Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Division 2‘s story.
When all is said and done, The Division 2‘s story can be summed up in simple terms: This is Bad Dudes, but with a script.
I’m talking about the old arcade game that famously opened with the lines: “President Ronnie has been kidnapped by ninjas. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the President?” From there, you get to punch and kick your way through seven stages of ninja baddies before chomping on some burgers with the president.
When you look at the bigger picture of The Division 2, the premise is nearly as ridiculous and far-fetched. Washington, D.C. is lawless and locked down after a deadly viral outbreak, and it’s up to you — an agent a secret federal task force charged with, well, fixing America — to restore order and rebuild that symbol of U.S. freedom, the White House.
Yes, that includes rescuing the president.
There’s just a small problem with that premise. In the U.S. of 2019, when Donald Trump is historically unpopular (and is perhaps best described as the country’s first bona fide despot), it’s hard for a lot of people to get fired up by The Division 2‘s efforts to make America great again. The White House isn’t much of a symbol for American freedom when it’s occupied by a tyrant.
Here’s why Ubisoft, The Division’s publisher, thought that approach would work: The Division 2 isn’t making any political statements. That’s what Terry Spier, one of the game’s creative leads, told Polygon in a June 2018 interview.
I’m just going to say that you are a veteran agent who was activated before the time of The Division 2 and you got the SOS call. OK, you’re war torn. You’re tired. You’ve been doing Division stuff elsewhere and you arrive in DC to find what it is that you’re going to find. And you’re going to rebuild and make sure that DC does not collapse, SHaDe [Strategic Homeland Division] does not collapse and that the nation does not collapse. And so should it be clear, we’re definitely not making any political statements. Right? This is still a work of fiction, right?
The audacity of making a statement like that in 2018, and about a game set in the crumbling ruins of Washington, D.C., was obviously not lost on an ever-watchful internet. Ubisoft faced sharp criticism almost immediately after Polygon’s story published, and the whole “it’s not political!” thing has become a running joke.
That was all before the game came out. Now that I’ve played through the whole thing — and loved it unabashedly, I should say — I feel like I understand where Spier was coming from when he said that. The story The Division 2 has to tell isn’t a statement in and of itself. That’s because it’s so absurdly over the top and open to interpretation.
This is a game where you spray bullets across the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as you take it back from militarized fascists. Where your efforts to rescue the president turn sideways when that president turns the gun on his captor and proceeds to back you up in combat. Where, after the rescue, you join the president in the Oval Office and this happens.
The Division 2‘s story is so addled and all over the place, it couldn’t form a coherent political statement if it tried. That’s not why it was written and not what it exists to do. It’s the modern-day version of that Bad Dudes vibe: “Washington, D.C. is wrecked! Are you a bad enough dude to kill all the gang leaders and rebuild the White House?”
The Division 2‘s story is so addled and all over the place, it couldn’t form a coherent political statement if it tried.
That doesn’t mean it’s completely free of politics, however.
The game is still very much a product of the current socio-political climate it was born into. Its inherent over-the-top-ness is tempered by a grim and frequently off-putting outlook on the depths humanity can plunge to when seismic shifts uproot our civilized society. Bad Dudes works because it’s light-hearted and stupid; The Division 2 often goes off the rails because it’s grim and stupid.
You can see it in the desperation coded into the art design of the game’s lawless Washington. Some American citizens, bereft of hope, have organized into brutal gangs that splash their beliefs all over the walls with graffiti and crude signs. Unlockable “found footage” clips dig deeper into the story’s human misery, showing graphic scenes of unconscionable violence and murder.
In one clip, we see a suicide bomber saying goodbye to his friend before we watch him run off and commit his final act. In another, an emotionless gang leader listens to a government researcher plead for his life — he helped plan the Washington quarantine under orders, which makes him the enemy of this gang — before cutting him off with the blunt end of a hammer.
Even The Division 2‘s opening cinematic goes in on the social politics of the moment. It talks about how we as a society took our luxuries and our comforts for granted. When all of that started to disappear, we survived. But when basic infrastructure went with it, there was only one question that mattered anymore: Did you own a gun?
The story is clumsy at times, with big moments that feel borderline (if not fully!) incoherent. Most of the dialogue washes over you as NPCs chatter in your ear while a blockbuster gunfight unfolds. An entire settlement of peaceful survivors gets wiped out at one point, but the moment is so drowned out by action and background noise that I didn’t even realize what had happened — and thought the game was broken! — when I wandered into the dead community after that mission ended.
There isn’t a political statement in The Division 2 because the game itself doesn’t have anything specific to say. The story is just a vehicle, a set of circumstances that create reasons for you chase loot, earn XP, and do the Destiny-style RPG thing in more of a real-world setting. That was the purpose of the original game and this sequel isn’t any different.
But none of that means it’s completely devoid of political touchstones. As has been pointed out countless time before, all art is inherently political — and The Division 2 isn’t any kind of outlier. Between the “war-torn D.C.” setting and the overall vision of what a total collapse of U.S. society might look like, the story and setting are brimming with threads to tug on and analyze.
But! Don’t forget. Most artists will back away if you ask them to interpret their own work. I think that’s what is going on here. The politics of the moment are inescapable in The Division 2, but when Ubisoft says “it’s not a statement,” that’s really just code for “we don’t want to go there ourselves.”