Dambuster Studios’ Homefront: The Revolution isn’t a great video game. It’s meant to be a thrilling look at a near future America rebelling against foreign occupation, something like an interactive version of John Milius’s 1984 Cold War paranoia flick Red Dawn. Instead it’s bad oatmeal: a bland and lumpy rehashing of classic American invasion fears. The neighborhoods of its North Korean-controlled Philadelphia are filled with enemies who endlessly jog into walls, hundreds of repetitive objectives to complete, and underground resistance members who talk about revolution with the naïve passion of a 14-year-old who just heard their first Rage Against the Machine album.
But even a bad video game can still have a lot to say about the culture in which it was developed and released. The Revolution, despite its weak storyline and lukewarm gameplay, manages to sum up quite a bit about the nation it portrays. And its depiction of America is, consciously or not, pretty frightening.
Developed by the British Dambuster studio, Homefront: The Revolution is a reimagination/reboot of American developer KAOS Studios’ 2011 Homefront. It retains the same premise—an implausibly unified Korea launches a successful invasion of the United States in the 2020s. The population soon finds itself living under the occupation of a foreign power. It’s only the underground cells of American revolutionaries who fight back, orchestrating a guerrilla campaign to retake their nation.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the concept of outmatched Americans empowered to strike back against a larger “occupying” force is central to the country’s national identity. The United States’ creation story is based on the determination of a people to assert independence against foreign control. The revolutionaries that founded the nation were also fighting seemingly impossible odds when working to split from Great Britain. Finding excuses to repeat this scenario in entertainment bolsters the confidence of a people who, concerned with their place in the world, take comfort in revisiting the American revolutionary spirit.
The Revolution is hardly unique in exploring this premise. John Milius’ 1984 cult film Red Dawn, released in the final years of the Cold War, also featured a premise meant to give fearful Americans nightmares. In it, a coalition of Soviet and Cuban forces sweep across the American mainland, their attempts to completely occupy the nation only stopped by the efforts of a group of armed highschoolers who call themselves “Wolverines.” At the time of its release, Red Dawn was a misguided but understandable take on American patriotism. It probably wasn’t helpful to inflame Cold War tensions during a historical period when the Soviet Union, then lead by reformist Mikhail Gorbachev, was actively lowering the Iron Curtain. But the fact that the USSR still existed—and that Americans still considered it a threat—at least somewhat justified Red Dawn’s existence.
It may be cathartic, but it’s not constructive.
2009’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a bit stranger. Decades after the end of the Cold War, developer Infinity Ward introduced a plotline where Russian nationalist hardliners launch a full-scale invasion of the US. The player, a Marine sent to halt their advance, fights through suburban backyards and strip malls overrun by foreign soldiers. The game ends, of course, with the under-equipped, outmatched Marines re-taking the White House against all odds.
Red Dawn looked back to the American Revolution as a way to ease Cold War fears—that defiant American highschoolers could beat back the Soviet army. So why not groups of determined U.S. soldiers decades later in Modern Warfare 2 and enraged civilians in Homefront? If America couldn’t control the outcome of the foreign wars it was mired in—if players couldn’t feel like their country was victorious in real life—it could at least imagine dramatic scenarios in which its people handily fought off any threat to their own land.
The combination of modern invasion fears and homespun revolution is a quintessentially American solution to an international problem. The upstart Continental Army and ragtag militias who overthrew the British Empire are the building blocks of an entire national identity. Mythologize their tenacity for long enough and it becomes natural for Americans, unsure of their ability to fight back the hazily defined enemies of the 21st century, to reassure themselves by reimagining the successes of the late 1700s.
Homefront: The Revolution, like Red Dawn, Modern Warfare 2, and the first Homefront, is only the latest in this kind of story. It once again finds a reason to imagine an America besieged by, but ultimately able to overcome, a foreign power. As players guide new revolutionary recruit Ethan Brady through hit-and-run attacks on Korean bases and soldiers, they enact a stripped-down version of the American myth—one that doesn’t help anyone in the real world.
THE WRONG WAY FORWARD
There’s never any shortage of issues for a country to worry about. Modern Americans are right to question what good (or, y’know, bad) the country’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq accomplished. They’re right to think about their future, in light of a recent economic crash whose root causes haven’t been properly dealt with. It’s also fair for the people of any country—especially one built on the idea that it’s somehow exceptional—to be concerned that they may be losing the enormous power they’ve held for the last century.
But externalizing these worries through the kind of fantasy Homefront: The Revolution provides is the wrong way forward. Shooting fictional invaders (modelled on a real nation) might be a fun distraction, but it’s not going to help American audiences understand more about their nation and its place in the world. It may be cathartic, but it’s not constructive.
As the current U.S. presidential elections show, fear of the world outside its borders is an easily tapped American concern. The surprising success of leading Republican presidential candidate/talking Cheeto Donald Trump is a worrying example of this. His short-sighted, racist rhetoric represents the scary endpoint of buying too fully into the myth of an America forever under siege.
Homefront: The Revolution is just a video game, sure, but it’s also a form of entertainment that justifies the worst tendencies of the culture it portrays. It’s better to let this revolution fizzle out on its own than to join its cause.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.
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