It’s not just Helldivers 2 – plenty of games owe a lot to the films of Paul Verhoeven

By admin May20,2024

Remember when Control came out and your mate Terry appeared out of nowhere to rant endlessly about how they’ve always loved brutalist architecture? Come on, Terry. No you haven’t. You spend weekends eating custard creams and watching Bake Off. You haven’t thought about brutalism since undergrad, be honest. Anyway, my version of that is Starship Troopers. As in, I’ve been waiting for a videogamey excuse to bang on about it in public for ages. Helldivers 2 is obviously as good an excuse as any, but really, I needn’t have waited so long. Official offerings like strategy game Starship Troopers: Terran Command and FPS Robocop: Rogue City aside, I reckon you can find Paul Verhoeven’s fingerprints all over games.

Verhoeven grew up in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation during World War II, undoubtedly providing the Dutch director with formative experience of the extremes of authoritarianism. His films that most explicitly deal with these themes are as much about satirising the nature of popular cinema itself, though. They were incisive then, and look downright prophetic in an era where the most inoffensively trite popcorn cinema basks in uncritical glorification of the US war machine, but that’s “not inserting politics” for you. Watching it now, it’s hard to ascribe any subtlety to things like Starship Troopers’ characters’ disgust at the idea their eterna-war enemy might be sentient (Brain? Bugs? Frankly, I find the idea of a bug that thinks offensive!) But Verhoeven’s knack for making what were, first and foremost, extremely fun and quotable action films that follow all the romantic conventions of their target propaganda famously left people unsure if what they were watching was playing it straight.

And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t mainly enjoy ‘Troopers for exactly the same reasons. Like, Bob Dylan wrote some great protest songs but Masters Of War has an incredibly dull melody, so I always just skip it. There’s probably something to be said about the effectiveness of such satire – “Every film about war ends up being pro-war,” said Francis Trufffaut – but I also believe it’s a fairly uncontroversial stance to say that the least effective satire is the satire nobody bothers to watch because it’s boring. (Also, I’m using Verhoeven’s name a lot here, mainly for recognisability, but Robocop and ‘Troopers screenwriter Edward Neumeier is obviously behind a lot of what’s good about these films.)

RoboCop chats to three other cops in RoboCop: Rogue City.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Nacon

This might sound more cynical than I mean it to but, on a pure entertainment level, satire is a great rhetorical trick for letting us feel good about enjoying watching awful people do awful things. Enter videogames! Verhoeven’s satire goes a level deeper: It’s about people being tricked, through rhetoric, into being awful and enjoying awful things. Therefore, it’s a great reference point if you, say, want to inject a lot of energy and memes into your shooter. Or, if you want to foster widespread community roleplay of faux-patriotism and still have everyone be in on the joke. I’m obviously talking about the great Helldivers 2, but since enough ink has already been spilt here, let’s talk about nu-Doom instead.

Director Hugo Martin may have namechecked Robocop as something that more inspired the imagery of Doom Eternal than anything else, but Doom 2016’s cheeky satire evolves into a sort a militaristic dystopia by the time the sequel rolls around. As far I understand the lore, Samuel Hayden, the cyborg corporate UAC scientist responsible for experimenting with hell portals in 2016, appears back on earth once the demons have invaded, where he’s treated like a flaming-sword wielding folk hero, despite being largely to blame for the entire shitshow.

Meanwhile, this sort of undue religious reverence is directed at your Doom Slayer, a character who would no doubt be dismembering demons whether or not they were helping anybody or not. This is another of Verhoeven’s themes, I think, in Robocop especially: What happens to the people built for, or trained to adore, violence when their ostensible goal of making violence no longer necessary is reached? Maaaaybe they might have an incentive to perpetuate it so they’ve got a reason to exist and also continue at what they’re good at and enjoy, idk?

The spirit Verhoeven and his collaborators brought to popular cinema has filtered its way into the language of games in general. Maybe not to the level that, say, Alien has, but similar to the equally-cutting 2000 AD works like Judge Dredd. It’s there every time you’re sent to dispatch an enemy when neither you or anyone making the calls has any idea what they stand for, but are 100% sure its everything antithetical to your good and correct way of life. It needs to be there, really. If you were around for the post 9/11 Bush-era slew of uncritical jingoism in mainstream media – or, honestly, if you’ve played a Call Of Duty before – you’ve seen what it’s like when dehumanisation is played straight. What’s a nuance and are they worth invading? And, possession of eaten cake notwithstanding (see above), I’d say this is at least incremental progress. You do, after all, got to shoot something in a shooty – might as well take a shot at a few implicit ‘isms while you’re there.

Could games be doing more with these themes? Or, to put it another way, is something like Helldivers 2 as good as its going to get? Helldivers’ celebratory nature is part-and-parcel of ‘Troopers’ satire, but I do suspect there’s potential for more incisive implementation than a few quotes and a bit of lore. I’d say the true spirit of these films was more present in something like the recently removed-from-Steam Spec Ops: The Line. Something with a rug-pull that leaves you feeling truly uncomfortable, in which the inherent ugliness of its form is the whole point. Sort of like brutalism, actually. Which, if I didn’t mention already, I’ve always been deeply passionate about.

By admin

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