Brütal Legend’s Revolution Against the Bourgeoisie

Brütal Legend is a 2009 action-adventure slash real-time strategy game by Double Fine starring Jack Black as a roadie named Eddie Riggs who is transported to a world inspired by the lyrics and album covers of heavy metal bands. Your task in the game is to amass an army of the downtrodden and the slaves of the land to eventually combat the bondage-clad forces of Emperor Doviculus. But not before bringing the fight to General Lionwhyte of the Hair Metal Militia, a denizen of Doviculus and the overseer of the continued slavery of humanity, at his pleasure tower.

That’s Communistic as fuck. Allow me to explain.

The Hair Metal Militia are the Bourgeoisie

The Hair Metal Militia reek of decadence and exploitation. Their base of operations is known as the ‘Pleasure Tower,’ a guarded monument filled with shimmering riches, high-class architecture towering monuments to Lionwhyte. He and his agents live in luxury, with hot baths, plentiful booze, and their ways with some of the Razor Girls who find themselves in forced pleasure employment. They’re comprised of those workers who chose to side with Lionwhyte, valuing the benefits he affords them over the freedom of their compatriots. Truly, the Hair Metal Milita encapsulate all the traits of the Bourgeoisie, also known as the Capitalist Class in Marxist theory.

The Headbangers are the Exploited Workers

One of the first missions we play in Brütal Legend is called “Exploited in the Bowels of Hell.” We must emancipate the Headbangers toiling their lives away in the Crushing Pit, a rock mine. Presumably this rock is used to construct the towering architecture of Lionwhyte’s pleasure tower, and we also know that car parts are  unearthed that Lionwhyte takes the leather and vinyl from to give to Doviculus. It also serves as a means of oppressing the people. They are the working class; subjugated by the Bourgeois Hair Metal Militia to do their bidding (or more specifically Lionwhyte’s) as a means of benefiting only themselves. We even see a very clear reference to Marx’s work, as we the player are given a Battle Cry guitar solo that we play in order to inspire the workers to revolt, and are told to “break the chains,” an abstraction of “workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

The Battle Cry Represents Class Consciousness

A sub-point to the Headbangers; the guitar solo that Eddie plays to liberate the Headbangers of the Crushing Pit could be argued as a representation of class consciousness, as listening to it’s tasty licks is what gives them the realisation that they don’t need to toil their lives away for Lionwhyte. This, by extension, would make Eddie and Ironheade a Revolutionary Vanguard Party, of sorts.

There is Rebellion in the Game’s Lore

Honestly? We don’t even need to look at these representations closely to know of the revolutionary themes in Brütal Legend. Within the history of the world, there’s an outright revolution; the “Black Tear Rebellion.” A band of humans rebelled against their oppressors, the Tainted Coil, and tried to overthrow them and achieve their freedom. It failed when the Rebellion drank from the sea of black tears and lost their minds, but only after the demons gave them such a temptation to begin with, out of fear that they otherwise might lose.

I think there’s some compelling stuff here. Though, I like to think that with every game that I write about. What do you all think? Perhaps I’ve missed some other pieces of evidence? Let me know!


Blazkowicz’s Conversation with a Marxist in Wolfenstein II

Horton and B.J.’s political debate leaves me hopeful for The New Colossus‘s portrayal of Marxism.

Yesterday, Polygon released a 30-minute gameplay video of the upcoming Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, wherein we had the opportunity to see the dialogue cutscene found in the trailers between main protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz, and Horton Boone, the leader of a Marxist resistance movement in New Orleans. Horton is recruited into the Kreisau Circle, but not before he and B.J. get drunk and have a philosophical debate.

Horton talks about his band of revolutionaries, holed up in a battered Orleans building, describing them  as “the outcast, the poor… well, everyone apart from the American God-damn Bourgeois,” the first indication that MachineGames know their Marxist terminology. He introduces B.J. to his friend Paris Jack, “a true believer in Anarchism and a hell of a clarinet player.” Is this left unity in action? One can assume.

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Then, out comes the ‘Horton Special,’ a moonshine whiskey, and the two men discuss the resistance and get pretty heated about their respective political beliefs. Horton is weary and jaded, having planned for a revolution long before the Nazi occupation. He along with many carried the banner of the civil rights movement, campaigned for equality, and protested the US draft, to which Blazkowicz garners anger, arguing that Horton and his ilk should have fought in the war instead of “passing out Bolshevik propaganda and opposing the draft on every street corner.”

This triggers the now well-known revolutionary rant from Horton, in which he talks about standing up against the “imperial war machine of the United States of America and the greedy money men of wall street who was itching to send the children of the proletariat off to die in foreign lands so that they could be filling their coffers.” That, seeing through America’s  exploitation of its people, decided not to co-operate and protest in the way that he did.

It looks like it’s going to be a very faithful portrayal of Marxist and other left-leaning revolutionaries. And with other small details littered throughout the scene, like a hammer and sickle flag in the background of one shot and a propaganda poster asking its readers to “become the hammer,” MachineGames really aren’t shying away from the explicit leftist thought and imagery, and what’s even more interesting to see is that these characters and their ideals are positioned on the side of the protagonists of the game.

Communists have always typically combatted the ideals and actions of Nazism of course, but it’s very uncommon that they’re portrayed as the good guys in film, TV, and video games. Often when they are, it’s to set up a shock twist wherein they betray the protagonists in order to seek their own goals.

But this cutscene has left me feeling optimistic about Wolfenstein II’s resident lefties, and alongside the diverse cast of the Kreisau Circle and the aggressive anti-Nazi messaging in all of the game’s promotional material, perhaps this’ll be the games industry’s first really great triple-A portrayal of the far-left.

The First Half of Fable III is Pretty Damn Communistic

If you ignore everything about Fable III that stops it being Communistic, it’s actually kinda Communistic.

Fable III was the final main installment in Lionhead Studio’s iconic franchise, and despite a hefty amount of discourse online regarding whether the game was good or not, I actually rather like it, despite it being disappointing compared to its predecessor, Fable II. And if you ignore the constant of monarchy throughout the experience, it’s pretty communistic so I’m going to ignore it and give you a list of reasons why I’m definitely right.

A People’s Revolution

The first two thirds of the game are all about you, the main protagonist, amassing a revolutionary army to overthrow your tyrant brother, who subjects the people of Albion to destitute conditions of poverty and corruption. You recruit the military, the city resistance, a group of mountain dwellers, and various other groups and factions throughout Albion to assist you. Sure, the primary basis in convincing them all to join is that you’re the true heir to the throne, but that invalidates any point that I might have, so let’s envision a reality where this isn’t the case.

The Age of Industry

At the time in which we experience the lands of Albion, it’s experiencing an industrial age. There are factories, mechanised transportation systems, and a new era of slave-wage labour. It’s all very much inspired by the 1800s, a hotbed for a people’s revolt. It’s during this time that the formulation and rise of Communist thought occurred as a direct response to industrialisation exploiting workers in a way never before seen. It is therefore difficult to argue that Lionhead Stuios weren’t aware of the parallels between the narrative of Fable III and the dawn of Communism

Benevolent Dictatorship

Time to throw you all a curve ball! I’ll be acknowledging the monarchy aspect of this game. Because, if you look at it with squinted eyes and sprinkle it with a heap of wishful thinking, then you could vaguely describe your monarchical status in Fable III as resembling a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship. Not my personal preferred flavour of Communism, but Communism nonetheless! This is further supported by all of the benevolent, for-the-people royal decrees, like abolishing child labour, free public libraries, and putting funding into looking after orphans.

At the end of the day, life is all about perspective.  And to many perspectives, Fable III isn’t at all indicative of a Communist revolutionary story. But my perspective, when looked at from the right angles, is that with a little optimism, maybe it is. Certainly makes the game a little less disappointing.


The Worker-Owned Studio Making a Game About the Revolution

This revolutionary development studio thinks worker ownership will change the games industry for the better.

We live in a Capitalist society. As a result of that, many companies share a similar business structure: workers, managers, executives, and a CEO. It’s hierarchical in nature, allocating tasks from the top to the bottom. The video games industry as a whole isn’t very different at all, with large development studios and publishers like Bethesda, Rockstar, and EA following what has become the standard for running a company. But this isn’t the only way to run a business.

“I felt like a team could be run better if everybody had a voice in making major decisions.” Ted Anderson is the founder and art steward of Pixel Pushers Union 512, a worker-owned independent games studio currently working on Tonight We Riot, a crowd brawler game about a people’s revolution. He’s worked in the industry for a long time for various companies, “but I’ve never seen one where a lot of people had a lot of voices, or there was any kind of real democracy in production.”

“So I figured that I might take some of the things I was kinda getting interested in, and one of those things was the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, and their method of having shop democracy really appealed to me.” Shop democracy is a socialist principle wherein a workplace applies concepts like voting, equal pay, and flat hierarchy to the workplace, and Ted had been toying with the concept for a while. “I think the idea for the company is something I’d been chewing on probably ever since my first layoff. At least in some formative way I thought, ‘this could be better.’”

“And then over the years as I drifted further and further left myself, I eventually decided, this structure that currently exists is really untenable. It’s not fair to the people working in those companies. I was watching benefits disappear. When I started in the game industry, there were actually still royalties: you’d make money off the game you worked on. That doesn’t [really] exist anymore.”

“You’re much more willing to do something that you’re self-motivated to do without getting tired of it”

Ted’s of the opinion that as it currently stands, much like many countless Capitalist business structures, the games industry is exploitative of workers in their worth and their disposability. “One of the biggest issues I’ve run into in games in the past has been the boom and bust cycle of game development, where you throw a bunch of warm bodies at a problem and then lay everybody off after the project is done.”

“One of the things I hope pans out with the way we’re doing stuff is with the cost-sharing, the flat hierarchy, the ability for everybody to be democratically-involved in the process of making the game and decisions regarding its sale and release date, that we all have an impetus to make sure that the company never grows larger than it needs to be, and that the projects that we take on aren’t bigger than what we can do with the team that we have.”

For Ted, the equal share of profit made by Pixel Pushers through both their own work and their contract work isn’t just beneficial for the wellbeing of his co-workers. “it’s a much cheaper way to operate a company. We have no executive staff…say the game makes a decent profit. That profit isn’t immediately soaked up by one branch of the company. Instead, it’s divvied up equally amongst everybody who actually had a hand in working on it. And I’d much rather have that happen, I hope it takes off.”

Not only has shop democracy and worker ownership been good for Pixel Pushers both financially and in terms of productivity, but it’s also improved Ted’s general happiness through being involved in the company. “if some boss was telling me, ‘hey, fix this thing.’ And it’s so ridiculously broken, and I’m having trouble with it… it’d get kinda miserable. But the fact that it’s us, that I’m not being told to do this by some boss on high, that I’m choosing to do this because as a team we’ve decided that it’s the best idea… you’re much more willing to do something that you’re self-motivated to do without getting tired of it.” It’s improved interpersonal relationships between the staff too. “If someone’s having a hard time, I have genuine concern for them as a friend and I want to make sure that they’re having a good time working on this game, and we try to make it better.

“It’s not, ‘Okay, well that sucks, but chop chop we’ve gotta get things done!’ It’s more, ‘Let’s see how we can triage some of these issues, or table them for now, come back to them maybe later, and find something fun to work on.’ People don’t get burned out, people don’t get resentful, so it’s never me or anybody saying ‘you have to do this now.’” It’s a rather positive perspective, and it’s not just limited to Ted.

“a sort of growing foxhole mentality, a sort of fellowship”

“I do think it’s something fundamental about the structure.” Stephen Meyer is one of Pixel Pushers’ programming stewards, and has had extensive experience in a number of different industries, not limited to insurance and construction companies. Working on Tonight We Riot is his first professional foray into the games industry, and his first time working under a shop democracy. “Even if I had a very considerate boss who was taking feelings into consideration and making sure I don’t get burned out, doing this amount of work in this sort of schedule… I think on some level I’d start to resent that boss.”

“But because of the structure as it is, rather than resentment I’ve been feeling a sort of growing foxhole mentality, a sort of fellowship. It’s something fundamental about not having one person be in charge, not having a command given on high for you to do this or that.”

Despite there being a heavy focus on the ‘democracy’ aspect of Pixel Pushers’ business structure, Stephen thinks this working environment helps to keep everybody on the same page. “It sorta breeds consensus. There are votes, but usually because we realise that we all have the same stake in everything and that we respect each other, there’s not often a contentiousness. We’ll put things to a vote, but it isn’t angry. Very positive compared to previous companies.”

Stephen thinks that indie games have been championing shop democracy in a sense, whether labelling it or not. “In a lot of ways I think we’re just putting something explicitly that people were starting to intuit among indie games anyway…It’s definitely the testing grounds with these smaller groups.” Working in a company with shop democracy can also give people a greater feeling of job security. “Not having that extra dead weight on the top saves money.”

“It doesn’t completely break you free of the boom-bust cycle, but by saving that money, whatever money is to be made in games, there’s more to be spread out. And the individual employees can put away what they need to put away so that they can deal with it if there is still a cycle of profit and lack of profit.”

The resulting expansion of shared creativity that comes with giving everyone’s voice in a company equal weight can lead to some interesting things, and Stephen recalls one such example. “Our sound guy George recently had made a passing comment about how we could reuse these assets that we’d made for something else as an extra mini-boss that we could reskin as a crab as this silly little in-passing suggestion.”

“we’re just putting something explicitly that people were starting to intuit among indie games anyway”

“If it’d been some other company? He’s not the designer, he’s not the person in charge, it’s not his department… it might’ve just gotten lost in the shuffle, but because everyone has an equal voice, everybody took him seriously and said, ‘y’know what? Let’s think about it.’ And now it’s in the game. It’s really easy for anyone to have an idea about anything and they’re taken seriously.”

We hardly ever see worker-owned companies, let alone in the mainstream, and even rarer do we see unabashedly-leftist video games like Tonight We Riot. But more and more are coming out of the woodwork, and this is likely down to society’s shift in perception of left-wing theory. “Socialism isn’t a dirty word anymore. I think we’re kinda finally getting over McCarthyism fifty years later. Especially the younger now generation is realizing, whether they agree or not with the feasibility of this structure or that structure, they’re realizing that Leftists aren’t some boogeyman, they’re not the bad guys.”

“Part of it is probably the political climate in the last three or four years.” Michael Taylor is the AI programming steward for PPU, and joined the team a little over a year ago after finishing his associate’s degree. “It’s not been great for the last decade and a half, but the last three or four years specifically. And given that we are in a country that isn’t winning a lot of popularity polls right now, I think it’s kinda starting a punk-rock incentive in a lot of game developers to push back and tackle more and more political themes.”

Despite not having as much experience as the other members of Pixel Pushers, he can already feel the stark differences between working with them and working elsewhere. “I’ve taken a lot of personal contract work to make ends meet and I can say that the structure here is different from the rest of the contract work I do. Overall, I do enjoy the structure. It gives me a lot of leeway…we may not have a boss in the traditional sense, but we still have deadlines with enough space to feel like we have enough breathing room.”

Their upcoming game Tonight We Riot is rather thematically-suited to the ethos of PPU, as Ted explains. “You literally seize the means of production and have workers join your cause, and they in turn become your living health bar. So any time your main character dies, you’ll snap to being another person in your crowd until you run out of crowd. But your crowd also acts as a weapons modifier, so every time you attack they attack too, which generally means the larger the crowd you have, the better off you are.” The idea for the game developed alongside Ted’s growing desires for better working conditions. “About two and a half years ago I started tinkering with pixel art after making a Minecraft texture pack.”

“It kinda got me started on working with pixels, and I thought ‘Huh, this could be something. This could be a game.’ A sort of Marxist Mario Brothers, is what I liked to call it. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be kinda funny if you were hopping and bopping on riot cop heads, and you’re this little 8-bit character. Maybe there could be something here.’”

What’s certain is that Tonight We Riot wears its political message on its sleeve, and it does so to fill the gap in the market of explicitly left-wing games, a gap resulting from a reluctancy that Ted has seen in the industry. “when I was playing Bioshock Infinite, I absolutely loved the first half of the game. One of the coolest experiences in a game I had ever was charging a factory with armed workers. I’d never experienced this before, it was so blatant and wonderful and over-the-top and amazing. I had such a good time, and then they kinda pulled the punch in a way, which left me a little bit disappointed.”

“I’ve never seen an unabashedly Leftist game, pretty much ever. One that didn’t make apologies for things like seizing the means of production, or make apologies for its content, or watering it down. So I said, ‘yeah, let’s do this, let’s try and make that happen.’”

“Socialism isn’t a dirty word anymore”

Stephen looks forward to seeing people try out what they’ve been working on. “It’s been a while since I’ve played a game that had a real statement that it was trying to make, and was also fun. It’s tough to combine both of those things, and I think we’ve got the fun part down and we’re getting the statement part down. We’re getting that narrative down, we’re getting those themes out, and the fun is definitely flowing too. I’m excited.”

Ted, Stephen, Michael, and the rest of Pixel Pushers Union hope that Tonight We Riot will spread the message and make people think about Leftist politics in a way they may have not considered before, and they want to convey this through a really fun game. In essence, as Ted puts it, “a lot of fun, interesting, cool experiences in it that’ll hopefully carry the day if you’re not ready to let your red rose blossom.”

Retrospective: Red Faction Guerrilla’s Positive Portrayal of Violent Revolution

Red Faction: Guerrilla is a mediocre game with above-average destructible environment physics and a surprisingly positive portrayal of the more morally-grey aspects of a violent revolution.

I have a complicated relationship with Volition’s 2009 third-person shooter, Red Faction: Guerrilla. It’s a definitively mediocre game about a people’s revolution on a colonized Mars that’s disappointing in its execution, in a setting with so much potential that wasn’t explored. The destructible environment system made possible with Geomod 2.0 is quite spectacular, and despite its limited scope compared to the first iteration of the engine, it goes a long way to drag its score slightly above a 5 out of 10.

Something that really interested me when recently replaying the game is Red Faction‘s portrayal of the more morally-grey aspects of violent revolutions.

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There are countless horrific acts committed in periods of revolt, and whether they can be justified as necessary is subjective and dependent on context. But it’s not until recent years that we’ve really seen a mainstream acknowledgement of these acts that recognizes their necessity. Go back a decade, and even films like the 2005 adaptation of V for Vendetta trimmed out a lot of the ethical ambiguity present in the original graphic novel. These portrayals were glorified, and often if they weren’t, then they were condemned.

This makes Red Faction: Guerrilla’s depictions of these darker revolutionary elements quite significant: the game was released eight years ago now, when video games as a medium didn’t explore this concept to any great length. Red Faction by no means contains missions that are outright horrific, but a lot of what you carry out in the shoes of Alec Mason would often be considered acts of terrorism if translated into the real world.

Demolishing bridges, bombing town halls, aiding in the torture of enemy generals; these are all duties you must perform to further the cause of the Red Faction, and are all commonly-accepted acts of terror by major world powers, an aspect also reflected in anti-Red Faction news broadcasts heard throughout the game. But Red Faction: Guerrilla depicts these acts as ultimately necessary in the quest for liberation.

And quite rightly: countless times in world history, we’ve seen violent and disruptive actions carried out by revolutionary groups as a means of furthering their goals, and regardless of the public perceptions of these groups at the times of their operation, it’s generally accepted in an historical context that, often, they were ultimately successful in their intent: militant groups like Umkhonto we Sizwe, a militant anti-apartheid movement led by Nelson Mandela, who bombed South African infrastructure as a means of targeting the government, and the Cuban Revolutionaries, who engaged in guerrilla warfare to bring down the brutal regime of dictator Fulgenico Batista.

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In an age where many non-peaceful, disruptive movements are met with cries and insistences that violence should never be an option and that nothing will be achieved by employing such techniques, it’s important for people to be reminded that sometimes, even as a last resort, acts of violence have brought about massive social change. And a great way to remind us all of that is through such portrayals in the media we consume.

Red Faction: Guerrilla presenting this perspective at the time that it did was a surprisingly bold move for such an otherwise average game. And it’s part of why I have such a fond appreciation for it: that and its soviet propaganda-inspired UI design and the fact that I can destroy an entire tower block with nothing but a bloody hammer.

Violence can be devastating, and I’m not voicing apologism for all brutally violent organisations, nor am I condoning or encouraging crimes like murder. I do feel, however, that it’s important to recognise that in certain contexts, and in specific situations, many acts of violence have formed the basis of a lot of society’s progressions, and will go on to do so, and it’s important to know that sometimes, it might be the only effective option.