Homefront: The Revolution‘s Philadelphia Rings Hollow

Games Features Philadelphia
Homefront: The Revolution‘s Philadelphia Rings Hollow

Homefront: The Revolution tried hard at a lot of things when it chose to use a future Philadelphia as the place where “ordinary people” start a revolution against an invading and occupying North Korea. Audiences might at least expect the developers of Homefront to have chosen the birthplace of the United States as more than a shallow symbol in a scenario of new-age Orientalism. Philadelphia has and always will be a battleground for the ideas and beliefs Americans continue to debate. But the city is more than just the locus of our founding father fantasies; Philadelphia has a complex but rich history of resistance to oppressive forces. Homefront manages to whitewash that history. This is sad enough, but the knife really twists in Philly’s back when you look at how Homefront’s narrative about revolution is driven by the same rhetoric and mindsets at the roots of Philly’s problems.

Next time you want to set a game in Philly without knowing Philly, I suggest – as we say in my hometown – that you back away from this jawn.
Philadelphia is, in fact, the site of plenty of resistance groups facing acts of terror by powerful state-based forces. The most infamous of these was the 1985 bombing of MOVE, a black liberation group. In response to a standoff with the police, the police dropped bombs on the MOVE house in West Philly, resulting in the destruction of 65 other houses in the neighborhood. In the game, North and West Philly are often the primary battlegrounds. But the battlegrounds pave over the complex conflict-zones that these neighborhoods already are. You don’t need the dystopian fantasy of bombed-out Philadelphia to find abandoned and decrepit buildings. These neighborhoods are already battlegrounds for the liberty of making a home and making a life in the face of gentrification, eminent domain, and a severe absence of city funding investment. Grassroots and community organizers do work daily to rise up against the structural racism at the root of these issues – the same structural racism at the root of Homefront’s primary narrative driver.

Instead of ringing like the crack in the Bell, the game rings with a “Make America Great Again,” faux-nostalgia for a Philadelphia that never was. It does this by exercising the most superficial version of the city and its history possible. Today’s Philadelphia is a primarily low-income city; its poverty creeps right up to its center city doorsteps. Though Philadelphia is a thoroughly multicultural city, the game’s Black or Latin@ characters are tokenized and/or killed off without any commentary on Philadelphia’s checkered past in relation to race (and game makes sure any Asian-looking faces are grouped in the enemy category, lest any nuance confuse their dystopia). Aside from being a continuation of discriminatory modes of representation, these characterizations specifically overlook the rich and often overlooked history of civil rights in Philadelphia. The game’s approach to using Philly as its setting for a resistance tale is embodied by the words of the soldier caricature Parrish in response to another character’s usage of the Trojan War as a model for a strategy: “history’s for people who can’t keep up.” Hey, there’s no time for discussing institutional discrimination and the dangers of a single story “history” when there’s an insurgency to be won! The consummate example of the game’s expertise in Missing The Point with this flawed version of an insurgent mindset came with the disturbing fate of the character Dana, whose implied sexual assault leads her to feel that her only recourse is to destroy herself. The game is tragically blind to the fact that minority groups who fought and continue to fight for liberation in Philadelphia were disenfranchised by the very flawed depictions and belligerent rhetoric championed in the game.

The game does make an attempt to construct a diorama of Philadelphia – the skyline mimics that of Philly’s pretty well: you can see One and Two Liberty Place, The Mellon Center, The Commerce Square buildings and the Comcast Center with its evil-headquarters aesthetic. It even sometimes makes some deeper Philly landscape cuts, but manages to twist those into some sad ironies. The subway car that provides a hideaway for your resistance cell is striking replication of the real thing. Parrish explains, “We’ve been down here for a few months now. This is all part of the Broad Street Subway extension that was mothballed back in ’21 when the city ran out of money. It’s not on any of the pre-war maps so the Norks don’t know about it.” Indeed, the real Philly subway is not usually a place you find tourists, but if the perfectly sinister KPA is capable of invading the US then surely they’ve a satellite or two to spy the resistance underground, right? The Philadelphia Navy Yard is one of the game’s few settings full of working-class sound and life, but today’s Navy Yard is a place you mainly go to shop at Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters. It is, as the Navy Yard’s website says, “creating workspaces for the future.” Perhaps this is off-handedly referenced by the newspaper headline on the Foreman’s desk that reads, “Fracking extends into Philadelphia,” showing off a different flavor of market-driven landscape alterations. The Mural Arts Project so iconic to Philadelphia is invoked by the occasional Banksy-esque wall art of little girls with gas masks, or an image of a uniformed soldier with the words painted “We are NOT a minority!!” Who is this confused graffiti referring to? The caricatured North Korean soldiers that overtake the city? The gasmask graffiti intended to invoke urban-ness? The actual minorities whitewashed by this game? Indeed, all of these make up the majority of the game’s Philly landscape.

I don’t think anyone was looking for a Philly Fanatic-like level of adoration for the city in the game. But all of its attempts at banging drama over the player’s head only result in it ringing hollow. That tokenized Liberty Bell is branded all over the Homefront landscape: the insides of the broken down walls are peppered with the insulation-specific brand of “Philly Skylinens” complete with the Bell icon; Philly’s iconic LOVE sculpture, an emblem of the social movements late 60s, is all-too-appropriately replaced by the xenophobic HOME sculpture, with the “O” in the shape of the Bell. Where’s the history we’re supposed to be fighting for? The fights for freedom filling the streets of Philadelphia don’t need to be made into the fantasy of the America that is to be great again, where – as Parrish bafflingly says at the end of the game when you’ve managed to merely take down a few of the KPA’s airships – “liberty is reborn.”

Molly Appel is a Ph.D candidate and a comparative over-thinker. You can find her on Twitter @mollyappel.

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