Life is but a Game – Unmanned

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.

Consequently, I can't shave without reflecting on life's deepest mysteries anymore.

Consequently, I can’t shave without intense introspection anymore.

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


Thinking with Portals – Puzzle game structure and interactivity

Puzzle games have a long and eclectic history. For the most part, they have been well received and are usually met with positive criticism. Seldom does a puzzle game utterly fail to deliver what it promises. This is probably due in part to the genre’s direct approach to gameplay – most puzzle games are unfettered by plot or non-essential and otherwise extraneous detail. There are a few exceptions to the rule. For instance, the Professor Layton series attempts to weave a larger mystery around each installment’s respective plot, however, the story comes off as little more than a forced vehicle for delivering contrived puzzles to the player (is there anything that doesn’t remind Layton of a puzzle?). Though both the plot and the puzzles each usually succeed in confounding the player, they do so independent of each other; the puzzles are merely an ornamental feature.

So how can a game elevate itself to something more complex and perplexing than a checklist of individual, unconnected puzzles? The solution requires a combination of elements. The conventions of gameplay and narrative or visual presentation must complement each other in order to develop a theme. In this sense, there are two large sub-genres of the puzzle game: games which feature puzzles and games that are puzzling. The latter tend to take place in environments that are themselves perplexing or have an air of mystery about them (let’s call them puzzle-worlds). Puzzle-worlds tend to stand out in their sheer oddity or enigmatic origins. The structure, linearity, and interactivity of the environment should reflect the aesthetic or design of the puzzles within it, otherwise players can sense a disconnect between world and its content.

One of the earliest examples of a game to accomplish this was Myst. Myst provided the player with very little in terms of resources, motivation, or an overarching goal. Instead, the game used its visual presentation as a means of motivating player progress; it was more of an exploration and discovery driven game. The minimal plot involving the brothers Sirrus and Achenar was little more than a frame story and, at times, only served to further obfuscate the central mystery hanging over the island. Though the plot left relatively little impression on the player, the environment drew a great deal of attention to itself. At the time, it presented a perfect mix of beauty and inscrutability; a very attractive combination.

Only a few seconds in and I'm already baffled.

Only a few seconds in and I’m already baffled.

At the time of its release, many hesitated to qualify Myst as a “game” as it lacked all of the commonly recognized elements of a traditional video game. There were no weapons, no items, no lives, and no game over screens. Myst was less of a game and more of a digital Rubik’s cube; though it could be mastered, it demanded not only to be carefully scrutinized, but engaged in a very hands-on manner. Mastery of the puzzle could only be achieved through physical and mental confrontation of Myst Island.

Myst‘s incorporation of puzzles into theme rather than simply a feature of gameplay helped popularize the genre throughout the early nineties. As the popularity of these types of games began to decline towards the turn of the century, puzzles became a smaller feature of adventure games. Jumping and block-pushing became fairly commonplace in lieu of logic and discovery based problem solving within a puzzle-world.

Puzzle-worlds were not properly rediscovered in mainstream gaming until the release of Portal in 2007. Very much like Myst, Portal used the presentation of its eerie environment to engage the player with its puzzle-world. Both games provided very little in the way of player motivation, and even less in the way of guidance allowing the player a sense of solitude. Though Portal‘s GLaDOS provided slightly more information throughout the tutorial section of the game, the player was more often fed misinformation and mockery of his intelligence. The book-bound brothers in Myst serve a similar purpose of feeding the player false information, though GLaDOS’s approach is certainly more memorable.

Portals can be dangerous business, try not to break the world around you.

Portals can be dangerous business, try to avoid breaking the world around you.

There are two important differences between Myst and Portal, the more obvious of the two being Portal‘s more action-oriented approach toward puzzle solving given the agility of the player. The second being that the game’s world now represented not only an obstacle which had to be overcome, but a threat to the life (and sanity) of the player. GLaDOS took every possible opportunity to mock and belittle the player, while the world itself instilled a sense of doom with ominous hints to the fates of GLaDOS’s previous candidates. Portal created an atmospheric puzzle-world like nothing anyone had seen in mainstream gaming in a long time.

The major drawback to Portal is, though the world was equally as confounding and apparently originless as Myst Island, the gameplay is too well scaffolded. By the time the game draws the stark line between training course and deathtrap, the player is fairly well-informed of what the game is capable of throwing at them. It was a huge detractor from the otherwise well-developed world. Perhaps this is a consequence of the long lull of intensive logic-based puzzle games.

Ultimately, the main goal of the puzzle game is to confound the player. Alexander Bruce clearly recognized this axiom when he gave us Antichamber. While at first glance Antichamber appears to be aesthetically reminiscent of Portal, it is an entirely different kind of beast. On some level, the game assumes the player has a level of familiarity with the puzzle genre because it defies so many established notions of how a typical game world “works.” There are many times during the game where it is clear that the world itself is designed to fool the player and impede his progress with misdirection. Antichamber is unique in its use of Escher-esque environments and first-person perspective. Elements of the environment can change after passing specific points and subsequent reexamination of one’s

You only think this picture is confusing, wait until you see it for yourself

You only think this picture is confusing, wait until you see it for yourself

surroundings. Because these points are difficult to detect, it is important that the player be especially discerning and constantly observant of even the minutest of details.

Antichamber provides no instruction or direction beyond what it shows the player. Beyond providing the basic control scheme, the game leaves the player entirely to his own devices. At times, the game (and its world) can entirely lack direction in a metaphorical and literal sense. If Antichamber can be said to have anything, it is a tightly-controlled, well-defined puzzle-world. Without the framework of its world, the game falls apart (and once you complete the game, you will know exactly what that means).

Easier said than done.

Easier said than done

A puzzle game without a fitting world is simply a great deal of substance without structure, and what’s the fun in that?

Spyception: Humans pretending to be computers pretending to be humans?

A couple of years ago, Chris Hecker began development on a little game called SpyParty. It was little more than a vague concept at the time, but it was one that drew a great deal of attention to itself. SpyParty is a multi-player game; one person plays the role of a spy in attendance at a cocktail party for VIPs, the other plays the role of a sniper across the street. Each player has a unique goal. The spy has a unique objective which requires stealthily avoiding detection from the sniper, who has a full view of the party from his vantage point. The sniper must use his powers of discernment to distinguish the spy from the NPCs. Additionally, he is only given one shot to kill the spy, otherwise his mission is a failure.

The fairly straightforward objectives belie a far more complex set of sub-objectives. For the players, the game is essentially a reverse-engineered Turing test. Turing, of course, wanted to know whether or not an AI could “think” or imitate human thought. Hecker on the other hand, seems more interested in whether or not humans can recognize and imitate NPC behavior. The test is further complicated by the fact that the NPCs present in SpyParty exhibit movement and behavior similar to that of the player-controlled character (albeit somewhat clumsily). Players’ shared objectives are to study patterns in NPC behavior. Both spy and sniper must ask themselves which actions makes an NPC distinguishable from a player-controlled character.

NPCs imitating human behavior (as AI are wont to do)

NPCs imitating human behavior (as AI are wont to do)

Rather than designing the NPCs to be entirely indistinguishable from a player controlled character, SpyParty‘s NPCs demonstrate very watered down, somewhat clunky behavior. This was likely done to create a balance in difficulty for both spy and sniper; after all, it wouldn’t be much fun if the spy could accomplish his goal without worrying about blending in. The draw to this game is not the advanced AI, it’s the chance for the PC to transform himself into an NPC.

SpyParty is still in an experimental stage of development, so it may be a while before we see how the final product is executed.