[Currently writing the 'This Week In Video Game Criticism' series, Ben Abraham is also contributing exclusive GameSetWatch analysis from time to time - starting out with this commentary on unintentional themes in the latest Red Faction game.]

Video game blogger Nick Dinicola noted recently in an essay on 'The State of Social Commentary in Videogames’ that, “as more effort and thought is put into video game narratives, there’s also more effort put into avoiding any social commentary.” Volition and THQ's Red Faction: Guerrilla tries incredibly hard to avoid making unsavoury comparisons to things like the Iraq War, bloody revolutions and other less-than glamorous realities when it comes to struggles for dominance and freedom.

And yet it cannot escape the fact that it is itself a game about violent resistance against an oppressive military junta occupying Mars (the planet, not the confectionary maker). The EDF treat the peaceful inhabitants little better than slaves, are clearly in the pocket of Big Business and similarly appear to be controlling the government, having at the very least the government’s blessing for a pogrom of civilian annihilation.

So why does the game blanche at the thought of examining the serious side of its mindless fun? As we’ve seen more recently with Modern Warfare 2, there is undoubtedly a market for games that deal with serious issues like terrorism, murder and atrocities. Wherever the answer lies, it’s clear that a large number of people working on this game went out of their way to stamp out any kind of meaning or message that the game could be construed as conveying about thorny issues like terrorism and the questionable merits of violent resistance. In our post-modern society.

However, we know that meaning does not rest solely in the hands of the creators, so I’m going to point out some of the things that I noticed that either slipped through the net, or were simply happy accidents of the development process.

Setting up a conflict as being between opposing forces of unambiguously good and evil is one of the easiest ways to pre-emptively put out the fires that could arise from saying something thoughtful about the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. It’s telegraphed from the outset that the Earth Defence Force is unmistakably the bad guys (they even go so far as to kill your brother for no reason in something like the second cut scene just so you’re sure).

There is no grey area, Red Faction good; EDF bad. And once you’re convinced that the enemy is the ultimate evil in the galaxy it becomes remarkably easy to justify doing horrible things to stop them. It’s ‘the ends justify the means’ argument and Red Faction Guerrilla employs it liberally, and only escapes an examination of the very real consequences of this ideology by virtue of its nature as a videogame.

More abstractly however, RFG has a particular quirk with regards to its treatment of the ‘morale’ of the zones of Mars. It tells you how well you’re doing in your efforts to evict the EDF this metric displays an odd inclination that I found rather fascinating. There are a number of ways to increase a zone’s morale; chiefly among them is scoring kill streaks of enemy soldiers, and optional ‘Guerrilla actions’ often also award some level of morale. Basically, killing lots of enemy soldiers is the quickest way to boost a zone’s morale.

This is all well and good when the EDF are still ‘oppressing’ a zone since there’s plenty of soldiers around to beat up on to raise the morale of your own troops. However once you’ve cleared a zone of EDF, their level of control having dropped to zero, they moves out and give over the areas to the Red Faction. When this occurs there’s little action to be had in a zone besides the odd unfinished Guerilla action like bravely destroying some abandoned EDF buildings.

A strange and counterintuitive thing then occurs in the newly liberated zone: morale begins to drop. Wait a minute there Volition – you mean to tell me that since having the people’s necks lifted out from under the oppressive boot of the EDF they are now less happy than before? Could it be?

Have we uncovered a secret statement that Volition are making about that most perverse of elements of the human condition, that is, the ability to find something to complain about in any situation? Have the civilians of Parker, Dust, and Oasis become so blasé and, dare I say, practically bourgeoisie in their newfound freedom that they are actually becoming unhappy? Well, no. But it is nice to pretend.

The real explanation is that, as in life, people occasionally die even when they aren’t being oppressed by a malevolent military organisation. And when they die in Red Faction Guerrilla, morale drops. If it were at all intentional it would be quite the profound statement to be making about human nature.

More insight into the human condition is also revealed, if once again accidentally, by a tactic the Red Faction employs when referring to EDF soldiers. For those who have played along at home, you will recall that most of the time the Faction refer to the EDF as “drones”, and you’d never know that you were actually fighting other human beings unless they occasionally appeared with their helmets off in the cut scenes. The Red Faction employs the commonly utilized tactic of ‘Othering’, often employed by cultures, social groups and other communities to de-humanize outsiders and non-members. By calling the EDF soldiers ‘Drones’ they avoid having to admit that they are fighting other humans – the Red Faction, in their minds at least, turns them into robots.

For the longest time I wasn’t actually sure that they weren’t just robots as you need to be looking rather closely to discern that you are killing hundreds and thousands of fellow human beings. The repetitive, faceless EDF armour-slash-uniform certainly doesn’t help with that impression, nor does their mechanical shouts and death cries. Certainly Volition has gone to a lot of effort to hide the humanity of the EDF from players. After all we wouldn’t want them troubled by petty notions such as empathy or understanding.

At the conclusion of the game, the Red Faction predictably wrests control of Mars from the armoured fist of the EDF, and another strange and contrary happening occurs - The Red Faction becomes the new Establishment and it’s really quite boring. When there’s no one left to fight the game gets tedious incredibly fast. No wonder the EDF wanted to crack heads since it is so dull being in charge of a Mars at peace. Most governments are not oblivious of this fact, as they know how easy it is to use a common enemy to stir up support for a cause that threatens a nation – it’s called the rally effect (or Rally Round the Flag Syndrome).

Before then, however, while the fight is still in progress Alex Mason, the player’s character, becomes the symbol for the resistance by virtue of his near invincibility. You could say that Alex Mason is the flag the Red Faction would have people rally around; his/your death only results in a dip in morale, a mere blip, and while this is almost certainly a product of contemporary game design and accessibility, it’s quite possible to read Mason as a ludic metaphor for the immortal nature of revolutionary ideals. That Volition may not have intended this to be so is largely irrelevant – as I said; the work is out of its creators hands now.

Lastly, and in one of my favourite aspects of RFG (aside from the procedural destruction naturally), the final boss whose name is entirely forgettable and unimportant is no harder to kill than any other elite solder of the EDF. To me, this was such a refreshing change, and it also just happens to be a convenient metaphor for the frailty of man. If Alex Mason is the undying ideals of the revolution then the big bad boss at the end is the face of real humanity. If I wanted to stretch this metaphor to its very limits – and I do – I’d say that in your quest to free humanity, you pretty much end the game by killing humanity itself it.

And that’s one of the most complex pieces of socio-political, even philosophical, commentary in a game ever. What a pity that it was all unintentional.