Often trying to critique games from a leftist perspective means one of two things: either you’re breaking down why a storyline is effectively cheering for jingoism/capitalism/toxic masculinity ect, or you’re using some interpretive leeway to get a constructive pro-socialist message. So I felt blasted with collectivist fury when Warframe’s newest expansion, Fortuna, starts right off with a story of workers unionizing against their boss and the company shareholders. Then it struck me, why don’t more videogames have unionization stories? They’re perfect for games, so perfect that plenty of games use the same general plot movements and themes but never directly confront the idea.
[Note here: I’m not going to get into Warframe’s overall story, it’s a notoriously obtuse game and I feel my knowledge is lacking] Warframe’s approach is direct, to the point of even being slightly corny. The expansion kicks off with a song (a real fucking bop at that), a chain gang chorus hums and sings to the beat of hammers hitting steel. The song tells of an unforgiving climate, hard work, dreams of the future, and love of family, while also grimly alluding to debt, slavery, and death. The song ends in a crescendo:
“And we all lift!
And we’re all adrift
Through the cold mist
Till we’re lifeless
It’s powerful and humbling, as well as fatalistic. Visually the workers, themselves industrialized with tools for appendages and even faces, hammer away in a metal complex holding out the cold. The title comes on screen at the end of the song: Fortuna: Solaris Debt-Internment Colony. You quickly learn that the workers, trapped in a cycle of debt, modify their bodies in order to do the work that is demanded of them. If their productivity falters, repo-men are sent to collect their limbs or organs. There actually was a union, Solaris United, at one point but an incident involving the murder of striking workers broke its back. The boss is Nef, a cartoonish looking intergalactic merchant whose face appears on giant monitors as you enter the colony. He proclaims, on repeat: “I was once like you, poor, indebted, lazy. But the void spoke to me, and it said ‘work harder’…” You try to help out a scrappy scrap seller named Thursby who inherited his parents debt upon their deaths. He has too much debt to be sold the body modifications he would need to get paying work so he scrapes by on the sidelines. Your good intentioned meddling goes awry and Thursby is repo’d to death. At first you’re chastised by Eudico, a community leader, for making trouble. The events set in motion by Thursby’s death lead to you and Eudico trying desperately to appease Nef, who makes risky decisions for profit and takes the loss out of the workers’ lives and livelihoods when they fail. He demands that Eudico select the 50 most “inefficient” workers to be repo’d, adding that the body mods will be given to the 50 most “efficient” workers. It’s a body horror carrot and stick tactic, and the catalyst for Eudico to forgo appeasement and return to solidarity. The storyline concludes, once you’ve killed dozens of robotic Pinkertons, with the workers making clear their right to the product of their labor. Nef is still in the picture, but his nose is bloodied in front of his investors and he concedes. There is still an imbalance, still the structure of capitalism surrounds them, but Solaris United has won their autonomy.
In a way, it’s a very generic videogame plot. The outsider protagonist stumbles into an oppressive situation and sides with the underdog, helping them win the day. But in telling a story that realistically depicts the actions of capital and the effects of solidarity, Warframe diverges in some important ways. It’s easier to explain in terms of what other games are missing. In most underdog storylines, there isn’t much ideology ascribed to either side. Some good vs evil pablum and a whole lot of stylistic signifiers is all that’s needed to explain why the protagonist of a Far Cry game is slowly conquering the map. But in painting the bad guys as, well… bad, these narratives tend to pick up some of the language of class struggle. In addition to being sadistic mustache twirlers, the villeins have a tendency to be rich, aristocratic, bosses or middle management, landowners, and slumlords.
The best examples of games that use the markers of class consciousness while the text has none are the nature v industry type stories. Salt of the earth, carefree and hardworking peoples who live in nature (sometimes literally animals) need to overcome mechanized, pollution spewing, slave collecting enemies lead by a singular monster. Sonic and Dr Robotnik, Cloud Strife and Shinra/Sephiroth, Abe and RuptureFarms, etc… But these games don’t make any strong points about the real life inspirations they draw from, they just gesture at them while focusing on the good guys punching the bad guys. Even the focal environmentalism of these types of games is divorced from real world politics, where the fight is about the rich riding out the destruction of the earth while millions die up against the majority of humans collaborating to avert our doom. Instead the argument is about plants being nicer to look at than smokestacks.
There are a bunch of other ways that these storylines fudge the motivations and results of people rising up. Fallout 76 has a fairly large subplot about coal miners striking. It’s a series that is (or was) about sociopolitical criticism and the new game is set in West Virginia so it’s a perfect fit right? Except in Fallout 76 the strike, which eventually leads to violent rioting and many deaths, isn’t prompted by the miners demanding a right to the profit. Instead they’re being replaced by robots and, fair enough, that is also a part of the conversation but the storyline essentially has the unions wanting their jobs back and that’s it. Oh and the company is poisoning the water supply with mutagens and there’s a psychotic CEO dabbling in the fusion of human and drill not seen since Tetsuo: The Iron Man, but you get the idea. Here’s something else that gets close: the Red Faction series, specifically the first one and Red Faction: Guerrilla. I remember playing the opening scene of Red Faction and watching security brutalizing a miner, the final straw. From that point on the revolution ripples out around you. But in the end you effectively run into the arms of the earthside government, who had been unaware that the mining corporation had done just a little too much worker exploitation. Guerrilla at least ends with the destruction of said government on mars, but doesn’t say much about what comes next.
So underdog games borrow the trappings of class struggle without the actual meat of the issue, and some of them even muddle and contradict the ideas they’re based on. The result is either games with no message or games that aren’t willing to stick to their convictions. Meanwhile, Warframe pops out this expansion with a relatively short introductory story that absolutely nails the visceral motivations and structures of its world. So why not more games about collectivism that actually depict the success of organized labor over capital? The storyline is perfect for video games, specifically bombastic power fantasies played out in AAA open world playgrounds. In clearly grappling with the issues you avoid the forgettable hamstrung ending, and create a story people can relate to directly. Why not? The reasons are the same general ones for why haven’t we gotten the guillotine back up and running yet, but I think there’s an untapped potential (a market even, oh my!) for games that engage directly with the idea that worker collectivism is the way forward. Start small and personal, slowly conquer the map, face greater challenges as the powers that be recognize your threat to their wretched existence, and unite the game’s world in proletariat solidarity. It’s a power fantasy where you get rid of the bosses, instead of becoming them.