Overthinking Soldier of Fortune: A Naive Game from a More Innocent Time
Raven Software’s 2000 release, Soldier of Fortune, is one of the shooter gems of the nineties and one of the early “realistic” shooters (i.e. brown and spectacularly violent). Its distinguishing gimmick is the use of the GHOUL engine: You can murder people in awesomely graphic ways, from opened craniums to liberated colons and detached limbs.
Past all of its gory glory is a solid story that is a perfect example of what I like to call the naive period of gaming: Where the solution to every world problem is killing enough people, and every problem consists of good guys (the killers) and bad guys (the killed).
This shouldn’t surprise anyone: The game’s story came last, written with the aid of a spy fiction writer and a military consultant. The consultant, John Mullins, became the game’s protagonist, in fact. Gamasutra posted a great post mortem shortly after the game’s release, which covers this and other interesting bits.
Soldier of Fortune espouses that old brand of naive thinking characteristic of the pre-2001 world, where the world could be divided into the good and the bad, conveniently overlapping with the United States’ sympathies and alliances.
The one wrinkle in the game’s setting is that the the gun-toting, limb-separating, brain-splattering John Mullins is not a United States Special Forces operator, but a mercenary working for the United Nations’ black ops division, The Shop. Their checks never bounce, the intro helpfully points out, and the brutality serves a higher cause.
This is where Soldier of Fortune’s naivete begins: The UN is an effective international body with a host of mercenaries at its beck and call, organized through its clandestine branch, The Shop. In short, rather than try smart foreign policies or calm diplomacy, the United Nations sends mercenaries to protect the peace by blowing things up with extreme prejudice.
As a reminder, by 2000 the UN demonstrated its incompetence as peacekeepers several times over, in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, 1995 Srebrenica massacre and more. The 2001 and 2003 US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq only confirmed that (and prompted developers to start prominently featuring US troops violently murdering people for our entertainment).
The UN says it got better, though.
Mullins prances across the world violently dismembering people in Uganda, Kosovo, Russia, Iraq, Sudan, Japan, Germany, and of course, the old United States of America, pursuing rogue nuclear weapons and slowly uncovering an overarching sinister plot bent on dismantling the global order.
As befitting a naive vision of world politics, Mullins saves the world by violently murdering everyone in his way, with the mountains of corpses serving as a bulwark against evildoers: Rogue Russian soldiers, Sudanese warlords, warring Serb factions, and Iraqi generals building weapons of mass destruction. Oh, there’s also Yakuza and ninjas in there, to round out its collection of Clancyesque pulp fiction stereotypes.
On this note: Iraqi WMD development was a stock trope of the nineties, normalizing the idea and helping pave the way for the 2003 invasion of Iraq that destabilized the region, led to over 300 000 deaths in Iraq alone, rise of ISIL, with no end in sight. As it turned out, Iraq did not even have any WMDs in the first place.
Stolen Russian nuclear warheads? Blow them up.
Lost F-117 Nighthawks with the same? Blow them up.
Oil refineries covering an alleged WMD program? Blow them up (nevermind the cost to the city with two million residents).
Violence is the answer to everything: Make a wasteland and call it peace.
As anyone who hasn’t lived in self-imposed exile away from pretty much any news outlet can tell, violence only begets more violence. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq became more stable after being subjected to democratization through bombing, and the wars fought under the Stars and Stripes have turned the region and largely the world into a much more dangerous place – and fueled the rise of white supremacy and fascism.
Most people will point to the rise in terror attacks as evidence of the danger. However, while the nations of the West may live in craven fear of terror attacks, particularly the United States, the brunt of terrorism has fallen on people living outside Europe and North America. The Middle East, equatorial Africa, Central America are places where terror attacks are commonplace… The nations affected are also frequently those that were the victims of colonial powers and/or continue to be on the receiving end of the Usonian war machine. The justification is usually “terrorism”… But, almost every terror attack in the US since 2001 has been carried out by white supremacists, “very fine people” according to the current POTUS.
Check the GTD for details.
There are points where SoF doesn’t feel as naive – or even worse, prescient. The ultimate foe of the story is Sergei Dekker, the leader of a white supremacist terrorist organization known as The Order. The use of Nazi imagery is pretty telling – their flag is literally the Reichskriegsflagge with the swastika swapped out for the Order’s white fist – as are their ties to the Ministry of Sin, an American hate group led by Sergei’s brother, Wilhelm.
Sergei Dekker is a white supremacist from South Africa, where he was a colonel tied to the South African nuclear weapons development (referred to in-game as Project KRAAL). His plan was to use the nuclear weapons to lift the trade and financial sanctions imposed on South Africa and maintain apartheid. After apartheid imploded, Dekker was exiled, bitter and resentful of the West’s sanctions, and founded the Order.
The irony is that re-evaluations of the role of sanctions indicate their impact was far weaker and predominantly psychological; apartheid was intrinsically unsustainable. See here and here for papers on the subject.
The part where SoF abruptly jumps from naive to too real is when Sergei holds Mullins’ friend and partner, Hawk, hostage. Dekker asks Mullins – us – to imagine a world free of trade embargoes, UN interventions, and foreign bombings – a world where sovereign nations are free to implement the policies they want.
However, the world Dekker desires is not a world of freedom. The world he desires is a world of sharply divided nations, free to do whatever they want within their borders, especially to minorities. In his world, South Africa could remain an apartheid country, genocides would go on unhindered, and the weak would be trampled by the strong. Sounds familiar? That’s the rhetoric of the alt-right, our latter day fascists.
International bodies have their faults, make no mistake, but the answer is to fix those faults, not dismantle them and plunge the world into darkness: The European Union has reconciled seemingly “eternal” enemies and gave its members the longest period of uninterrupted peace since the Roman Empire.
Back to Naivete
While Dekker and his Order remain fictional, the alt-right is not and neither is their violence: Every extremist killing in the United States 2018 was perpetrated by the alt-right, with the latest (as of this article) large scale terror attack killing 22 in El Paso, Texas. Elsewhere the violence is perpetrated by state actors as well. In my native Poland, the government is on the attack against LGBTQ+ people, and their inflammatory rhetoric fosters a pogrom atmosphere – and only emboldens our domestic alt-righters.
This is where SoF’s naivete kicks right back in: Mullins single-handedly tears apart the Order and murders everyone in their German retreat. The threat of white supremacy and fascism, pardon, alt-right disappears at the flick of a wrist (or pull of the trigger), the moment Sergei is bisected.
If only reality was so simple.
Apart from its naivete. It’s still a damn good shooter. SoF is available on GOG.com as the Platinum Pack. The SoFplus add-on is still available after amending it to comply with Activision’s demands and supports widescreen play.