Tom Clancy’s The Division has inspired a lot of analysis and criticism, and much of it based on the name alone. Tom Clancy was a prominent figure not just for putting his name on loads of games, but for his intensely and sometimes bizarrely conservative fantasies. I’m not going to dive into a literary analysis of his work but I point it out because The Division seems to have been tarred by his reputation, when the content seems to have a lot more to say than the average airport novel. Common criticisms about shooting innocent looters and being an authoritarian government’s puppet have come and gone, but I’ve seen very little deep diving into the symbolism present throughout the game. There is plenty to unpack, and some of it leads in unexpected directions.
What struck me the most by the end of the story was how badly it painted all the organizations that rise and fall as events play out. All of the failings that occur in the story happen at the hands of groups, starting with the initial government responses and running all the way through the factions and the Division itself. CERA is the first organized response to the outbreak and is so woefully unprepared to handle it that they literally cease to exist. The Joint Task Force comes in to pull together what’s left of CERA and take a more martial approach to maintaining order, but again botches it by being both overwhelmed and incompetent. It’s their actions that result in the creation of the Dark Zone, the location of the full breakdown of society and the event that inspires Aaron Keener, the game’s ultimate antagonist, to take the actions he does. The First Wave of the Division is partially done in by the same factors that doom CERA and the JTF, and then is finished off with a gunshot to the head by Keener. And the Second Wave doesn’t even exist as an organization following the prologue, which as far as the story goes leaves just your character and Faye Lau as the only survivors still committed to the mission.
After the Dark Zone takes shape and order breaks down entirely, new groups arise in the city to impose their own interpretations of order, but in the grand scheme of things accomplish nothing. The Rioters are barely an organization, instead working as small collectives just to survive at any cost. If anything this only hastens the ultimate destruction of society because they build nothing to support their survival and simply kill and loot until (theoretically) nothing is left. The Cleaners are the only faction trying to address the outbreak directly, but in a futile and self-destructive way. They intend to “burn out the infection” but never properly identify where the infection is. Without any sort of guidance from scientists or doctors (whom I’ve never seen in their faction) their plans would end with literally everyone in New York dead, which still wouldn’t end the disaster because we know from the radio that it’s already spread to other cities. The Rikers are entirely self-interested and seem focused on destroying other power structures in the city, which again accomplishes nothing except hastening the outbreak’s own goals. And while the LMB does the best job of maintaining actual order in their territory they do so for outside interests, without any effort to stop or even slow the plague.
So all these groups in and around New York either fail to combat the outbreak or don’t even attempt to at all. This falls in line perfectly with Amherst’s plan to release the virus in the first place, as a judgment on humanity. In his final message, Amherst focuses on humanity as group, a flawed group, rather than individuals that deserve to be condemned or redeemed. And as it turns out he’s right, because as a group (or groups) humanity proves to be incapable of resisting his creation. The only actual progress that is made on the core issue of the virus is made by individuals, namely Keener and your character. Keener properly identifies the virus as the key to power in the wake of the outbreak, the sole element that caused the breakdown of society, and also that it can be controlled. Your character is the only one that focuses on defeating the virus itself by rescuing Kandel and providing her with the information she needs to battle it directly, not just treat the symptoms.
That gets to the heart of what I think The Division is trying to say, that agency in the absence of order is found in individuals, not groups or even ideologies. This is hardly a contentious conclusion, because it’s exactly what Keener tells you in the end in his inevitable “we’re not so different, you and I” speech. But for once it’s borne out through the entire game, and not just through his actions but your own. You arrive in New York essentially solo (since Lau is little more than a voice in your ear the whole game) and somehow manage to turn around everything that CERA, JTF, and an entire wave of people like you couldn’t handle. You do this not because your ideology is superior or because your group is better, but because you’re strong enough to destroy the other power structures standing in your way. Each of the four factions, Rioters, Cleaners, Rikers, and LMB are organized around different ideologies and goals but ultimately the battle comes down to their leader versus you, and as far as the plot is concerned you crush them by cutting off the head of each one.
I bring up ideologies because the ones you come into conflict with aren’t always so different from your own. The Rioters, for example, are not actively trying to destroy the city but are acting in short-sighted self-interest. They take whatever they can find, and kill if that means getting better stuff. Sound familiar? There’s a common encounter on the street where you might come across a Rioter or two looting a dead body. The simplest and most likely player response to this is to kill them before they can attack you, and then loot their dead bodies. Your first mission against the Rioters is literally across the street from your home base, where you invade their home base and take their doctor back to your home base. There’s clearly moral differences here in that the Rioters hold her against her will and you ostensibly let her choose to join you but in stark terms you’re still destroying what they’ve established so that you can prosper from it.
The Cleaners are the “common sense” solution to the problem, the solution that arises when you ask people out of their depth to fix the issue. They clearly want to do something about the problem and they think they’re helping, but their actions are more destructive than anything and serve more to assuage their own fears than to combat the problem. If you dig into the backstory it explains that Joe Ferro, their leader, lost his wife to the plague and was a frequent caller to anti-government radio shows, so I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to connect him to right-wing ideologues who will act against their interests if they are convinced they are right in principle. The Rikers I’m not going to get too much into because, if I can be critical for a minute here, the design of the faction really missed the mark. There’s some interesting stuff with their leader LaRae Barrett and how she couches her actions in #BlackLivesMatter rhetoric because while she’s not wrong, she’s using it to justify full-on genocide against any semblance of order. The issue is that the Rikers are portrayed as Fallout raider madmen from top to bottom, who decorate their clubhouses with mutilated corpses and threaten to blow up entire neighborhoods because you crashed their party. I’ll allow that maybe it’s me that’s being naive here and maybe large swathes of population really would turn into blood-gargling psychopaths in the event of global catastrophe, but I still think it’s overplayed here and hurts attempts to interpret them as part of the story.
Then there’s the LMB. As you progress through the game the locales tend to get grimmer and more threatening, from the desolate streets of the Rioters to the burning apartment blocks of the Cleaners to the abattoirs of the Rikers. Then you get to LMB territory and it’s all floodlights and razor wire and blockades painted with their Punisher motif. It feels like hell, both aesthetically and from a gameplay standpoint because it’s harder to move around all the checkpoints and barricades. And the LMB themselves are brutal enemies, engaging you with mixed tactics and powerful weapons. In reality they’re the least morally objectionable of the factions, as all they’ve done is establish martial law. Yes, they shoot civilians that trespass on checkpoints and disappear targets of interest to them. But this is essentially what the US military did in Afghanistan, or what any occupying force does in “enemy” territory. The LMB isn’t even a corrupt, amoral PMC like Blackwater, they’re just doing a job the way they were trained to do. Their leader, Col. Bliss, is portrayed as a narcissist and obviously makes a disastrous agreement with Keener but by the final battle has established that he believes in the mission and the work he’s doing, and it comes down to a power struggle between you and him.
I don’t think it’s pure coincidence that the final battle of the game takes place in the United Nations, the seat of a worldwide political organization that has been gutted and is occupied by a paramilitary force. In the end it doesn’t matter what the different factions believe or push as their ideology, because in the end they’re not strong enough to stand up to you. And you exist in a moral gray area that your allies are all too ready to call out themselves. Being a no-accountability secret organization worked against everyone until you came along as a seemingly happy accident. Paul Rhodes is inherently distrustful of the Division for reasons that are borne out as you learn about Keener’s actions. Lau and Kandel have an exchange in an early mission about whether or not humanity deserves to survive, a direct echo of Amherst’s motivations. And if you’ve ever set foot into the Dark Zone, from a story standpoint you are following in Keener’s footsteps by pitting yourself against fellow agents in the pursuit of consolidating power (in the form of loot). Building on that, if you’re willing to let gameplay inform the plot then you can make a strong case that your own personal actions are just as self-serving as any of the faction leaders you’re fighting, because mechanically your goal is to be rewarded with more powerful gear and abilities.
Trying to boil down the plot of The Division to a specific ideology doesn’t work because it’s less concerned with ideology than the politics of power. When society collapses it doesn’t matter who has the best ideas or even the right ideas, what matters is who has the power to break others down. It’s survival on a social level, not just a physical one, and it echoes the biology of the virus as the stronger individuals survive to spread their vision of order in the wake of chaos. Your character and Keener are fighting for the same ends, it’s the means that are different. You’re helping people survive as you crush others to consolidate power, and he’s just skipping the helping part. There are layers here that descend far past basic politics or social norms, layers worth peeling back to find the complex morality at play. The Division is more than just another Tom Clancy power fantasy or minority shooting gallery, and it has something to say that only seems more and more poignant as the years go by.