Editor’s Note: It’s the Herald’s policy not to use the term “dirty wars” due to its denialist associations. We’ve decided to use it here because the video game is the subject of the story.
Jorge Olivares grew up hearing stories of his parents’ brave involvement in the clandestine resistance that fought the brutal dictatorship that came into power in Chile in 1973. They told him the kind of things history books don’t show — riveting stories about self-sacrifice and commitment, but also about confidential meetings, espionage, and secret codes.
Olivares, a sociologist and musician, wanted these stories to be told to the world, and in 2017 he came across the opportunity to make his wish come true — in the form of a video game.
“I won a National Arts Development Fund scholarship and was able to put together a pre-production team with three others,” Olivares told the Herald. “But I ran out of money and decided to do it on my own, as a sociologist who knew nothing about programming. I worked on it for two years, teaching myself how to do it.” It was Olivares’ first project as a developer.
“Dirty Wars: September 11” is a stealth and espionage video game set in Santiago between 1973 and 1978, soon to be released on Steam. Its demo is already available, and its playable characters are Maximiliano and Abigail, two fictional members of the resistance. The launch comes in the midst of a significant anniversary for Chile: September 11, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of the Augusto Pinochet-led coup that led to his brutal regime that lasted until 1991.
How did a sociologist get in to video game development? Or was it the other way around?
Sociology came first. Even though I’d always wanted to be a musician, I started university at 18 because my family told me to study something more profitable. Sociology is not that profitable either [laughs], so I placed an ad in a European Internet forum after graduating, showcasing my songs. I’ve been composing since I was 14. A Spanish video game developer contacted me and I started composing soundtracks for several video games.
What genre would you say “Dirty Wars” is?
The game mixes different genres. My inspiration was the Metal Gear [stealth game series], the game that marked my teenage years. It made me see that they could go beyond child-oriented topics. I also included graphic adventures and puzzle games… I didn’t have a clear reference. It couldn’t have been a shooter game, for instance, because violence was not the resistance’s first recourse, at least not at first. Information management was more important than weapons for survival. The game’s mechanics come from the story, not the other way around.
What do you mean by that?
For example, you can use books to cipher and decipher meeting points to drop packages, which was part of the clandestine infrastructure of the resistance. I incorporated that straight from family stories, but I don’t know if it is widely known. I haven’t found this information in any history book.
Are there other mechanics that incorporate Chile’s history during that time?
Yes. You have what’s called “memory collectibles,” a mechanic that involves visiting landmarks or collecting historical objects that narrate events [from that time]. For instance, you can go to a newspaper kiosk and read a paper. In these newspapers, the player can see a museum-like description of how the press manipulated the information in those years. You can also collect photographs and listen to conversations that provide historical context.
The game’s title, “Dirty Wars” is a term used to describe “non-conventional” warfare conducted by military regimes against political dissidents. It is widely controversial in Argentina since it was used by the military junta to justify their actions. Julio César Strassera, the prosecutor of the 1985 trial against the dictatorship’s military commanders, rejected it. In his closing arguments, he stressed that there was “no war,” dirty or otherwise.
“War is horrifying enough to admit an additional qualifier of ‘dirty,’” Strassera said. “It is a euphemism to cover up the activities of people who acted more like gang members than soldiers.”
According to Olivares, the term — which is not widely used in Chile — is discussed and analyzed in the game “until the last level.” In fact, opening up discussions is one of Olivares’ main hopes
“There is no consensus [about Pinochet’s regime] in Chile. There is a so-called ‘denialist’ side, which I think actually justifies it,” Olivares said. “They know what happened and justify it by saying that if Pinochet hadn’t committed those crimes, we would have become Cuba, 10,000 guerrilla fighters would have disembarked in the country, and the left would have raped our women and eaten our babies…”
Is that something people still say?
Yes, and not only the elderly. Young people say these things as well. Most of the people that follow the game are under 30. I made it for them. Youngsters learn more from video games than books — they learn history through Call of Duty. These are the times we’re living in, but I believe the game can work as an educational tool to open debates between different sectors. We’ll have to wait and see if we can agree on anything or not.