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.

Unmanned

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 http://unmanned.molleindustria.org/

A Farewell to Hayter – Metal Gear Solid Gets a New Voice

 A few hours ago, Kiefer Sutherland was announced as the voice actor the Big Boss in the latest installment of the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Many fans of the series have already begun to voice their own displeasure with the exclusion of the man who voiced Snake for fifteen years from the project, David Hayter. Kojima has addressed his decision during Konami’s pre-E3 showcase:

“…we’re taking on some very heavy subjects such as race and revenge. This makes the tone much darker. As a result, I wanted Snake to have a more subdued performance expressed through subtle facial movements and tone of voice, rather than words.”

Kojima appears to want to abandon the exposition laden and sometimes needlessly circuitous dialogue that the previous games are notorious for in favor of a more understated and nuanced performance. Rather than the gravely monotone that Hayter has become well-known for, the new voice will have to be able to convey a range of emotions. Whether or not Sutherland is the actor for that job is entirely up for debate, but one thing is for certain: the new direction the series is taking means that Snake’s traditional voice has to go.

Snake and Big Boss have always been, under Hayter’s voice, cool, unshakable badasses. Seldom has Hayter altered his modes of speech during his performance (read: Snake and louder Snake). While this has done a great deal in the way of establishing Snake and Big Boss as iconic action heroes (or villains), it does not leave much room for character development or exploration. Kojima has famously expressed his discontent with the way Solid Snake was portrayed throughout the Metal Gear Solid series and the lack of a distinguishable character arc. There was simply not much Kojima could do with a character who created to be more action hero than human.

Besides, fifteen is around the age where most people's voice start to change.

Besides, fifteen is around the age where most people’s voice start to change.

During the pre-E3 video, Sutherland puts forward his own views on what Kojima expects from his lead character in Metal Gear Solid V: “…what does Snake want for the future and how does the past weigh on him? There is a characters hope for a future, and that rounds out what I term as the human experience.” Kojima is not looking for the gruff machismo that many have come to expect of Metal Gear Solid franchise, but a more human-like, vulnerable character. Snake and Big Boss have not quite been portrayed as human characters in the previous installments. They have been touted as legendary super-soldiers, and while they may claim to be nothing more than hired killers, they continually accomplish increasingly fantastic, world-saving feats.

Kojima does not appear to want to serve the fans as much as he wants to serve the story he wants to tell, which is an incredibly bold move to take especially considering how well received Hayter was, not to mention the image that Snake has established over the course of the last fifteen years. Yes, a lot of people will be upset, and the end product may not entirely resemble the story that most people expect, but that’s not to say it won’t be entertaining or thought provoking. Very few franchises are willing to welcome drastic change. To avoid stagnating, becoming too stale and predictable, developers need to attempt something new, maybe even something that might not seem in the best interest of profit. As someone who grew up with the franchise, I can honestly say that I have never been as excited for any game as I am for Metal Gear Solid V, even if it does have an unfamiliar new voice.

Raining Blood – Realistic Violence in Video Games

For a great deal of modern games, highly detailed violence is a major selling point. The latest installment in the Max Payne series, for instance, allows players to slow down time at certain points during gunfights so they can watch as their bullets tear through enemies bodies. Sniper Elite v2, a highly detailed WW2 sniping simulator, boasts impressive realistic ballistics and features a similarly gruesome feature – the x-ray kill cam. The feature is precisely what its name implies: an x-ray reveal of the player’s victim and a slow-motion playback of the damage the bullet wreaks on his organs and bones. This kind of fantastic display of gore tends to worry people because it does not condemn the actions of the player as “wrong” and in many instances, the gameplay appears to celebrate violence by rewarding violent actions.

But the enemies in these games clearly deserve what’s happening to them, don’t they? The main antagonists in the aforementioned games are kidnappers and Nazis, respectively. Games seldom ask the player to slay the innocent en masse (with the exception of the infamous “No Russian” mission in Modern Warfare 2), only those who unquestionably deserve to die. The motivations behind most enemies actions are so clearly evil that the decision to kill them feels neither cruel or gratuitous, but necessary. At the same time, the gore and slow-motion features in Max Payne and Sniper Elite v2 seem to serve no other purpose than to reward the player for a kill well-done. The violence in these games is no more than an obstacle for the player to overcome, with little to no impact reflected in his or her actions; the gore is not meant to horrify us, but to entertain us.

There's a very dark catharsis one feels when pulling off a good shot in Sniper Elite V2.

There’s a very dark catharsis one feels when pulling off a good shot in Sniper Elite V2.

A short digression. At last year’s E3, a gameplay trailer for the now soon to be released The Last of Us was showcased. It featured the game’s two main protagonists, Joel and Ellie, traveling through the ruins of a city overtaken by all manner of flora. The post-apocalyptic setting is eerily serene, and the duo appear to be the only living creatures for miles in any direction. They travel at a plodding pace, allowing the audience to take in the environment. Rather suddenly, the tone changes when Joel overhears a group of survivors (presumably hostile) from inside a nearby building. Joel sneaks into the building and stealthily takes down one scavenger before being discovered. An intense gunfight / melee breaks out ending in a rather gruesome encounter; Joel wrestles a survivor to the ground, picks up a nearby shotgun and cracks the stock of the gun against his foe’s head. The survivor begins to plead with Joel as he holds the gun up to his face but can only speak a few word before Joel blows his head off. The trailer then smash-cuts to the game title: The Last of Us. It is met with applause.

The question on more than a few people’s minds after seeing the trailer and the reaction to it was whether or not that final act of violence was meant to be entertaining or horrific. Certainly, this degree of violence is not unique to The Last of Us, but there is definitely something unsettling about the last moments of this trailer. Perhaps it’s the desperation in the final survivor’s voice as he pleads for Joel not to shoot; this behavior is so unusual of an NPC “enemy” that it might perturb the player. But perhaps the word “enemy” is misused in this context, as far as we know, these NPCs are survivors just like Ellie and Joel. Granted they appear to act hostile toward survivors outside their own faction, these other survivors do not appear to be much different than Joel or Ellie. Whatever the reason may be, the violence against other survivors and the reasons for killing them seem far less noble and much more revolting than typical shooters.

The Last of Us is not the first to try and appall players with disturbing scenes of violence. A few scenes from the new Tomb Raider shows violent actions as a cruel necessity for Lara Croft’s survival. The first few kills are disturbing not only for Lara, but for the player. Though the victim of Lara’s first gun kill is not very ambiguous in his motivations, his last few moments and the death rattle adds a level of carnage that draws the line between violence for entertainment and violence meant to create a stir. Unfortunately for that first guy, his death is undermined by the game’s quick adoption of the typical third-person shoot-em-up format: Lara quickly puts her qualms with killing aside and starts blasting away at enemies left and right without any hint of the remorse present in that previous scene.

Believe it or not - she was apologizing to a deer she shot earlier in the day.

Believe it or not – earlier in the day she was apologizing to a deer she shot.

It is problematic when games attempt to conflate disturbing violence and entertaining violence. When a character is remorseful of a violent action against and enemy in one scene and later goes on to lay waste to dozens mores without coping with the earlier actions it creates a narrative dissonance, which usually undermines the brutality of the earlier action as well as the game’s entire presentation of violence. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater took an interesting step in the way of retroactively attempting to fill the player with guilt over violent actions by including a section of the story where Snake must face the ghosts of all the enemies he has dispatched who bemoan the way in which player killed them; it served as a grim reminder to the player of the magnitude of his bloodlust (though this section could be significantly shortened if the player employed non-lethal methods). Only about an hour later, however, the game throws a massive chase scene in which Snake is pursued by a larger group of enemies than the non-lethal M9 can reasonably handle, so it’s difficult to say how the game wants the player to feel about killing.

Video games are slowly trending towards more chilling violence, as demonstrated by games like Spec Ops: The Line and (with any luck) The Last of Us. Until now, few, if any, games tend to deal with violence and gore in a mature and consistent manner. Until then, feel free to revel in wanton, empty