Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
For the last month the tech community in the US has been intersecting with politics over the debate of smartphone encryption. The story goes like this: The Federal Bureau of Investigation has an iPhone that belonged to the perpetrators of a terrorist attack that took place in December in San Bernardino, Calif. Investigators want to know what’s on it. They want iPhone creator Apple to crack open the device’s data encryption so they can find out. Apple, for its part, says giving the FBI access through its encryption will allow the government access to everybody’s iPhones, and that it’ll allow for a massive breach in privacy.
Technology, privacy, surveillance and government are often in the same slippery slope Venn diagram, and before long it becomes easy to dream up spooky opportunities for people in power to abuse tech in ways most people might not even imagine. And then there are those times when we don’t have to imagine what the government might be doing, like when whistleblower Edward Snowden shared thousands of classified documents that told the story of the US spying on its own people.
Science fiction stories often take elements of the real world and project them forward, or spin them off into worst-case scenarios, to explore issues we’re already dealing with. In developer Camouflaj’s game Republique, the surveillance state Snowden feared is taken to its intense, just-shy-of-ridiculous extreme. But that surveillance state is also what makes Camouflaj’s particular take on the stealth genre possible.
EYE IN THE SKY
Hope wants out. She’s trapped in a tiny, fascist nation that controls everything about her life. A student in a strange academy in an unknown location, she manages to contact you, the player, through—somewhat ironically—a hacked smartphone. She needs help escaping this place, and you’re the person who picked up.
That’s the focus of Republique. Your job is to help Hope sneak around and avoid confrontations she can’t win. Guards patrol the grounds, but you have an advantage over them: you can hack into the cameras, allowing you to see every angle, plan every step, and anticipate every movement.
“Metamorphosis,” which is the name of the academy, its surrounding facility, and the tiny nation that comprises them, is covered down to the inch by surveillance cameras. The place’s incredible strength in using technology as a means of control is also its great weakness. As you play Republique’s PC and mobile versions, you don’t actually control Hope—you just tell her where to go. What you control is what you see: which cameras you’re using, and what they’re focused on.
You see every angle: the hallway up ahead; the other half of the room out of Hope’s vantage; what’s waiting around the next corner. The result is a game that demonstrates the power of the surveillance state by giving you full control over its weapons in order to subvert them.
There are various narrative elements to discover, like audio records of the academy’s headmaster and the nation’s supreme leader and tidbits from an escaped revolutionary as he tries to undermine the government’s control over its people. But nothing is as effective in getting Republique’s message across as the simple elegance of that subversion. Nothing quite gets across the game’s underlying message about freedom easily lost to technology than actually using that technology to spy on, deceive, and ruin people.
OBSERVER AND PARTICIPANT
When Republique started out, it was what might be considered a high-end mobile game, made to be played on smartphones and tablets. Since its start as a successful Kickstarter campaign back in April of 2012, the game has expanded. This month, it finally lands on Playstation 4—with an interesting compromise on the original vision.
Designer Paul Alexander demonstrated the differences between the PS4 and the PC and mobile versions of the game earlier this month in Los Angeles. The striking new addition on PS4 comes down to how the game is played: you control Hope directly as she sneaks around instead of simply controlling the cameras and giving her directions.
That change is significant because so much of how Republique is played contributes to the feeling and themes it’s trying to convey. The voyeuristic nature of the game, being an outsider looking in, is essential to what Republique is. Taking direct control of Hope changes the dynamic. You’re no longer a separate person, aiding Hope through surveillance. To some degree, you’re her.
“It was a huge, huge battle line in the studio for a little bit,” Alexander said. “There were a lot of us who felt like, ‘no, we need to stay true to the vision of, like, there’s a layer of separation between you and the player—’ I was one of those people at first. I went to video game design school, I like critical thinking about art, and ‘when you’re doing this, what does it mean’—that’s my home base. But when it came to the practical reality of sitting down and holding a controller, you want to move the character around.”
The Playstation version of Republique—the third iteration since it was Kickstarted—is probably the most “gamey” of them all. It packs downloadable costumes for Hope that give her special abilities, like blending in with guards or “speed running” through the game as quickly as possible. And its control scheme brings a more traditional feel to the game. Camouflaj has dealt with the requirements of making a good-feeling game and of trying to present a particular experience by creating a new presentation for Republique on PS4. Players take on two roles: they are Hope and control her directly, but they’re also that separate observer, navigating cameras and hacking objects.
Where the mobile and PC versions are somewhat more casual and easy to play because of their simple controls, the challenge of adapting to a controller changes what Republique puts the player through. You’re not just manipulating the system; to some degree, you’re also a victim of it.
It’s clear that when Camouflaj set out to make Republique its creators had all these real-life issues in mind. Almost four years later, the country is knee-deep in a presidential race and the debate is swirling over smartphone encryption—the technology/privacy issue du jour. Some elements of Republique seem more all too realistic. But then, that was kind of the point.
“Trying to tackle it head-on, that was the impetus for the entire game,” Alexander said. “That’s the impetus for any games that come out of Camouflaj—the desire to make games that aren’t just ‘shooty shooty kill bad guys.’ Our game’s not violent, there’s nothing particularly titillating or bloody about our game, but we did want to do some interesting things narratively and push some boundaries that way. And I think developers should be empowered to do so.”
Republique’s final episode comes out PC and mobile, and the entire game releases on Playstation 4, on March 22.
Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer and the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory. He was hoping the latter would help him get Han Solo hair, but so far he’s been unsuccessful. He lives with his wife and annoying cats in Los Angeles.
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