Broforce: Bad Politics and Worse Satire

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I wanted to like Broforce. That statement is equal parts disclaimer and grievance. The game is a Contra-style run ‘n’ gun with a twist: Its roster is (mostly) based off of action heroes from the 80s, like John Rambo, John McClane and B.A. Baracus. Sounds pretty cool—and a lot of people seem to think so, as the game has gained a lot of traction on Steam Early Access.

But Broforce’s confused politics lead me to worry about the final product. See, the action heroes in Broforce are banded together in an effort to fight terrorism and preserve the ‘Murican way of life. In the process, they slaughter foreigners by the thousands.

I like action movies, and I’m not sure how Broforce wants me to feel about that. It seems to suggest that I’m a fatheaded bro who lacks the capacity to consider American neocolonialism. And that may seem like a big word to drop into a game with playable characters like “Rambro” and “Brobocop;” but picture a game in which Indiana Jones—“Indianna Brones,” here—savagely beheads several misguided insurgents in an unspecified third world country. Seems pretty far off from his typical pastime of punching Nazis in the face.

Broforce’s description on Steam reads:

At the risk of sounding like a Fox News pundit: Am I the only one who’s worn out on anti-America shtick? And at the risk of sounding like a buzzkill: Am I also the only one who’s worn out on 1980s nostalgia? Both have become shortcuts for any developer with a dearth of ideas. Mock America to get an easy pass with the young liberal crowd, and claim affection for a beloved genre or time period to milk the “niche” nostalgic market. Whether or not you have anything to say doesn’t matter any more, so long as it’s tongue-in-cheek. With Broforce, FreeLives’ figurative tongue is so deep in there that gibberish is all they can muster.

On a purely mechanical level, Broforce is a good deal of fun—but I can’t help but feel unsettled with what the game encourages me do and expects me to laugh at. My father is a Cuban expatriate; I still have a handful of relatives living on an impoverished island. Here is a game that rewards me, with bonus points and colorful animations, for butchering little cartoon versions of people like my relatives. Early in my playthrough, I unlocked a new character; I hit the “grenade” button to try out his special ability. He promptly tossed a roasted chicken tied to a stick of dynamite. My enemies clamored around it, because they’re starving; when it detonated, their heads flew off like blood-filled bottle rockets. In a new trailer demonstrating gameplay updates, a square-jawed general with a cigar boasts: “Shoddy third-world construction is our ally! Bring it down and watch the bodies crumble!”

I try to get through the levels without killing any “terrorists,” but it’s nigh impossible, and the inclusion of boss battles means I have to kill them at one point or another anyway. And besides, the game gives me a higher score for killing as many of them as I can, in the most inventive ways I can dream up; at the end of every level, the game tallies up your score by lining up each enemy you killed in a little dialogue box, where their deaths are rapidly reenacted and your points are added up. FreeLives think they’re making a joke about America, but the victimized third world is the punchline.

Broforce started as a Ludum Dare submission named “Rambros,” which was a deathmatch between four identical Stallones. With the help of Kickstarter money, it grew into a “bro-op” action platformer—Contra by way of Fez, more or less—with the same satirical sensibility as any middle schooler who saw Team America: World Police back in ‘04. Everything explodes, and the BroForce logo features an eagle with beefy human arms taken from a Bowflex ad.

Or Broflex, I guess. How sick you are of bro puns by the end of this write-up should indicate whether or not this game is for you.

That FreeLives lauds the very genre it mocks isn’t an inherent problem. It’s entirely possible to satirize something you love. Edgar Wright did it three times. The trick is in skewering the failings of the subject while using its more positive aspects to support a humorous and optimistic purpose. Doing that effectively requires an extensive knowledge of the subject.

broforce screen 1.png

FreeLives are drawing from two vast subjects—80s action films, and the American military-industrial complex—and based on interviews and the game itself, it doesn’t seem as though they have the most nuanced understanding of either. In an interview with GameTrailers.com, FreeLives programmer Ruan Rothmann says that “Rambo never thought too deeply about where he went and, like, what he did—he was doing it for America.” It’s easy to get that impression of Rambo from old trailers if you’ve never seen the movies, but the story’s a bit more complex than that.

John Rambo is a Vietnam veteran with a case of post-traumatic stress disorder so severe that he can’t reintegrate with society. While tremendously stylized, First Blood tackles a very real subject: the United States’ failure to provide for the men and women it sends to the frontlines. In First Blood, Rambo fights cops who want to put him away for vagrancy; in First Blood II, he fights to rescue POWs in Vietnam who are undergoing the torture he once endured (and whom the US refuses to acknowledge); in First Blood III, he’s attempting to rescue an old war friend. The latter two are damn problematic and portray the slaughter of Vietnamese guerrillas and Afghans, but there’s very little patriotism to be found, if any, and the first movie makes that abundantly clear.

Rambo’s not the only one on Broforce’s roster to contradict the game’s satire. Let’s look at a few others: Brobocop, Snake Broskin (Snake Plisskin from Escape from New York) and Bro Hard (John McClane from Die Hard). Robocop is itself a biting satire of capitalism run amok in America; Escape from New York depicts New York City as crumbling under the watch of an incompetent police force; and Die Hard’s villains were, despite the heavy artillery, a group of white collar thieves. And for whatever reason—because it would be cool, I guess—”bro” versions of Judge Dredd, Blade and Ellen Ripley are in the game as well. Are FreeLives taking the piss out of bros, or geeks? Are they slyly implying that there’s no difference?

That would be giving them too much credit. In another interview with The Killer Bits, one team member says of indie developers: “Everybody always tries to hold back and have deep protagonists with emotional storylines and take themselves way too seriously. There’s so much emotion nowadays in games, especially indie games. ...I mean I love those games, but not every game has to be like that. Why not just have explosions and fun?”

Who exactly is he talking about here? Are we just mocking Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish again? Because to my knowledge, some of the most successful indie games have been pretty simple; Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, Minecraft, FTL, anything by Terry Cavanaugh—Goat Simulator, for Christ’s sake? The market has proven that indie games have plenty of room for both simplicity and more “emotional” games like Braid, Gone Home, et al. Broforce encourages gamers to be anti-intellectual when gaming has finally been accepted as a thoughtful medium. The result is a game with about as much wit as any installment of Call of Duty, but it gets a free pass because of its gloss of irony.

Broforce is what happens when indie devs become complacent. In trusting that players already know the joke, FreeLives neglected to finish writing it. Its proponents defend it on the grounds that it’s satire. But a true satire would do more than simply nudge its audience as if to say, “gee, ‘Murica, am I right?” The final version of Broforce will have to do a lot to justify what we can see of its content thus far. FreeLives have their work cut out for them; I hope for their sake they’ve spent more of their time rounding out the story more than on loading it withAlien fanservice.

When Vlambeer came under fire for Luftrausers’ use of WWII-influenced imagery, they issued a thoughtful response explaining their motives and artistic perspectives, and apologized for any offense players might have taken. But they made no bones about their earnest fascination with science fiction circa WWII, and their explanation made logical sense. Mercenary Kings bears many of the same influences as Broforce; but it’s unabashed in its affection for Contra and Metal Slug, and it’s all the better for its lack of ironic detachment.

But for now, Broforce comes off like that one insecure kid in elementary school who tries to be funny by insulting every other kid on the playground. I enjoy action movies because they were a pivotal bonding tool between me and my dad. Broforce wants to be my friend because of that, but it makes fun of me for it when other kids are watching. That kid’s fun to hang out with for a little while, but sooner or later everyone realizes he’s a jerk and leaves him behind. Broforce has logged about an hour in my Steam account, and I think I’m going to leave it at that.

Nicholas Milanes is a contributor to Paste and Kill Screen.

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