Obviously it's wonderful to see indie developers who haven't engaged with the genre in the past sticking their toes in the water (or their necks on the block), but it's impossible to ignore that the most timely and nuanced entry in the series thus far has come from Paolo Pedercini, a grizzled veteran. That boy has had to roll his eyes through enough of my insufferable critiques in the past, so we'll only be looking at the latter two this week and next. If you're unfamiliar with the project, Joel Goodwin's blog Electron Dance is a great place to start for links to all the games, brief analysis and comparison, and a lengthy interview with Jonas Kyratzes (one of the two Wikileaks Stories project coordinators).
Damian Connolly's Wikileakers is the most recent of the three currently-extant Wikileaks Stories games. It's clearly the most accessible, and it has, perhaps, been written off as overly simplistic. And we can see why: it's more cartoonish than the previous Wikileaks Stories games, it uses Internet slang ("pron"), marijuana jokes, and cheap one-offs at the President, and it hinges on a somewhat conservative score-chasing goal structure. There's no gray area here: Assange is our hero (as pointed out by Goodwin, it's the only game that features him as the player character), and the "propaganda model" media is trying to keep him down.
Players control a pixellated Assange as he runs back and forth in what appears to be an FBI lobby, dodging lasers and bombs. The former represent corrupt media sources, while the bombs drop from a crane ominously labeled "PR" (the bombs themselves alternately accusing the man of being a terrorist and sexual deviant). Lasers constantly track Assange, stopping briefly to intermittently fire. Players can mouse-click to place single a block labelled "free press" that will obstruct exactly one laser shot before disappearing. While the first two media lasers bear American flags, Swedish and Australian media sources are added as the player's score increases.
What's most interesting to me is the source of this political skinning: I keenly remember similar auto-tracking lasers from the number of times they've killed me in my favorite masocore platformers, N+ and Super Meat Boy. What's different here is the size of the level and the acrobatic capability of my avatar. In SMB, lasers and rockets can be avoided because of their placement inside narrow corridors filled with blocks to hide behind. In N+, while the levels might be rectangular and open, I can slide and jump off of walls and blocks at high speeds to throw off the lasers' tracking.
Even though Assange is our hero here, the game recognizes that he is no superhero, no ninja. The man is only human, and his ability to dodge attacks from the media is suitably, metaphorically limited. And the precious "free press" shield is hardly any help at all--after a few attempts at the game I found the most success by just ignoring it and focusing on my dodging. As with many editorial games, curious micro-rhetorics arise through accident or, perhaps, clever design: here, I found that the husks of dropped PR bombs would actually protect me from half of the lasers if I jumped over them at just the right time. I enjoyed the idea that botched attempts at slander would end up shielding Assange in the future.
But what does it say that, in Wikileakers, Assange is essentially trapped in this tiny space with so little room to breathe? It might be read as a spatial metaphor for the intense amount of public scrutiny the man has attracted. But couldn't there be a cynical counter-reading? I found myself unable to ignore thinking of the box that even Assange's supporters have placed him within. In order to maintain the idea of Assange as unalloyed hero, we're forced into a kind of tunnel vision that prevents us from accepting that any of the nasty rumors about his personal life, or questions of his ethics more generally, might in fact have some truth to them.
The game is difficult to beat. I doubt we're looking at a typical rhetoric of failure here, because that wouldn't exactly mesh with the reality of Assange's success in distributing the cables, but I definitely didn't have the patience to stick with it and reach a happy ending screen. That said, the score itself is a matter of concern for me. It seems to imply that the Wikileaks cables would stop flowing were Assange taken out of the picture, which we know to be quite untrue. Again we see this somewhat absurd notion that Assange is an Atlas of sorts, upholding truth alone, unaided by a perfectly capable staff---itself seeming like a capitulation to the very overexposure of Assange that the game hopes to critique.
Disconnected from the time of its release and the purpose of its umbrella project, this game is as capable a playable editorial cartoon as any. In fact, it's more polished and enjoyable to play than most (sporting the social media integration that we're coming to see more and more of in newsgames). But this is the kind of game we'd expect to see a week or two after the announcement of the Wikileaks Stories project. How are "democracy and truth served" by such a simple game, once we'd had three months to read and reflect on the issues that Wikileaks and Assange had raised? We must take seriously the question whether or not just any game made about Wikileaks should be considered a proper part of the Wikileaks Stories project.
"If we clap real hard, you think he'll come back to life?"