LOS ANGELES — Tinsel hangs from an awning, and sparkly white lights twirl around a pillar. This is New York City during the holidays — only in publisher Ubisoft’s The Division, these comforting sights come in stark contrast to an environment that is falling apart due to a crisis. And the reason that Ubisoft set that crisis during the holidays is frighteningly real.
Tom Clancy’s The Division is an open-world online shooter where you control a member of an elite unit that is attempting to save New York City from falling into chaos. A biological weapon has wiped out huge swaths of the population, and the reason players must work their way through a Manhattan set up for Christmas isn’t just because it looks cool or because developer Massive really likes Die Hard. No, it’s because the studio’s research revealed that a terrorist biological attack would have the most devastating impact on the United States if it hit on Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year.
‘That’s what happens in The Division.
A nefarious group attacks crowded holiday shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving, when everyone is close together and touching random objects all day long. This would enable a virus or bug to spread quickly through the population. Massive based this hypothesis on the real-world Operation Dark Winter, which was a Center for Strategic and International Studies bio-terrorist-attack simulation that ran in 2001. The CSIS, a public-policy thinktank, wanted to see how prepared the U.S. was for a biological weapon. The simulation spiraled out of control and showed how inadequate public-health facilities would enable a bio-virus to start in one city (it was Oklahoma City in the simulation) and then go on to infect the entire nation.
While that might sound post-apocalyptic, Massive insists that The Division shows a city that is still in the process of falling.
“The game is mid-crisis,” Massive head of communications Martin Hultberg told GamesBeat. “Mid-crisis means you still have the chance to affect the outcome. It’s a situation that is very unexplored. We don’t see it in games or even movies. Classic games take place before the crisis. It’s all about stopping the bomb, stopping the terrorists, or defuse whatever problem there is.”
In The Division, Massive wanted to explore what happens when everyone fails to prevent the threat, what happens when the player is in the middle of something terrible but still has the chance to fix it. New York City is falling apart, but its fate isn’t determined. And it’s up to the player to pull it back from the precipice that leads to a permanent apocalypse.