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


Papers, Please – or how I learned to stop worrying and love Arstotzka

I recently found myself addicted to an independently developed video game called Papers, Please. Papers, Please is set in what appears to be a dramatization of the former Eastern bloc. A large chunk of the game takes place inside an immigration checkpoint in Grestin, a fictional border town split into East and West by the recent conflict between the neighboring communist states of Kolechia and Arstotzka. You, the player, are the lucky winner of the Arstotzkan October labor lottery and to begin working for the Ministry of Admission (MOA) as an immigration inspector at the newly opened border checkpoint. Your family is also to be relocated to a “Class-8 dwelling”, which I can only assume is a euphemism for a ghetto.

The story telling elements of the game are very minimal, most of what you could consider the game’s “plot” is revealed to you at the beginning of each day through newspaper headlines. Headlines also provide you with hints towards your objective for that day. Your job, at first, is fairly straightforward; only admit into Arstotzka those who meet the requirements outlined by your handy MOA guidebook. Seems simple enough, right? As the game progresses, it becomes necessary to become increasingly discerning as border security adopts stringent measures for admission into your fair motherland. You must micromanage the influx documents that come through your workstation as the meager pay you receive at the end of the work day is docked for poor performance. Additionally, you are responsible for paying for food, rent, and heat, all of which are necessary for your family’s health and well-being at the end of each game day (in that regard, it’s like a more contemporary Oregon Trail, if Oregon Trail had gulags). I learned the importance of balancing speed and efficiency the hard way when my son and wife became ill and passed away only one week into my first play-through. Disturbingly, I reported to work at 6 AM sharp the next day.

Exposition for Papers, Please is provided by...

Exposition for Papers, Please is provided by…

Papers, Please uses retro graphics and a color palette composed of dark, cold colors (gray, blue, brown, and red – colors common to soviet propaganda art). This makes for a very dark and isolated atmosphere. The game’s interface is very simple. The top half of the screen displays an overview the border checkpoint. To the left is a queue huddled, featureless masses of immigrants seeking passage into Arstotzka. To the right is a long stretch of paved concrete and an armed guard. To call it unwelcoming would be a staggering understatement. In the center of it all is a tall concrete wall and your tiny office. The bottom half of the screen displays the inside of said office. At this point I should warn you: if you are claustrophobic, you may not want to play this game. The space provided to you (the actual player) is as small as the game makes it out to be. At the later stages, it becomes very difficult to view all the paperwork at once. I found the pressure exhilarating and incredibly stressful (in a good way, if that makes sense).

At the end of each day you return to your apartment and your score for the day is tallied. The cost of rent, food, and heat is deducted from your savings and earnings for the day. The status of your family is displayed on the right, though your family is never actually seen. In the game’s current build, you cannot interact with them directly, either (I would keep it that way); you may only adjust whether you will pay for heat or food for that night. The only other option given to you on this screen is “SLEEP”. All interaction with other characters is indirect; the player is coaxed into being as emotionally and physically detached from his family as he is from the immigrants and citizens who pass through your office window.

There is a very strange power dynamic at work in this game. The game’s preface introduces your character as a normal, unspectacular man. There’s nothing special about him that qualifies him for this position, his selection was simply luck of the draw. Yet the task given to you appears to be of great importance; with just the press of a stamp, a person’s fate is determined. The first difficult decision I encountered was a couple who were immigrating into Arstotzka together. The husband’s paperwork checked out and he passed through without much hassle. He asked me to be kind to his wife, who was in line directly behind him. I called for the next person in line and surely enough, it was a woman from the same country asking for her husband. Ready to send her through to Arstotzka, I riffled through her papers. I was slightly alarmed to find that some of her documents were missing. Though I had made no promise to her husband, I wanted to send her through. But until this point, I hadn’t received any citations and I wanted to keep it that way. I was on precarious grounds, would letting this woman through cost me my job? Certainly, I could be replaced. Would I be able to provide for my family? My savings are next to nil. All that confidence and self-importance granted to me by those red and green stamps began to leave me. Fearful of the consequences of insubordination, I accepted that I was under the Arstotzkan government’s thumb and denied her entry and sent her away. That night, the heat was shut off in my apartment.

Only a privileged few may enter Arstotzka.

Only a privileged few may enter Arstotzka.

Papers, Please is much more than just a TSA simulator. For one, you actually have to work. Facetiousness aside, there are little nuggets of social commentary scattered throughout the game especially in the later chapters when more intrusive and questionable security measures are put into place. The gameplay encourages adopting a daily routine and working quickly and efficiently. This requires treating most people entering Arstotzka as pieces of paper. By the end of my first play-through, I had shocked myself with the decisions I had made for the sake of preserving the safety of Arstotzka from outside “threats.” I was also confused at the speed at which MOA citations for poor performance were issued. Is there another, more competent immigration inspector somewhere down the line? If so, why do they need me? Am I being watched by Big Brother? Perhaps I’m just being paranoid… Perhaps.

The only complaint I have about Papers, Please is that it is still in beta. Luckily, that means you get a chance to try it for free before the final product is released (though Lucas Pope, the game’s developer, hasn’t named a prospective price or created a kickstarter to my knowledge). The game in it’s current release isn’t that long, so it’s worth a try. Just keep an eye out for that Jorji fellow. Glory to Arstotzka.