Keep It Simple, Stupid:
A concise analysis of 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
There is a simple question that games do not ask often enough. That question is "what does this have to do with reality?" When violence is part of a world of fiction first and foremost, it becomes alienated from the audience's experience. Yet it is inaccurate to say that "violence" is not part of ALL audience's lives, or that it is impossible to connect the audience to the violence they are seeing. Many who live in the so-called "first world" still experience random and brutal violence as part and parcel of their daily lives.
With that said, who better to make a game commenting on violence than one who was a victim of it? Curtis James Jackson, stage name "50 Cent", is such an individual. On May 24, 2000, Jackson was shot nine times at close range with a 9mm pistol. The bullets hit Jackson's hand, arm, hip, legs, chest, and passed through his left cheek. Miraculously - and I can think of no other word to describe such an event - Jackson survived largely unharmed. The most visible lasting damage is a slur in his voice caused by the cheek injury, something the average viewer probably thinks of as just being part of his "rap persona". After the incident, Jackson wrote in his autobiography: "After I got shot nine times at close range and didn't die, I started to think that I must have a purpose in life... How much more damage could that shell have done? Give me an inch in this direction or that one, and I'm gone".
Jackson in many ways is the real-life stand-in for the video game protagonist - a man who was shot repeatedly and, in an event bordering on self-parody, essentially "walked it off". Who better to make a game that attempts to comment on real violence and real death than someone who has actually been through it? The reason I don't believe this game was really "understood" by its target audience was that unlike games like Spec Ops or Bioshock, the game never grabs you by the lapels and shouts in your face about its message, splattering spittle across your cheek. Instead, the game is itself; the world it presents and the actions it depicts are meant to shock you by what they are, and what they represent, rather than the game coming out and telling you that "you should be disgusted" or "you should be horrified". This endeavor is aided by a protagonist who many gamers instinctively hated - a black, masculine, materialistic rapper, a person that some assumed couldn't tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The number of people who criticize rap for being about "guns and bitches and bling" and ignore rock songs about the same material stands as a testament to the societal effectiveness of this setup.
50 Cent: Blood on the Sand is a game about the title protagonist and his 3 comrades pursuing a diamond-encrusted skull through a war-torn Middle Eastern city as payment for a concert carried out in that same city. Already we are faced with multiple themes: materialism is the primary one, but it's also worth noting that there is a contrast between "the Middle Eastern city that has a huge stadium packed with Fifty Cent's fans" and "the Middle Eastern city that is desolate and destroyed" - in fact, they are one and the same. When we, as First Worlders, imagine a city in the Middle East, do we even ALLOW for the first part to coexist with the second? One is put in mind not of Iraqi battlefields like Fallujah, but instead of American cities, with high-development urban areas as well as battered ghettoes. Fifty Cent is not fighting through a foreign warzone, but instead he is fighting through a lower-class urban area - in America, this would be his home turf (as seen in "50 Cent: Bulletproof").
At several points the theme of "destroyed beauty" comes up in Fifty Cent, whether it's addressing the architectural influences of a palace or statue, or commenting that a bombed-out theatre "must have looked grand in its day". This is not a "war" concept, though - rather, we must keep in mind that this is an extension of Fifty's home, the ghetto. Like his own home, this city's lower-class areas are run-down, desolate, abandoned. Things that were once grand were allowed to fester and rot because they were no longer convenient for society at large to support. After all, the country itself isn't collapsing - the parts of the city where Fifty's concert was seemed intact and thriving. Instead, like a sandy Detroit, this is about a world that's been allowed to collapse because it was undesirable. The hotels, shopping malls, and theatres of this world fell into ruin, crime and poverty for the same reasons that they do in the First World: economic abandonment.
Fifty's enemies, too, are representative of his own familiar world. They are described not as terrorists or freedom fighters or insurgents, but "gangsters" - gangsters clad in different garb and with more control, but gangsters nonetheless. It is not known what spurs these people onwards to try to kill 50 Cent, but then, it's also not known what spurred Darryl Baum to put nine bullets in Curtis James Jackson either. Unlike games about "war", the gangster-on-gangster conflict in Blood on the Sand can be motivated by something as simple-yet-powerful as masculinity and machismo. These gangsters are trying to kill Fifty Cent because they come from a world where life and death are cheap - and if that seems unrealistic, one has but to look at real crime, real gang wars, real murders.
Not that the game is limited to killing gangsters, of course - at one point Fifty encounters an American PMC unit looking to "Get Rich Or Die Tryin'" (to quote one of Fifty's albums). The fact that these fellow Westerners - materialistic, unconcerned with morality - end up as Fifty's enemies stands as a testament to the self-consuming nature of greed. And what is "greed" on the battlefield? What does it mean when people are willing to kill other human beings for money alone? The concepts that games like MGS4 don't even begin to address are brought out in force by Fifty Cent Blood on the Sand.
And thus we come back to the first theme brought up: materialism. Fifty Cent Blood On The Sand is a game about materialism first and foremost. Fifty's only goal is to retrieve his payment - a diamond-encrusted skull. There is no other greater motive or concept here, no ostensible righteousness to be subverted or undermined. Fifty Cent Blood on the Sand is a game about killing people for money. Do you think this is accidental? Do you think it's unintentional? If so, perhaps you ought to read this:
"A sneak peek of the game shows 50 Cent accepting a diamond-encrusted skull as payment, then the crew is ambushed. "I had seen Blood Diamond and I had some ideas that I wanted to put in (the game)." And in an overseas trip, he read about "an artifact, it was actually a human skull that they placed diamonds in. It actually exists. It's a touch of reality.""
Fifty Cent: BOTS was inspired by Blood Diamond, a movie about conflict diamonds in warzones. And if you think Fifty merely skimmed off the "diamond" concept, perhaps you should consider one of his other works: "Home of the Brave", a movie where he depicts an Iraq War veteran traumatized by killing a civilian. The exploration of PTSD and the consequences of war in that movie extend far beyond the actual "end of violence", a conceit that even "serious" games rarely deign to approach. To assume that Fifty Cent - a victim of actual violence, in real life - doesn't "understand" violence is the conceit of racist, assumptive faux-intellectualism.
Fifty Cent: Blood on the Sand isn't a game about war. Fifty Cent: Blood on the Sand is a game about the ghetto, moved to a location that gamers are more familiar with, one that might actually provoke outrage and disgust. But the theme's the same: it's a game about people with nothing to lose scrabbling, bleeding, and dying for a chance to escape poverty. It's a game about the haves and the have-nots. And it's a game ignored because the entitled gamer media wasn't willing to give its creator the credit he deserves.
Does music affect the perception of a game's tone or concept? Let's find out: