Many war games or games about war attempt to incorporate moments into gameplay that evoke an emotional reaction from the player. Perhaps one of the more famous war video game franchises today, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series has continually included moments of shock and awe usually resulting in the death of one or more main characters. This is typically done to remind the player that war isn’t all glory; a grizzled veteran always has the chance of dying alongside a green recruit.
This was controversial when the original Modern Warfare dropped a nuke on your character and thirty-thousand of your compatriots, however, the games have continued to exterminate playable characters to a point where canonical player deaths have ceased to retain shock value and become an entirely expected occurrence. And though putting the player into a situation where they are fully expecting their character to die makes for a uniquely odd character-player relationship, the repeated use main character death has thoroughly beaten the metaphorical dead horse. Very few war games have done much to grab players the way Modern Warfare had over six years ago.
While I would hesitate to qualify Unmanned as a war game, there is little denying that it makes a unique and poignant critique of modern warfare. Rather than put the player in control of a thick-necked soldier, Unmanned tells the story of a day in the life of a suburbanite drone pilot. Most of the game’s “action” takes place inside the main character’s head as opposed to a war-torn battlefield; the gameplay is comprised entirely of dialogue trees and point-and-click challenges. There is no high-stake, top-secret mission central to the story, either; the protagonist is far more preoccupied with flirting with his colleague, the intricate nature of shaving, and remembering the lyrics to Queen songs. It’s like The Sims with more introspection.
So why bother with a game that deals solely in the banal? Furthermore, why bring it into conversation alongside a game like Modern Warfare? Well, the dryness of the game’s delivery is thematically linked to the message the game wants to get across. Unmanned wants to deal with war in the least fantastical and sensational way possible. It shows war as a routine part of an average Joe’s day (as it is for many drone pilots); it is not portrayed as a heroic duty, but as a mundane task. During the drone piloting scenes, the main character sits in front of a display with a control panel. The goal of this section is to successfully follow a “suspicious target” as he makes his way to a meeting place. All the while, the player must also carry out a conversation with the drone pilot. This section of the game lacks the intensity of the UAV scenes from Modern Warfare, and the gameplay more of an exercise in multitasking than anything else. The most important effect this scene has is that it turns war into a discussion by the water-cooler. The tone of the entire drone scene is more akin to Office Space than Saving Private Ryan.
In its mission to portray war as a desk job, Unmanned also begins to discuss the desensitization to violence, a topic which many video games often find themselves the target. Interestingly enough, the scene following the drone bombing shows the main character playing a typical first-person shooter game with his son. Juxtaposing the final drone piloting scene with the protagonist enjoying an FPS war-game with his son could be interpreted as commentary on the perceived blurred line between real world violence and violent video games, but a far more interesting take is the commentary on the player himself.
Throughout the game, the player is instilled with a sense of detachment and isolation brought on partially by the technology in his life. In the drone scene and the video game scene, the main character is facing a screen (and facing your computer screen, coincidentally) controlling the actions of another character (the drone and the war-hero, respectively). The main character is completely distanced from the battlefield and the effects of his own actions, and the player is even further removed. By the time the credits rolled, I hardly felt anything at all, and that’s probably a bad thing.
Perhaps Unmanned is commentary on the idea that war has become like a game for soldiers. Perhaps it’s commentary on the way our culture thinks of war and receives it. Maybe the game wants you to feel like a callous. There is not a whole lot to work with in Unmanned, which is a shame since there are few games that have left me feeling so hollow. I would suggest giving it a shot if you’ve found yourself feeling too good lately.
P.S.: Unmanned is completely free and available to play online at http://unmanned.molleindustria.org/