Riot: Civil Unrest review

7 months ago by Dante Douglas

A study in depth over breadth.

RIOT: Civil Unrest opens with a small piece of text about the game and its development process: “We tried our best to be as unbiased as possible, but the results still remain only perspectives. In order to know more about the events here replicated, we highly recommend to (sic) inform yourself personally as well.”

It’s a thesis statement of sorts for a very ambitious and often flawed game. Riot is, mechanically, a real-time strategy game centered around the movement of crowds throughout protest scenarios. Players can command either “rebels” (the game’s word) or police, and encounters are directly taken from real, modern protests. Four campaigns are available, with four to six scenarios per campaign, each available from both the side of the protesters and of the police.

The divide between the tone of the actual events that the game is simulating and the simulation itself forms the greatest tension in the experience of playing Riot. It is a game that is trying to do a great many things that games of its development scale generally do not attempt—on technical and social commentary levels.

Using self-pathing crowd AI as the primary locus of player mechanical control means that encounters become slippery, frantic experiences of pointing individual protest groups toward specific destinations, hoping desperately that their morale is high enough to maintain coherent movement to the target. In any other game, I would mark this as a flaw. In Riot, I’m not so sure, given that the unstable and fluid movements of the crowd are meant to be as much an enemy to the player as the opposing forces in the encounter.

Controlling crowds is an integral part of any real-life protest scenario. Having participated in a number of street protests myself, Riot is a curious beast of a simulation. It is attempting to critique the systems that oppress and endanger protesters in the scenarios given, but does so with such a loving portrayal of both sides of the conflict that a player is left wondering what statement, if any, the creators mean to communicate through the game’s mechanics.

Protest encounters are short, generally ranging from two to five minutes of actual playtime. Playing encounters on higher levels of difficulty will expand this, but even on the hardest modes the encounters are swift and brutal. After each scenario, players are given a short breakdown of the material actions by both sides of the conflict. Depending on your tactics, the public may side with you in further scenarios. Choosing to play strictly nonviolently will make certain scenarios much harder, but striking first will often lead to more difficult missions down the line, as the public slowly turns on you and gives the opposing side more resources as a result.

While the game places protester campaign scenarios at the forefront of both public messaging and in-game focus, levels are all available to be completed as law enforcement as well. Playing as the police is mechanically different than playing as protesters: Police are regimented, and perform more akin to traditional RTS point-click-attack units. Where protesters are chaotic and prone to running, police are geared up and hierarchical, with maneuvers and formations built to divide and frighten protest crowds.

The entire game is built on this simple back-and-forth between sides. Protester goals vary from mission to mission, from simply occupying a physical space to directly sabotaging police equipment by force. Police goals focus primarily on crowd dispersion and protest suppression, as one might expect. Clear the bridge, clear the square, maintain control over an area.

The game’s crowd AI and self-pathing for individual units on the ground is unlike anything I’ve seen in a game before. Crowds ebb and flow, liquid-like, throughout the space of the game world. The soundscape and visual style contribute heavily toward the specific and focused atmosphere that the game aims to deliver.

It takes a birds-eye view to fully understand the shape of a protest, and Riot knows this. I found it almost poetic that zooming in didn’t actually make the picture any clearer—just like in a real protest, the closer you are to the action, the less distinct the actors become. Protest chants, car alarms, and the ambient noises of people moving around in large groups form an eerie orchestra underscoring each encounter. The muddy, grungy pixel art aesthetic adds to this further, coupled with a swinging, freeform camera that (mostly, successfully) follows the crowd unit or police regiment currently selected by the player.

Overwhelmingly, as I continued to play Riot, I found myself not frustrated with it as much as left feeling somewhat empty. Riot places itself as a conscientious recreation of real-world protest scenarios, but couches them in systemic, “winnable” scenarios. Just occupy this square for five minutes, and the police will leave. It’s obviously simplified for the sake of creating a more interesting game, but one wonders why these were the decisions made.

Each campaign is bookended by gorgeous, fully pixel art animated cinematics depicting the events that led to or occurred after the protests in the scenarios. They’re played alongside pulse-pounding drums and the clamor of protest. It’s a dramatic tonal choice, bringing the actions of the real activists that Riot bases itself on into the forefront.

Maybe I am too much of a cynic, but these cinematics felt almost heartbreaking. In many of the scenarios that Riot depicts, we see a world where superior tactics can win a protest and thus change the course of a country. This isn’t wholly unheard of, but far more often a “successful” protest will lead to further harm done to the persons involved in the action by the systems of law that oppress them. There is value in celebrating small victories, but it feels overly simplistic to assume that after one protest (or even many powerful protests) that a movement is successful.

Riot is a loving recreation of the complicated systems that intermesh in protests. At its worst, Riot feels like cheap theatre dressed in the garb of real conflict. At its best, it feels like a fantastical reimagining of protest dynamics, where players can act as an omniscient conductor of a torrential cascade of crowds, laying down waypoints and rally zones and directing the flow of movement. Where it succeeds, it is remarkable, but it often feels hollow, lacking in deeper analysis of the movements that it uses for its campaigns. Social change is more than just street actions, but Riot sure does replicate those street actions incredibly.

Verdict: Yes