The Unintended Consequence of Helldivers 2

Written by Benjamin Wiebe

Every year, around reading week, a video game that is seemingly determined to eat up all my free time comes out. In 2022, that game was Elden Ring. Three years ago, it was Hollow Knight (I was a little late to the party, I admit). And this year, Helldivers 2, developed by Arrowhead Game Studios, became my obsession – seemingly, everyone else’s. Helldivers 2 has a lot of components that make it a time-consuming hobby. Firstly, Helldivers 2 is a Co-operative game. You are encouraged to play with friends, but you can just as quickly join other players’ missions if they don’t have a squad of 4 playing with them. The Co-op is finely tuned so that no one player has everything they need – especially in the higher level difficulties. Each player can bring a select number of ‘stratagems’ – reinforcements sent from your Star Destroyer – essential to defeating the larger enemies and spreading ‘managed democracy.’

I may have buried the lede – Helldivers 2, like its predecessor, is a game set in the future wherein “Super Earth ” recruits an innumerable number of soldiers to ‘liberate’ alien worlds full of ‘uncivilized’ aliens. The game is an open parody of militant fascism. The startup screen has a message from the ‘Department of Truth’ where undivided attention is mandatory. The propaganda film shows an everyday man living in a Super-Earth utopia, waving hello to the ‘Helldivers’ on the street – fully armed and armoured soldiers – before watching his family killed by a brutish, invading warrior bug. The propaganda format tells the audience how crucial it is to join the Helldivers, listing the benefits of visiting foreign worlds and seeing unique life forms. The visuals accompanying these lines tell a different story.  Unique life is seen decimated by a rocket launcher, and the glorious, noble act of saving these planets involves planting flags through the corpse of a bug. It’s effective propaganda that idolizes war and colonialism – and most importantly, it’s satire. 

Many elements of the game highlight the irony and cognitive dissonance within militant fascist/nationalist propaganda. General Brasch – the charismatic recruiter – tells the player in the tutorial that he has never seen a soldier like you and that you are truly special moments before you are likely to die at the hands of Super Earth’s own Gatling gun sentries for ‘training’ purposes. And you don’t respawn in this game – instead, you take control of a new Helldiver from reserves, and the old corpse can be found on the map where you led them to die. When you leave the tutorial, you are introduced to your ship, which you can name. You have access to the game’s storefront, which includes ‘reviews’ made by the developers, all of which have a four or 5-star rating, aside from a single 1-star review under investigation for treason. On the bridge, General Brasch will consistently remind you to invest in stratagems for your ship. “With the right strategem, there is no defence democracy can’t penetrate,” is said as a graphic of a rocket pierces through 3 enemies before splatting a massive Charger, a bug nearly impenetrable to bullets. 

Of course, when you attempt to complete a mission, you will find the rocket launcher’s capabilities greatly exaggerated. And, of course, in the heat of war, the game’s noble, glorious portrayal of ‘liberty’ comes into clear view. You may be able to name your ship the SES Paragon of Family Values, but have no fear; friendly fire is enabled and all too common. Friendly airstrikes, orbital bombardments, sentry turrets, and roving drones can kill your helldiver in seconds. While each Helldiver will gladly proclaim that “Helldivers Never Die!” when using one of the game’s health items, you, the player, know full well that Helldivers, indeed, do die. Helldivers frequently die – so much that the input for calling in a reinforcement becomes muscle memory before you have finished ten missions. 

In essence, Helldivers 2 is an effective Satire because of its ‘ludonarrative dissonance. Ludonarrative Dissonance refers to the juxtaposition between a game’s narrative and ludic (undirected play) elements. The game uses propaganda to tell you the glories and necessity of liberating planets from hostile species, but the experience of playing the game is far from glorious reckoning. It’s a terrifying, adrenaline-pumping war where human lives are wasted in the name of spreading ‘managed democracy,’ where dissent is treason and punished by death. 

In the course of playing, however, Helldivers 2 takes on a different character. The ironic portrayal of fascist propaganda has birthed a new meme surrounding the game. Players will take on the caricature of their helldivers while playing, congratulating one another on liberating the galaxy. Committing a ‘democracy’ is a common phrase used to invite friends to play the game. Over the past three weeks, the planet Malevelon Creek was redubbed ‘space Vietnam’ by players – and as with Vietnam, Super Earth forces were repelled from the planet on February 28th, 2024. Unlike real war, however, Helldivers 2 is a video game – and most importantly, it’s a fun game to play with friends. As the missions become more challenging, the game becomes a more chaotic battle where the adrenaline is constantly pumping. And though death in Helldivers is skinned as the waste of life, it functions as a more complex respawn system – and the more you play, the more the novel elements of its parody disappear into a new normal for the player. 

Where Helldivers succeeds as a critique, it seemingly stumbles – because satire is built upon dramatic irony and audience awareness. The audience has to recognize the failures of this system for it to be effective – yet the game seemingly desensitizes the player to these failures. I love the game, I love playing the game with friends, and it’s a genuinely great time – but it begs the question, can colonialist Propaganda ever be satirized effectively? This Machine Kills Fascists’ was coined by Woody Guthrie, who was a blues musician. The flaws of Fascism and other nationalist policies aren’t in the dissonance between its beliefs and lived experience – instead, its central flaw is found in its subjugation of the ‘other.’ For our art to effectively make that statement, it must be empathetic and honest. 

A piece of art that manages to be a vastly effective critique of Fascism and colonialism is the Oscar-winning film The Zone of Interest (2023). Director Jonathan Glazer’s film asks a simple question that makes the biographical film into a deeply introspective work: What was life like for a family living next door to Auschwitz? The film follows SS officer Rudolf Höss and his family through their day-to-day, bureaucratic lives – and in every scene, the screams of those within Auschwitz are heard in the background. The film is unrelenting; it’s a cry for help that lands on the willfully ignorant ears of those living in Nazi Germany. In its final scene, it fast-forwards to the modern-day Auschwitz museum, showcasing how society attempts to reconcile the past with empty gestures. The entire film is intent on interrogating the ease with which humans can turn a blind eye to atrocities committed next door, and it’s impossible to watch the movie without being introspective to our own lived world. With the ongoing genocide in the Gaza Strip, this is a film that rings ever clearer.

While Helldivers 2 is intended to make the player aware of the ideological inconsistencies of colonialism and nationalism, its tone can make the player apathetic to the plights of individuals living on Super Earth. The choice to place the player as a soldier profoundly shapes the gaming experience. While shooting guns in video games is inherently enjoyable, assuming the role of a soldier in the conflict naturally creates a sense of detachment from the beings encountered, whether they are automatons or bugs. Moreover, the repeated deaths experienced by the player reinforce a nationalist mindset, strengthening their resolve to ‘liberate’ the galaxy. Despite its effectiveness as satire, Helldivers 2’s gameplay mechanics may obscure the critique of Super-Earth’s ideology. In contrast, The Zone of Interest juxtaposes scenes of Höss’s mundane celebrations with the horrors of Auschwitz, prompting viewers to confront the injustices often overlooked in pursuit of comfort. Helldivers 2 is a parody of an ideology; The Zone of Interest is a condemnation of ignorance that allows that ideology to thrive in our modern world.

I love both of these pieces of art. Helldivers 2 excels as an engaging cooperative horde shooter, skillfully weaving in satirical commentary on colonial ideologies and practices throughout its gameplay and style. In contrast, The Zone of Interest serves as a poignant reminder of the dangers of passive complicity in the face of militant nationalism. These contrasting approaches offer valuable insights into a complex subject – and while Helldivers 2 entertains with its gameplay, one might argue that the medium of fun and entertainment isn’t an effective way to display the gravitational failures of colonialism. 

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