, at any left-leaning publication you can find – on the never-ending war that seems to be the default foreign policy of the modern United States. It's an agenda that bleeds into the entire West, implicating the US's allies as well, if the UK's cooperation in our Middle Eastern wars and constant sabre-rattling against ISIS is any indication. This is an unprecedented kind of war, fought by small sections of standing armies in distant lands, almost completely separated from the regular lives of the citizenry, and being fought every day. It's been fought for years.
I live in Texas, where the American military machine is as visible as it is anywhere else in the country. There are more American soldiers from Texas than there are from nearly any other state. I know many, and most everyone I know has an active serviceman or military veteran in their family. Even so, it's easy to just not notice war is happening. It settles easily away from view, obscure and quiet, with only the occasional flair-up as a reminder that people are killing and dying in the name of my country.
To be an American civilian, then, is to have war as a distant background hum, a known reality that's scarcely accessible and always shrouded in mystifying propaganda and unclear motives. War as background noise to daily life. That weird hum of emptiness in a quiet room. Most of the time, you can forget it's even there.
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As I play PlanetSide 2, though, an unexpected thing is happening to me: I'm remembering. There's a niggling discomfort there, a splinter that I can't get out of my hand. I shoot other players, going back to alien battlefields again and again, caught up in small, almost mundane tasks: complete this directive, gain these experience points, trade in my currency for new gear and cosmetics. All the while, it feeds into a larger conflict that I don't understand, that I'm barely aware of. The map of Auraxis, as I can access it in the game, is just an abstracted bunch of colours and nodes, always shifting whether I participate or not. I can stop playing, never pick up the game again, and the fight will just go on without me. No one ever wins. It's not even clear what the win conditions would be, as the enemies can always regroup for a resurgence on the other side of the map. The war on Auraxis has a way of settling itself uncomfortably into the background of my play, and even into my life when I'm not playing. Which, in turn, reminds me of my real subject position, the actual politics that shape my personhood as a citizen of the West. It reminds me of the real war in the real background.
It may seem a stretch to compare The War on Terror to an MMO, but in this conceptual way they both traffic in the same phenomena. Both exist in an eternal, ambiguous middle. Sides change, specific threats shift, but the fighting continues with no sign of slowing. For too many people, the West's wars are real, bloody and cruel. But for the typical American citizen, they're a background concern. The sci-fi bloodletting of PlanetSide 2 reflects this in its context-free, endless and multi-fronted theatre of war.
Like I said, the chaos of PlanetSide 2 often tempts me into the role of a spectator, pausing before a charge down some hill to watch the streams of fire and light crisscross around me. And even when I'm fighting, I suspect I'm still a spectator, one without the adequate information to even fully understand what's happening. Being a spectator, though, isn't the same thing as not being complicit in what you're seeing.
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