Overthinking Soldier of Fortune: A Naive Game from a More Innocent Time
Released in 2000, Soldier of Fortune is one of the shooter gems of the nineties. Made by Raven Software, it is one of the early “realistic” shooters (brown and spectacularly violent), distinguished by its use of the GHOUL engine. You can look for more technical descriptions, but the gist of it is that 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 just killing enough people, and every problem is composed of clearly defined good and bad guys.
Which shouldn’t surprise anyone, as the game’s story came last and was aided by a spy fiction writer and real-life John Mullins, a military consultant. 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 good and bad factions, conveniently overlapping with the United States’ sympathies and alliances.
Surprisingly, the hero of the story, the gun-toting, limb-separating, brain-splattering unflappable 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.
Soldier of Fortune’s naivete begins with the UN being an effective international body with a host of mercenaries at its beck and call, organized as The Shop. After 2001 and especially the subsequent invasion of Iraq, this borders on hilarity. As such, in the interest of realism, developers have largely shifted to using United States troops violently murdering people to protect the peace.
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, alongside about just every pulp fiction stereotype you could cram in it.
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.
Rather than smart foreign policies or diplomacy, the United Nations sends mercenaries to protect the peace by blowing things up with extreme prejudice.
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.
The nations of the West may live in craven fear of terror attacks, particularly the United States, but the actual brunt of terrorism has fallen on people living outside Europe and North America (see Global Terrorism Database for details, especially the map detailing the last 45 years of terror attacks). The Middle East, equatorial Africa, Central America. Commonly nations that were the victims of colonial powers and continue to be on the receiving end of the war machine that also turns on itself: In the United States, in turn, almost every terror attack since 2001 has been carried out by white supremacist.
This is the one point where SoF doesn’t feel as naive. The ultimate foe of the story is Sergei Dekker, leader of a terror organization known as The Order. The Order is a white supremacist group. If the use of Nazi imagery wasn’t enough – their flag is literally the Reichskriegsflagge with the swastika swapped out for the Order’s insignia – they are directly tied to American white supremacists through the Ministry of Sin, led by Sergei’s brother, Wilhelm.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of their presentation is the rhetoric. As he holds Mullins’ friend and partner, Hawk, hostage, Dekker asks him – 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.
At the surface the logic is sound – right until you remember that 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 world Dekker desires – the world the alt-right 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. 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 “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. Violence that includes murder: 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, including Dekker. The threat of white supremacy and fascism, pardon, alt-right disappears at the flick of a wrist (or pull of the trigger).
Ultimately, it’s just another forgettable story about a knight and a monster.
If only reality was so simple.
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.