Corporate sanctioned satire
Anti-capitalism is big business. Corporate-owned media expose and critique corporate greed and corruption, to the point you might wonder whether there’s anything left to expose. In the last decade especially, social inequality has been a popular theme in current affairs, drama, and comedy alike.
So what does this anti-capitalist popular culture do? It probably doesn’t shock or educate us much anymore, nor has it inspired political revolt. Rather, as a commercial product, it mostly contributes to confirming our own sense of powerlessness, bringing us comfort in knowing we’re not alone, or, by turning to satire, at least helping us to laugh at our situation.
Games are as much a part of this as any other media. These days, it’s no surprise if the latest sci-fi RPG, urban sandbox, or indie adventure offers a cutting take on our political and economic conditions. In a world run by disaster capitalists and right-wing authoritarians, games are ideal for creating a sense of catharsis, allowing us to mock and disrupt the system for a while before returning to reality. But welcome as it may be, a lot of this satire can feel cynical or overly pessimistic.
We only need to look at the most famous example, the Grand Theft Auto series, to see it. In GTA V, “legitimate” big businesses are invariably worse than the criminals, flaunting their exploitative practices to a public fixated on cultural fads, drugs, and entertainment. But even when its antiheroes are taking down billionaire tech moguls or shady private security firms, GTA V is never about fighting the system—it’s about becoming one of its winners. It’s no contradiction that the game itself is the product of a large, ethically questionable corporation, since its message is that as bad as the world is, there’s no alternative. If you can’t beat them, join them.
In other games, anti-corporate satire may be more sincere, but it’s so routine it can start to feel like background noise, and it still struggles to offer any sense of hope. Perhaps it doesn’t help that games don’t really give us much control or agency beyond our moment-to-moment decisions, which tends to cement the idea that nothing can change. Or, if they put us in the position of leading an actual revolution, it seems like a mere power fantasy, divorced from modern reality.
It’s difficult to imagine ways that games might use satire more productively, rather than merely to help us accept our fate or temporarily escape it. Perhaps they need to start small, first by turning their gaze on satire itself. For those not simply trying to cash in on a trend, what is gained by adding more of the same to an already saturated field? Is it possible to create satire that can really inspire us, or somehow suggest the possibility of a different reality?
Typhoon Studio’s Journey to the Savage Planet might not seem an obvious choice to pursue this idea, as it appears to cover similar ground to other sci-fi comedies. But (whether intentionally or not) I think its unrefined satire works itself into a kind of critique of satire, presenting it as harmless mockery that helps keep us working for the system.
The humor in Savage Planet is lightweight and silly. It goes after its corporate targets with gags and parodies that can be amusing but rarely surprising. But the way it couples its humor with a Metroid-like game structure that’s immediately familiar reflects on how we consume satire while contributing to the rampant corporate takeover of the universe. It has something to say about what we accept as normal in games, and even gives us an option to disobey.
In Savage Planet, your exploration of the alien world ARY-26 is very much a corporate venture. As a casual worker for Kindred Enterprises, there’s no doubt that you’re being exploited, but you aren’t in a position to do much else. On your underequipped ship, which lacks even sufficient fuel for a journey home, you’re bombarded by company propaganda and emails reminding you of your terrible debt. Outside, the computer AI guiding you seems indifferent to your wellbeing. It’s a little on-the-nose, but in a way that’s the point. Nobody’s seriously even pretending to care.
It’s less about the jokes and more about how we’re made to relate to them. Take the game’s sleazily cheerful live-action advertisements, for example, which hark back to the TV ads in Robocop and sell products like black food paste, Grob, or a hideous pet child thing constructed from leftover meat. These play whenever we teleport back to the ship, and we soon learn to go straight to the TV remote to switch them off, but we have to physically do it every time. After a while, the satire is in this action, not the content of the commercials. As with skippable YouTube ads, they seem to exist only to wear us down and keep us from escaping the corporate eye.
The freshness of Savage Planet’s satire comes from a sense that it knows it isn’t fresh. It’s reminding us that the system is broken and no longer cares if we believe in it, and yet no matter how obvious its faults are, we still participate in it. We absorb all this banal satire before returning to our own exploitative work—scanning, prodding, slapping, and shooting the wildlife of a pristine planet to find out whether the place is suitable for colonization.
Savage Planet feels appropriate for the post-bailout age. In the first decade of the 21st century, when the War on Terror was the big issue, something like BioShock made more sense, in that it seemed our brains still had to be programmed or tricked into obeying those in power. Now we’re fully aware that we’re being used by our corporate employers, yet we fulfill our mission just as diligently. Satire is throwaway but ever-present, always reminding us of our situation without suggesting we can do anything about it.
As for the game’s structure, the familiarity of its Metroid staples makes us feel comfortable with what we’re doing, despite the exploitative intentions behind it. When we’re basking in the serene solitude of the blue skies, examining bizarre plant life, or scaling a cliff face with a grappling hook, we forget who we are. It’s all about the wonder and thrill of discovery. Even dealing with large predators, getting covered in slime, or the occasional unfortunate death add to the sense of challenge and adventure.
But every return to the ship or interjection from the computer AI brings back the context of the mission, that all our progress serves corporate ambitions. The main actions we can perform —hitting, shooting, scanning, jumping, collecting—are what we expect from this kind of game, but they’re also exactly what’s required to fulfill our boss’s demands. As in our modern reality, what a company like this really wants is data. Kindred needs to know as much as possible, not only about ARY-26, but about how the main character reacts to it, to better control both.
Every time we scan the environment to figure out what to do next, the company learns more about how to exploit and destroy it. Every moment of combat measures our abilities, our tools, and the attributes of the creatures we face. Even every death, which sees us being automatically remade back at the ship in a newly constituted body, is a way for the company to better understand the dangers of the place or the limits of our resilience. It also implies that our contract with Kindred means giving them access to all our information, including our genetic make-up, to ensure that no injury or fatality can release us from our employment.
Optional side missions take the form of scientific “experiments,” which can earn us promotions if we complete them. In game terms, this encourages us to be creative with the tool set, often by abusing the wildlife with amusing results. For science, we’re asked to punt harmless pufferbirds into the air and shoot them before they land, or stick a group of creatures together with adhesive goo before chucking an explosive plant seed into the mix. By presenting these exploitative actions as ordinary game-like tasks, we do (and enjoy) dirty and dangerous work for the company while they get to record, collect, and use the results to maximize their gains.
The ordinariness of Savage Planet’s rules and objectives enables them to normalize our reckless and exploitative actions. If we want to increase our maximum health and stamina, for example, in place of Metroid’s energy tanks we have to gobble up blobs of orange gunk that naturally grow in secluded places. We consume them because of their immediate benefits, but we’ve no idea if they’re crucial to the balance of the ecosystem, and it becomes apparent that they have some horrific side effects on our bodies. The company encourages it regardless, because whatever happens it’s more data they can use.
There’s even an exploitative side to the game’s upgrade system, which, in typical Metroid fashion, provides new equipment at various points in the mission, enabling access to new areas and secrets. Here, designs for all the stuff we need are in fact already stored on the ship’s 3D printer, but to get it we’ll have to collect raw materials from the planet. The only reason we don’t start with everything is that the company doesn’t want to risk wasting it. It’s a failsafe logic: If we can’t deliver the materials, that proves the planet’s too dangerous or inhospitable to colonize, so the missions assets—us and the ship—may as well be abandoned.
A way out?
In all these respects, it’s the lack of subtlety in the game’s anti-capitalist satire that makes it work. It emphasizes our role as an exploited employee who follows orders to exploit the planet without a word of complaint. It highlights how we either enjoy or tune out criticism of the system as part of our daily routines.
It even points to an undercurrent of colonialist privilege in Metroid itself. After all, does Samus Aran not represent the power and wealth of the federation, deploying her sleek technology to tame hostile alien lands, incorporating the relics of an ancient civilization into her armory as she goes? In Savage Planet, what really feels savage is everything that comes from Earth—the adverts, the emails, the pollution, the technology, the mission. Seen through this lens, Samus isn’t a purifying, cleansing force, but the destructive intruder who disregards the welfare of the planets she visits.
But, if Savage Planet tells us all these things about the modern world, is that just the way it is? Does it, like GTA V, simply shrug and say we might as well laugh about it and make do as best we can? Certainly, if we complete our mission, earn our promotions, and return home to collect our pay, that would be the case. We’d keep working for a company that will likely only ask us to do more savage things as we rise up the ranks.
There is a choice in the game though, even if it hardly represents the satisfying escape or change we might desire. Technically, as soon as we’ve collected enough fuel, there’s nothing stopping us from going home, without collecting all the data the company requires. True, it’s not much of a choice, since we know we have massive debts back home, and upsetting the company is likely to have dire consequences. But it’s still a way of refusing, which goes against everything the game’s satire suggests is possible.
Even if it doesn’t end well, perhaps it’s worth it to make a symbolic point. Or perhaps that choice might represent other choices with more preferable results. It’s not much, but it’s an alternative to simply plodding towards the inevitable conclusion, smirking at the same old “subversive” references. At least, it opens a door to ask what commercial games should do, if they want their anti-corporate satire to be serious business.
Header image credit: 505 Games, Typhoon Studios
Jon Bailes is an independent games critic and researcher from the U.K. He is author of Ideology and the Virtual City: Videogames, Power Fantasies and Neoliberalism (Zero, 2019). You can follow him on Twitter @JonBailes3.