How The Division was inspired by “a clear and present danger to our society”

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We spoke to Martin Hultberg – The Division’s IP Developer – aBout where the game came from, and what it says about us…

We’re scrambling over a broken chain-link fence and you can hear us grunting beneath our gas mask. Our urban camouflage – that is, a backpack and a leather jacket – feels distressingly lacking right now; we can see another group of survivors clambering over debris across the street from us. They’re armed, we know that – why the hell would you be out here if you weren’t? – and they’re coming in fast. We kneel down behind a crumbling concrete barrier and (for the fifth time) make sure our gun is loaded. It is. We’re ready.

The rest of our crew forms up on us. They hunker down, too – you can’t rush this, it’s not worth it – and we’re all silent. There’s a guy at the back, the fourth and smallest member of our crew and he quietly sends out a radar ping. It returns with nothing. Damn it, the others have moved on.

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“They’re after the cargo themselves,” says one of our teammates. “They’re not just defending it.” With this revelation comes a sudden change in the atmosphere – we thought those skittish patrols we saw earlier were AI-controlled; cannon fodder Cleaners that might have been deployed to interfere with our objectives. But no, they were other people. Sentient people – as eager for supplies as we are. That’s how things go down in these Dark Zones – it’s every survivor for themselves and that goes for AI and the likes of you or us. This isn’t just a little skirmish anymore. This is war.

We take the lead – the other players tight on our tail – hopping from cover to cover. You glue to cover fairly naturally and everything is intuitive. It has to be – this game is about tension. You don’t want to be fiddling around trying to duck down behind some fallen embankment somewhere and get a bullet through your dome – that’d be a disservice to what Massive is doing with this concrete wasteland that actively bears down on you.

Anyway, we digress. One of our guys hanging back spies the crate we’re supposed to extract in the centre of a fortified courtyard. The bodies lying around, slick with fresh blood, indicate we’re not the first ones here. The AI Cleaners have been put down and someone else too.

A flare goes off. “Move, move!” a teammate shouts down my ear. She’s got a shotgun and rushes in first. We climb up some shipping palettes covered in tarp and take aim with our rifle. There’s no scope view on it – something we’d really prefer – but the zooming works satisfactorily for what it is. We manage to staccato fire three headshots and we take down one of the enemy faction. Through our viewfinder, we see another team of survivors lobbing grenades from the other side. “Perfect,” we think, “we got these guys flanked.”

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This other group swoops in, fast. They execute another enemy we kneecapped and splinter off, searching for stragglers. We notice they got pretty chewed up in the crossfire. It’s everyone for themself, right? “Shall we?” we whisper to our teammates. We, with three survivors (we’re waiting on our shotgun user to respawn) position ourselves with the cargo in sight. The small radar guy is cooking a grenade. The new team steps in to try and extract the package and we rain death on them. An alert pings across our HUD – we’ve ‘gone rogue’ now – and we’re identified as enemies to any humans that come near us. No better than Cleaners to anyone that dares get in our way. But to hell with the risks – we’ve got this extraction locked down now. There’s a helicopter on the way, all we’ve got to do is hold out for about a minute, and then we can scarper with some of the best loot in the game.

The Division is gunning for Destiny. There’s no doubt about that. It wants to dethrone Bungie and Activision’s shared-world FPS and it’s not shy about it. In fact, it seems to us like The Division is outright trying to snare Destiny’s players – the loot system, the mixed player-versus-player and player-versus-enemy game types, the asynchronous world, and even the story all share something in common with Destiny. Thing is, where Bungie’s effort talks in grandiose, medieval sci-fi language, The Division takes pains to be more domestic – grittier, darker, harder.

“The fact that our scenario is grounded in reality, an actual ‘what if’ scenario, sets us apart from most other games,” explains Martin Hultberg – the IP developer for Massive and Ubisoft and The Division. He’s the driving force behind giving The Division its identity – and the best person we could talk to after our hands-on. “We have no aliens, no zombies or strange monsters running about. The Division is based on a real threat, a clear and present danger to our society.” That’s a long way from a floating sphere and a handful of alien races after your light, right?

That’s one of the things that has kept us interested in The Division, despite its numerous delays and the relatively slow drip-feed of information that’s been coming from Ubisoft. We’re being subjected to countless apocalypse narratives at the moment, but The Division’s approach to it all is more cynical, more self-reflective.

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“Mankind has always been fascinated by disasters and the end times, since as far back as we have recorded history,” explains Hultberg. “[The end] is in religious texts, it is told as legends… Severe disasters are historic fact and there are countless books on the subject. Humans are set apart from other animals in that we can see patterns over time, we can speculate and we can theorise. It is probably part of human nature – to speculate on the subject of our own demise.”

So how does Ubisoft apply these patterns, this grim fascination with our own end, in a videogame? A place where death, really, is insignificant. We craftily edited out the times we died in that introductory retelling of our experience with The Division, because it takes away from the drama, but we died twice during our excursion. Thing is, we gloss over that, because we’re gamers: death is inevitable, death is inconsequential.

Making death relevant in a game goes further than that – it seems to us you have to focus less on the intimacy of death and more on its broader implications. You must think about the societal, the philosophical, the idea of death as a reset button, the birth of the post-human, the idea of being victims around death, but not of it.

So that’s another area The Division is diverting from its peers – it’s focusing on the very culture that helps fuel the game: consumerism. The disease that wipes out the vast majority of the population spreads on Black Friday. It’s spread via banknotes, too. The whole message would in danger of being delivered in a borderline Banksy way, if it weren’t for the fact this side of the narrative will only be the backdrop to the tribalistic human-versus-human element the main game will go on to explore.

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“There certainly is a thought in The Division about modern society,” Hultberg explains. “When we started looking at footage from Black Friday sales and viewed that next to footage from food riots in disaster areas around the world – there was an eerie resemblance in how people acted. There are reports of fights breaking out over game controllers on discount in the Christmas shopping frenzy. It’s crazy.”

Suddenly our mad scramble to get to those crates of weapons and that oh-so-important loot doesn’t feel so innocuous. Now that parallel’s been drawn, it’s interesting to reflect on the other players that were sat around us as our fireteam encroached on that crate. “Kill them, kill them!” we heard one frenzied teen shout to his colleagues, then there’s our own betrayal, too.

Maybe The Division’s loot cycle is going to be more than just an RNG grind, a la Destiny… Maybe it’s actually going to give some human weight to the way we, as gamers, approach looting. Will we kill as many people as possible to try and horde the best gear for ourselves, or will we give other players the benefit of the doubt and reduce our own odds of getting the good stuff in order to share?

Remember: you’re not anyone’s enemy in The Division until you’ve pulled the trigger.

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“Nobody can be trusted in the Dark Zones,” explains Hultberg, “so tensions and risks are high, but so are the rewards.” The Dark Zones themselves don’t take over the whole game – they’re confined to certain areas of the map. “The setup allows you a seamless transition between solo, co-op and player verses player. This means no lobbies or menus – it is just one unbroken experience once you start the game. The world consists of areas that facilitate these different ways of playing and you will know, and choose, when you make the transition from one to another.”

We’ve played this game under the close eye of Ubisoft and Massive – in massively predetermined states. Despite that, we saw friend turn on friend. We saw people stab each other in the back for loot that they wouldn’t even get to keep on their character. When The Division is released, we’re intrigued to see just how badly humanity will turn on itself; there’s an argument to be made that The Division is as much a social experiment as it is a game.

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