As the world started to realize the true scope of the spread of the novel coronavirus, it seemed like many people turned to apocalyptic and pandemic-based fiction as a peculiar balm to soothe their nerves. I did much the same, but in a more video game fashion, and found that it was much harder to soothe my nerves than I’d anticipated.
Set in Washington DC, The Division 2—a game I’d been meaning to play, but just never got round to it until a few weeks ago—like its predecessor, imagines a contemporary post-pandemic apocalypse. A significant number of the United States population has been killed by “the Dollar Flu,” a human-made lethal virus spread on contaminated dollar bills at the height of holiday shopping one Black Friday, infecting and killing millions. As a member of the titular Division—sleeper agents with access to futuristic tech designed to kick in and police the nation against rogue elements in the face of a national crumbling of order—you’re tasked with navigating the world of survivors left behind by the Dollar Flu, one deployable healing drone or remote guided seeker mine at a time.
When Division 2 launched last year, Ubisoft weathered a critical storm for comments its developers made that they wanted their game to be seen as strictly apolitical—a game where you’re literally a lone-wolf sheriff reuniting America, through the liberal application of state-sanctioned firearms to anyone you deem a threat, right in the heart of its capitol. Division 2 is, like all pieces of art, inherently political, but what made the furor all the sillier at the time was, on its surface, it is unabashedly trying to claim the language of overt American patriotism as politically void.
Your home base is straight up the White House. You battle through endless sights like the Lincoln Memorial or the Senate chambers. You free the President at one point, and he promptly tells you to go out there and kick ass in his name and whatnot (he also seems like a massive asshole who betrays you at one point, I think? It’s hard to say, the storytelling is very bad). Along the line, a random lady stops you in one of the game’s survivor settlements and asks you, won’t you please mind popping out and picking up the literal Declaration of Independence on your next sortie, because it might...I dunno, make people feel hope? America, etc.
It’s very dumb. But it’s frankly the kind of mindless dumb I really needed at a time when I just want an aimless video game to play, shooting the shit in a digital, weapon-based capacity while shooting the shit with my brother, many miles away and (now suddenly) unable to visit. Video game junk food for the soul, if you will. We’d been looking forward to finally getting around to it now that we both had some time, blissfully unaware in early March—which feels a lifetime ago now—that the situation around the spread of covid-19 was about to get much worse than any of us could have imagined.
But while its American exceptionalism writ large rings hollow, what surprisingly feels oddly serious in The Division 2 right now are its audio logs, detailing the time leading up to the flu’s pandemic becoming a full-on apocalyptic breakdown of social order. They’re snapshots of a time before and during an incomprehensible disaster, as you hear everything from military officials to everyday civilians beginning to realize the true scope of this new seasonal flu virus that’s about to turn their worlds upside down. Which would’ve been fine at literally any other time for me than when those kinds of conversations were echoing the ones I was having with my brother over the phone, or with my parents when the earliest reports emerged that vulnerable citizens like them were about to be advised by the UK Government to quarantine themselves from the world.
The evening Boris Johnson announced the country’s current ongoing lockdown on all but essential business and a near-total halt on public activity in British life, I raided a field hospital in the game that had a series of audio logs charting a family slowly succumbing to the Dollar Flu over multiple parts, rattled breaths and delirious visions of loved ones who’d already perished marking their final moments. By the time I got the last one, I’d stopped talking to my brother as he continued to rummage for loot, and just sat there quietly stunned.
These audiotapes probably seemed as trite as The Division’s politics at launch last year—heightened and amplified pandemic melodrama as the background for schlocky shoot-and-loot video game action. An early log of the game’s pre-outbreak President asking an aide if this new virus is a hoax made up by the Russians or the Chinese might have seemed (at least) a little far-fetched last year. But it hits a lot harder when the Actual President of the Actual United States is Actually Doing That as you play.
Ubisoft and the developers at Massive Entertainment couldn’t have predicted this kind of prescience, of course. And in a lot of ways, they didn’t. The Division’s flu is very different in terms of the scope of its lethality to what the world is going through with covid-19—which is not to underestimate the novel coronavirus’ own shocking death toll across the world. The world this fictional virus left behind is still a heightened fantasy (sure, I’m not American, but I don’t quite believe you guys have gotten into rogue militaries and violent groups of former criminals mob ruling scattered outposts of survivors yet). But those conversations in the early day of its spread littered throughout the game—the misinformation as people convince themselves it’s “just another flu,” the growing concern as medical and food supplies dwindle when the panic buying of our own world becomes The Division’s full-on descent into chaotic violence—felt as if they had been ripped right out of today’s world in such a manner that it almost felt distasteful to hear. A lot more real than they arguably ever should have.
I’m still playing The Division 2. I could do with whatever distractions I can take these days, and there’s absolutely too much to do in it. There are always bad guys to clean the head straight off of with my ridiculous sniper turret, always a new gun to consider for five seconds before I toss it in a junk pile of the other endless guns in the quest for More Shiny Things.
I’ve just stopped listening to the audiotapes. It’s a little too much of the real world than I want out of an escape right now.
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