On the Portrayal of Russia and its People in Video Games
This piece was written to be my final analytical paper for SLL330: Russian Thought and Civilization at the University of Southern California.
Every story needs a hero and a villain, and stories in video games are no different. For every good guy, there must be a bad guy; and for every evil-doer, there must be a do-gooder to save the day. This can be an issue for stories grounded in reality, as each character or faction must have a believable backstory, an important part of which is often nationality – while everyone loves a cool character of their nationality, problems pop up when writing in less favorable characters. A lot of it is unfortunately political – for example, although nobody has a problem with Nazis or zombies being depicted as the enemy in video games, depicting the Chinese, Cubans, North Koreans, or any Middle Easterners as the antagonists has proven to be a sensitive issue, with the respective nations crying foul about such portrayals or, in the case of Middle Eastern states, developers avoiding the issue altogether by omitting specific country references, á la 24.
Russia seems less sensitive about the way it is portrayed in video games than most countries, with little to no real feedback to be seen about either the positive depictions or the less favorable ones; and this callousness is wonderful given the wide variety of ways Russians are portrayed in games. Although every game provides a different take on Russia and its people, upon analysis, it becomes clear that of all these depictions can ultimately be broken down into some combination of the following basic types:
- The Hero: The player character/faction is Russian.
- The Villain: The enemies in the game are Russian.
- The Ally: The player character/faction is allied to or otherwise collaborating with a Russian character/faction.
- The Stereotype: Russian characters in the game are heavily stereotyped, oft-complete with heavy accent and love for vodka.
None of these categorizations are mutually exclusive, and a game can totally have a Russian as a heavily stereotyped manifestation and a hero, villain, or ally; or, given a significantly large cast, any combination of the above. In some cases, the depiction “type” even evolves and shifts over the history of the series or franchise.
The hero depiction type is very common, especially so in World War II games – this is reflective of Russia’s critical role in securing victory for the Allies on the Eastern front during the war. For example, the game Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45 (Tripwire/Valve (Steam) 2006) and its sequel Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad (Tripwire/Tripwire 2011) focus entirely on the Soviet campaign on the Eastern front, with the series being renown for its particular focus on realism and historic accuracy in environmental design and gameplay.
But by far the most notable video game property displaying the hero depiction type is the Call of Duty franchise. In the very first Call of Duty (Infinity Ward/Activision 2003), players step into the shoes of Corporal Alexei Ivanovich Voronin of the Soviet army for the Russian campaign. The Russian campaign opens up with what many consider one of the most epic sequences in first person shooter history as the Soviet army crosses the Volga River during the Battle of Stalingrad – a clear homage to Enemy at the Gates. The player finds himself on one of the numerous barges carrying the soldiers across the river, many of which are being taken out by German aircraft and artillery, and the men are cowering as their commanding officer gives one last speech. When one of the soldiers tries to jump overboard and swim away, the officer has the deserter shot. The player finds himself unarmed once the barge lands and must make his way through the battle – it’s quite an exhilarating sequence, one that has made its mark in video game history. What’s very cool are all the historical tidbits players can pick up from the early Call of Duty games – for example, one of the key battle sequences in the first Call of Duty‘s Russian campaign takes place at Pavlov’s House during the Battle of Stalingrad. The player is placed under the command of Pavlov himself and assists in the capture and defense of the house.
Gameplay footage of the Pavlov’s House sequence from the original Call of Duty. The player receives orders directly from Sergeant Pavlov.
The Russian campaign continues to be a big part of Call of Duty‘s single player while the series is set in World War II. From stepping into the shoes of Private Vasili Koslov and fighting in the Red Army’s Stalingrad offensive in Call of Duty 2 (Activision/Infinity Ward 2005) to working together with marksman Sergeant Viktor Reznov (voiced by Gary Oldman) to assassinate a German general as Private Dimitri Petrenko in Call of Duty: World at War (Treyarch/Activision 2009), the Russian campaigns and the players experiences on the Ostfront hold some of the most memorable moments of the early Call of Duty games.
But Call of Duty is also a very good example of a series whose depiction of Russians has shifted over time. Indeed, the series’s portrayal of Russia and Russians changes drastically once the series shifts setting to present day, doing a complete turnaround from the hero depiction type to the villainous. Gone is the epic heroism of Stalin’s Red Army, and in its place is the radical ultranationalism of Imran Zakhaev and Vladimir Makarov. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward/Activision 2007), Imran Zakhaev is the leader of the Ultranationalist Party and mastermind behind a devious scheme to bring Russia back to its former glory while distracting the world by funding a coup d’etat in the Middle East. When he launches nuclear missiles against the US, the missiles are aborted just in time and Zakhaev is killed by the SAS.
The controversial mission “No Russian” from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In this mission, the player engages in the killing of civilians at a Russian airport as a CIA operative; but your cover is revealed to have been blown at the end of the mission, and the Russians kill you and use your involvement in the mission to frame the whole incident on the CIA and launch an invasion on the US.
However, his right-hand man, Makarov, continues the Ultranationalist revolution in Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward/Activision 2009), seizing control of Russia and declaring Zakhaev a martyr for their cause. He leads a massacre of civilians at the fictional Zakhaev International Airport in Moscow, knowing that one of his men is actually a CIA operative. Makarov kills the CIA operative and uses his body to claim that the massacre was a terrorist attack by the United States; Russia then launches an all out invasion of the US in retaliation. The invasion is repelled, but Makarov’s efforts continue in Modern Warfare 3 (Infinity Ward/Activision 2011) as he kidnaps the Russian president and launches a full-scale invasion of Europe.
Another major franchise featuring significant Russian characters in the narrative is Electronic Arts’s Command & Conquer: Red Alert series. The series takes place in an alternate reality where Einstein’s time travel experiments in 1946 allowed him to travel back in time and talk to a young Hitler, an event that indirectly stops the would-be fascist from starting the Nazi Germany regime. Without Nazi Germany to oppose them, Stalin’s Soviet Russia rises to power and begins an invasion of China and Eastern European nations. In response to this, European nations form the Alliance, and the Allies and the Soviets fight for control of Europe – this revised World War II makes up the story of the first Red Alert (Westwood/Virgin Interactive 1995). The canonical ending to Red Alert - the one at the end of the Allied campaign – leaves Stalin dead and Russia in civil unrest. In Red Alert 2 (Westwood/EA 2000), the Allies name a distant descendant of Nicholas II, Alexander Romanov, as Premier, but he quickly turns on the Allies and launches an full-scale invasion of the United States.
Although the player gets to play as both the Allies and the Soviets in Red Alert and Red Alert 2, it is clear from the direction and tone that the Allies are meant to be seen as the “good guys” and the Soviets as the villains in the overarching world narrative. Stylistically, Red Alert is known for its embrace of the cheesy B-movie aesthetic and over-the-top characters and dialogue, which manifests itself partly in the form of very exaggerated Russian characters with corny, “typical villain” accents – and as such, Red Alert is a perfect example of where two depiction types, villain and stereotype, overlap.
Soviet live-action cutscene footage from Red Alert 3, establishing the narrative of the game.
But Red Alert, like Call of Duty, is also a series whose depiction of Russians changes later on in its history. In Red Alert 3 (EALA/EA 2008), two Russian generals travel back in time and eliminate Einstein in 1927 in a desperate attempt to weaken the Allied forces in their own time. However, this action results in a newly created timeline where the Empire of the Rising Sun – Japan – wages war against both the Soviets and the Allies. Faced with this common enemy, the Soviets and Allies form a temporary alliance to defeat the forces of the Empire in the Allied campaign – the level of stereotyping stays constant, but for this brief sequence in Red Alert 3, the Russians are stereotype and ally rather than stereotype and villain.
What’s also interesting about the way this third installment handles its portrayal of the Soviet faction is that while the Red Alert series has always had zero qualms about playing off stereotypes about Russia since its inception, Red Alert 3 of the series takes it to another interesting level – the stereotype-play is embedded in lyrics in the soundtrack.
“Soviet March” from the Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 soundtrack (music composed by James Hannigan).
The “Soviet March” in Red Alert 3 has a very stereotypical Russian sound, with driving low brass and cymbal hits accompanying a highly “typical” sounding male choir. However, upon examination of the lyrics, EALA’s willingness to play off cultural stereotypes in Red Alert delves into another level. The lyrics are as follows (accompanied by rough translation):
Наш Советский Союз покоряет | Our Soviet Union subjugates
Весь мир от Европы к Неве на восто-ок | The whole world from Europe through Neva to the East
Над землёй везде будут петь: | On the earth, everyone will sing:
Столица, водка, Советский медведь наш! | Capital! Vodka! And our Soviet bear!
Все народы, не стоит того | All nations have come to see
Что мы все воплотили на свет,| That we are the embodiment of light
Благодарный низкий поклон | A profound thanks and deep bow
От са-мой мо-гу-щес-твенной в мире! | From the mightiest nation in all the world!
(x2, followed by two repeats of first stanza)
(Lyrics provided by LyricWiki; translation courtesy of Aviv Cukierman, MIT ’14 and Walex Khmurets, William & Mary ’13)
The lyrics of the “Soviet March” play off the classic association between Russians and vodka as well as the symbolic link between Russia and the bear. In addition, a “Russia vs. the West” attitude is very prevalent here in the first stanza. Combined with the musical style, this makes for a multi-layered, if somewhat overdone and exaggerated, stereotypical musical portrayal.
The Grand Theft Auto series is another series known for its willingness to play off cultural stereotypes to establish and enhance its urban environments (it has taken flak for this in the past), and stereotypical Russian characters have played a role in the lives of the protagonists in two of its most recent installments, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar North/Rockstar 2004) and Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar North/Rockstar 2008). While relatively minor figures in San Andreas, the Russian Mafia is one of the most influential criminal organizations in Liberty City, the setting of Grand Theft Auto IV. When Niko Bellic, the Serbian protagonist, first arrives in Liberty City at the beginning of the game, it is through his cousin’s associates Vlad Glebov, Dimitri Rascalov, and Kenny Petrovic (the “avtoriet”/авторитет) of the local Russian Mafia/Bratva (Братва) that Niko is able to secure his criminal living.
The most interesting aspect about the way Grand Theft Auto IV handles its Russian characters is the fact that, due to its deeper narrative compared to more purely action-oriented games like Call of Duty, the player’s relationships with the characters are more intricate and personal, there is more drama, and characters switch between stereotypical ally and stereotypical villain fairly regularly. For example, Niko is forced to kill Vlad, his very first source of jobs in Liberty City, when he finds out that the Russian loan shark slept with his cousin’s girlfriend; Dimitri, one of Niko’s first allies in the Bratva, ends up betraying him to the very former employer that he left Serbia to avoid.
While games that depict Russians as heroes, villains, or manifestations of ethnic stereotypes do make up the majority, there are a handful of games that depict Russia and Russians as constant allies and collaborators. Team Rainbow of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six universe is a multinational counter-terrorist organization operated by the United Nations, and two of the operatives on the team in Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield (Red Storm/Ubisoft 2003) are Russian, as indicated by the flag accompanying their portraits: Arkadi Novikov joins the team after some bad experiences in the enforcement arm of the KGB, and Genedy Filatov signs up with Rainbow after several years in Spetsgruppa A, a Russian counter-terrorist group.
There is also the unique case of the Civilization games, in which Russians can basically be whatever you make of them. Players choose a country to develop from the dawn of time to the future age, and Russia is one of the countries that the player can choose to play as. Catherine the Great is the leader for Russia, their unique unit is the Cossack (stronger than normal Cavalry), their unique building the Krepost (experience boost to units created in Kreposts), and their faction bonus a boost to production speed and increased horse, iron, and uranium resources – the best part is that these formal gameplay elements actually make natural sense historically and dramatically. If the player chooses to play as Russia, this decision leans the country toward the hero depiction. Should he choose to play as another country, Catherine and her Russia may be in the match as one of other countries, in which case the player can choose to make Russia his ally or decide to make it the antagonist and wage war against it.
The story trailer for Freedom Fighters. Soviet Russia has won the Cold War, and players take the role of Chris Stone, a plumber who joins the resistance when New York City is invaded by the Soviets.
Despite the differences among the hero, villain, ally, and stereotype depiction types, there is a major common theme tying many of them together – Russia is constantly battling the West. With the demise of World War II games, the games industry has been in search of a villain, and developers seem to have landed on Russia as their antagonist of choice. Early games of the 90s, such as Red Alert, first started this trend by depicting a Russia vs. Europe mentality. However, games developed closer to and into the 2000s, including the sequels to Red Alert and the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series, shift this to a Russia vs. the United States approach, with depictions of full-on Red Dawn style Russian invasions of Washington D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles becoming more and more common in games like Freedom Fighters (IO Interactive/EA 2003), Tom Clancy’s EndWar (Ubisoft Shanghai/Ubisoft 2009), and World in Conflict (Massive/Sierra 2007). This is partly reflective of the need to satisfy a hungry and ever-growing American video game market, but it also speaks to growing tensions between the current Russian regime and the United States and American fears of an invasion on the homefront – something that has yet to occur in the USA’s short history.
But what’s important and interesting to note is that even with World War II games, Russia is still fighting a battle against the West (Nazi Germany and Italy), and we know from history that its shaky alliances with some members of the West (the US and its allies) shift to hostilities as soon as the war is over. Russia is kept largely separate from the conflicts in the Western theatre and essentially fights its own war on its own front – this is usually emphasized in games visually through harsh, often snowy landscapes that are a stark contrast to the ruined urban environments of Europe and the dry desert environments of Africa.
Zakhaev’s speech to the West in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Russian ultranationalism is also becoming a very prominent theme in recent action games. It was really thrown into the spotlight by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and continued to be a significant part of the Modern Warfare series afterwards. Zakhaev and later Makarov are hellbent on eradicating their Western enemies and returning Russia to the glory days of the mighty Soviet Union. Zakhaev in particular ends up with a personal stake in the conflict when his son commits suicide after being cornered by SAS operatives. And when Zakhaev himself is killed at the end of Modern Warfare, the theme of sacrifice comes into play, as the Ultranationalist party declares Zakhaev a martyr and takes over the Russian government.
The intro cinematic to the Playstation 2 port of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon.
The live-action trailer for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. The Ghosts assassinate an ultranationalist leader who is responsible for the suppression of civilian resistance.
One of the first franchises to touch on the topic of Russian ultranationalism also seems set to return to it very soon. The original Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon (Red Storm/Ubisoft 2001) is set in a fictional 2008 where a Russian ultranationalist sect abruptly rises to power and launches invasions of several former Soviet states, and the player takes control of a team of special ops soldiers called “Ghosts” to defuse the situation; and based on trailer footage, the series seems set to address the topic again with the upcoming June release of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (Ubisoft/Ubisoft 2012).
And finally, a theme that is becoming increasingly common among games of the late 2000s and early 2010s is a post-apocalyptic setting in Russia or one of the former Soviet republics – in a way, it’s a very modern take on the “end of the world” themes explored by writers such as Bunin (The Gentleman from San Francisco). The idea was explored in-depth initially by STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl (GSC Game World/THQ 2007), which is set in area called “The Zone”. In the world of STALKER, the Chernobyl incident is followed by attempts to repopulate the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, but a second incident kills or mutates most of its inhabitants. The player takes the role of a Stalker, a name given to the many scavengers and looters who traverse the Zone in search for treasures and loot. The concept of the Zone and Stalkers is further explored in STALKER’s followup games, STALKER: Clear Sky (GSC Game World/GSC World Publishing 2008) and STALKER: Call of Pripyat (GSC Game World/GSC World Publishing 2010).
Launch trailer for Metro 2033.
The concept of a post-apocalyptic Russia is most recently explored in the game Metro 2033 (4A Games/THQ 2010). Based on the novel of the same name, the player takes the role of Artyom (Артём), who lives in a post-apocalyptic Moscow destroyed in an unspecified nuclear war. The harsh surface conditions caused by the nuclear war force human survivors to live belowground in the Metro systems most of the time, and the player as Artyom must manage his scarce resources carefully as fights against Communists and neo-Nazis and attempts to solve the mystery of the strange creatures called the “Dark Ones.”
Very few countries and nationalities are portrayed in such a wide variety of ways and to such depth as Russia and its people are in video games. Russia’s current callous attitude when it comes to video game portrayals allows developers a completely clean, unrestricted slate in terms of how to portray characters of Russian nationality. And yet, at the same time, many of these depiction play into stereotypes and pop culture awareness in such a way that never seems completely out of touch with reality. It will be interesting to see how Russia’s reaction to the way it is portrayed in video games changes as the political climate between it and the US changes and video games become an even more widespread artistic medium.
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