The New DLC for 'The Division' Adds Humanity to a Brutal World

A simple narrative conceit saves 'Survival' from resembling its nihilistic peers.

by Ed Smith
Nov 30 2016, 3:00pm

In Rust, DayZ and H1Z1, or even a game like The Walking Dead, which is nakedly plot-driven, the concept of "survival" nevertheless begins and ends at self-preservation: When you hunt, it is to keep yourself alive. When you kill and steal, it is perhaps momentarily regrettable, but eventually justified as part of what you must do in order to keep going—under the simple rubric of survival, the most selfish actions are, if not outright exonerated, at least mitigated. Games like these make no secret of their bleakness. Proudly, they appeal to the isolated, brutal bastard within their players.

But in Survival, the DLC mode recently added to Ubisoft's The Division,  the concept of preservation extends beyond the individual. You fight to ensure the propagation not just of yourself but all others.

In Survival (as in the other games of its genre,) you must hoard guns and armor and you must kill, connive, and always be suspicious. But as well as vehemently protecting your own life, to finish Survival you must retrieve six scattered canisters, each containing a vaccine for a potentially apocalyptic disease called the "Dollar Flu." 

The Flu has already ravaged New York City—in the base Division game, you are part of a secret government agency, tasked with restoring order in the virus's wake. Now, as it threatens to go global, your recovery of the vaccine canisters is paramount to the survival of the entire human race. Compared to Rust or DayZ, which perhaps tacitly imply that your death will bring humanity closer to extinction, Survival explicitly states that you are fighting on behalf of the rest of the world. As much as it does to you individually, the game's title refers to all people, everywhere.

All screenshots courtesy of Ubisoft

A viral outbreak, a ticking clock—it's a hackneyed set-up. But where games often rally behind a myopic, vertical sense of survival (whether you play alone or in a group, you do what you do for yourself and yours) The Division's DLC pressures you to consider the tangential, horizontal consequences of your life and death. You steal and hoard, but it is weighted less toward self-interest—"I have better guns, I have better armor, I will survive"—and more toward increasing your chances of completing the mission, and thus saving everyone. Rather than a one-to-one exchange, whereby you end a life so that yours may continue, killing in Survival is for the sake of all humanity.

That in itself creates a slightly perverse morality. One only has to look to Call of Duty to see how, once the player's mission becomes "save the world," myriad contraventions of good ethics can go unquestioned. But Survival nevertheless invites players to regard and act in service of something greater than themselves. Where Rust, DayZ, et al absolve stealing, murder and all forms of selfishness by insisting that, in dire circumstances, selfishness itself is a virtue, Survival implies that even the worst of times can be navigated with concomitant sense of responsibility to other people. In short, it frames survival as an endeavor for the entire human society. Your character's life is overtly metaphor for the continuance of everybody, and their different ideals, experiences and identities.

However, Survival only provides a limited description of what you are fighting to preserve. If the vaccine canisters imply that all of humanity is at stake, how the game plays moment to moment undercuts any sense of actually being human. Like its contemporaries, Survival measures abstract physical experiences via dispassionate numbers—your character's hunger, thirst, temperature and health are all illustrated like status effects in a role-playing game. It's functional, no doubt, but rather than a person with a complex body, you feel like a mechanical unit, the fuel, heat and condition of which must be variously topped up using the same, reliable means.

This, of course, is not a shortcoming exclusive to Survival. Games like Amnesia and Darkest Dungeon, which represent using numbers not just physical ailments but psychological conditions also are much clumsier. But when the given objective is to safeguard humanity, it's unfortunate that a sense of humanity is missing from Survival completely. Your character doesn't talk, doesn't emote and when injured or afflicted is repaired like a car—canned food for hunger, water for thirst, X component into Y receiver. If you are wounded and start bleeding, Survival directly informs you that "status effects can be healed by eating an energy bar."

The game is upfront with itself—as opposed to the more pretentious DayZ, which, in a hypocritical effort to appear tumultuous but still function like a straightforward video game, attacks you with status effects then deliberately obfuscates their solutions— Survival is not ashamed of its artifice. But its admirable interest in greater humanity would be acutely felt if your character were more of a person, if, as in Lone Survivor, she communicated her ailments using body language and speech.

As such, Survival exposes two things about the conventions currently predominating games of its genre. Self-interest or at least, should you work in a group, close-interest is not the only moral absolute with which survival games must work. It is possible to encourage players to act largely for themselves while also creating a broader, more inclusive sense of what is at stake should they fail. Even if via a derivative narrative contrivance, survival may be framed as a pursuit undertaken on behalf of all people, not just one.

If that be the case, pain, struggle and deprivation—experiential cornerstones of the survival game – are better illustrated using, rather than conventional video game means, abstractions of speech and unpredictable physical behavior, human instead of computational, forms of communication. A sense of rugged survivalism is difficult to acquire when urgent conditions like blood loss can be resolved by opening a radial menu and clicking on an energy bar.

To feel truly put upon and to be ingratiated toward the broad human struggle which ought to lie at the centre of a survival game, one needs to share an understanding of their character's pain. Rather than the game itself acting as an intermediary, and outlining it in dispassionate, crisp text it would be more potent, immediate and human for your character to scream "I'm bleeding."

The Division