Heist to meet you: the compulsive thieves of gaming

Phil Hartup asks what makes a heist game truly great.

Ever since the Bonanza Brothers sneaked onto my Megadrive in the early nineties, bought on budget rather than at release in the mistaken belief that a game in which the main characters look like dustbins couldn’t be great, I have been waiting for a perfect heist game. Bonanza Brothers was great, but some twenty years later and counting, it’s about time it was bettered. With Payday 2 rolling out this week maybe now is the finally the time for this to happen.

Theft occupies a curious place in the moral pantheon of video games in that it isn’t really considered wrong to steal in most games. Theft will get you into trouble in many games, no doubt about that, but for the majority of games, whether you’re playing as Mario in the Mushroom Kingdom, the Dragonborn in Skyrim, or the hero of a point and click adventure it is a given that if something is there, in the game world, and you can pick it up, you’re generally entitled, even encouraged to have it. In Skyrim maybe the guards will be called if you get caught, but you don’t see anybody getting thrown out on the street because you pinched the money in the chest to pay their rent, or starving to death because you munched all the food in their home like a cross between Beowulf and the Very Hungry Caterpillar.

That player characters are so often compulsive thieves, wolfing packets of snack food out of desk drawers as soon as look at them in the Bioshock series or walking up to any car like they own it in GTA, Saints Row or Sleeping Dogs, often makes game worlds feel a little strange and unrealistic. Is that what sets the hero apart from the masses, his willingness to steal everything that crosses his path? Some of my earliest gaming memories are of playing a text adventure called Juxtaposition: Barons of Ceti V on a venerable Dragon 32, I recall that if there was an item in a room I could have it, it was in fact important to success in the game that no object went un-stolen.

It is only the recent Fallout games that have really acknowledged that stealing is wrong by attaching a karma penalty to it. Steal enough from people and you are considered a rotter by all and sundry, at least until you’ve murdered a few outlaws to balance it out. The karma penalty applies even if you are not caught, which is fair enough, the characters presumably aware that wherever you go, scarcity and want are not far behind.

Perhaps the only other sin that games encourage within their worlds more than theft is imperialism, which is arguably just theft on a larger scale. Chances are if a game sets you up as being in charge of a country one of the first things they’ll want you to do with it is steal the land next door.

But if thievery is par for the course in gaming where does that leave the heist game? In a medium where every hero and his daughter is on the rob near constantly, is there a place for the game dedicated to the art of pinching things? Apparently yes.

There are specific elements that set a proper heist game apart from the casual larceny of ordinary games. First among these is the level design. Any given level in a heist game should be almost completely self-contained, you start on the map at the start, you exit the map at the end, and somewhere in the middle you steal something. Stealth games like the early Hitman, Tenchu, or Splinter Cell titles shared many qualities with the heist game in the early days, but lost their way over the years to become more linear and less thoughtful.

The second defining quality of the heist game is the freedom. A heist game is not defined by its point of view, nor it is played on rails like a traditional linear game, rather it is a small sandbox with a treasure in it. Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine is as much as heist game as Thief: The Dark Project or Bonanza Brothers, regardless of perspective.

Lastly and most importantly a heist game must react to player decisions and actions. If you play it sneaky the game must respect that, if you go in guns blazing the game must deal with that. Not every approach is as valid as the next, there can be a right way and a wrong way, but the game should roll with it and react accordingly.

The original Payday game, Payday: The Heist attempted to modernise the heist game in an era where co-op shooters were really starting to show their potential. Left 4 Dead and the zombie mode from Call of Duty: World At War had proved that a team focussed game in which you tried to achieve objectives while under waves of attacks could be better than merely shooting your way through a linear level or a simple arena horde mode. By combining that proven game style with the inherent excitement of armed robberies and criminal escapes Overkill, the developers of Payday: The Heist, almost pulled off something amazing. Almost.

The problem with Payday: The Heist is that though you can take the zombies out of the zombie-game and replace them with cops, you can’t really take the zombie-game out of the zombie-game. The overriding impression with Payday is that you’re playing Left 4 Dead against the police. The various law enforcement officials stop short of demanding to eat your brains, but as they sweep down on you in their hordes it’s impossible to shake the feeling you’re caught up in the middle of a brilliant idea that really isn’t working, and not just because you tripped one of the alarms. You get to a point, right after you’ve killed your thirtieth SWAT team member in the midst of a hold up, that the sublime becomes the ridiculous.

Enter Payday 2, and it’s clear that we’re dealing with an entirely different, much more highly evolved animal. This is not a surprise; Starbreeze Studios who acquired the Overkill studios that made the original Payday have form for good co-op shooters. The eminently forgettable Syndicate remake might have lacked most of the character of the original games but what it did manage to provide is an excellent mission based co-op mode.

Even just playing the beta the improvements over the original Payday stand out, the visuals, sounds, animations, everything is a solid order of magnitude better. Mission design, even in the limited selection of the beta, is hugely improved. There is a certain amount of randomness to every mission too which improves longevity, safes will be moved, amounts of valuables and their locations will change, alleyways can be blocked off, drop off points moved, little things that ensure a shift in the challenge.

The most important difference in terms of how the game plays is that the police hordes are now much more sensible. Gone is the human wave of SWAT officers pouring across the map towards you, replaced by more reasonable numbers of enemies in more intelligent groups and patterns. Teams of officers will flank you, working together, stacking up to ambush you in rooms you thought were clear and generally being a menace to ordinary decent criminals at every turn.

The rush at the end of a heist, getting your team to the van, weighed down with loot, having to battle the temptation to go back for that one more bag of cash is immense. So often the game will tease you with the promise of greater riches, so that knowing when to say enough is enough becomes a survival skill.

Where Payday 2 is weakest however is with the characters and their development. The game offers an improved array of equipment customisation and skill diversity to the original, but it remains married to the surly mob of villains from the first game, with the only notable change being that token British villain Hoxton has been replaced with generic American villain with odd name Hoxton. None of the characters has any personality to speak of or any defining traits deeper than their skin colour or country of origin, and this only extends as far as one character being black and one character being Swedish. Nothing of value would have been lost by allowing players to build their own criminal characters from scratch. You don’t have to play the game long to really get into the spirit of it and it is perhaps one of the best examples of a game where extensive customisation would really feel apt.

It should also go without saying that for a bank robbery game not to feature a female character is a shocking omission. Did Bonnie Parker die for nothing?

The final point that feels off is the punishment for killing innocent bystanders. You shoot a civilian, you get a penalty on your eventual cut of the robbery. There is no explanation for this, there is no rationale why the life of an innocent patron of a bank or jewellery story should have a dollar value attached to it, in the context of a pitched battle where your characters are pretty much required to shoot dozens of policemen in the head. It feels like an attempt to give the bank robbers some sort of a heroic outlaw quality, but to be honest, if I was interested in a heroic outlaw character I wouldn’t be taking hostages in a savings and loan company to hide behind during a shootout. 

Such criticisms might feel churlish given that the actual business of storming into a bank, robbing the place and getting away with it in Payday 2 is such a great slice of gaming action, but there is more to advancing a creative medium than just doing the same thing as last time but better. Some more thought and some more freedom for the players and Payday 2 could be a real classic.

Even with these flaws the game is well worth a look for those who like their cooperative games zombie free, or those whose idea of a fun evening in is stealing money from banks and shooting lots of policemen.

Payday 2.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era