Game artist-activists Molleindustria have recently brought out a new game called Unmanned, and it’s really got me thinking design-wise. It’s split screen interface is simplistically achieved (in comparison to the new Wii U for example) through a 50-50 partition. However it is the way that it orchestrates two types of gaming content over the two screens that makes it interesting. Primarily it offers a fresh perspective on the issue of switching modalities in gameplay brought up in the Gamasutra article I reviewed previously. The issue of switching modalities is central to the problem of story creation in games: by switching modes, from player to passive cinema viewer back to player again, the flow of our concentration and our desire to complete the next game goal is delayed. Or from a converse perspective, our desire to imagine the plot line is disturbed by a desire to achieve more immediately engaging game targets. However in Unmanned, a study in the loneliness and alienation felt by a US drone pilot, the awkwardness of considering complex interactions whilst completing game objectives become part of the challenge. The split screen works, one minute, as a multi-screen window on the narrative showing establishing shots, and the next it is playing two interlinked mini games.
In the game format, the right-hand window offers up simple fairly unchallenging games that are nevertheless command constant vigilance to complete. It is the window on the left. that predominantly shows branching tree-style dialogue, that is the main source of challenge. Here the player explores the story guessing the right thing to say in the conversations that he has with, amongst others, his co-pilot and his 12-year-old son. These must be achieved whilst playing the other games, challenging the mono-modal argumentation in the Gamasutra article cited above. Conversations can achieve in-game achievements. For example, a pleasant conversation with your co-pilot while monitoring an enemy suspect is rewarded with a Gallantry In Action medal. This is unlike another Molleindustria game, Every Day the Same Dream that deliberately eschews the language of points and achievements in order to achieve a more subtle narrative engagement. The pretext for this goal-setting is clear, when considering the subject matter under the lens. The game-like interface that the drone pilots use to monitor and bomb real life targets is similar to events taking place in the player-character’s life. It appears that the pilot has lost his sense of what is real. Maybe, the narrative suggests, this is because he is able to kill people in a foreign country and then go out for cigarette break.
The difference between killing in real life and doing it on his son’s computer game is so slight that it is hard to imagine any difference at all. Instead, what becomes important are the unchallenged in-game objectives of war games – following a subject of interest, taking out a suspect. The narrative behind these rules is unimportant in relation to the visceral satisfaction of being permitted to destroy. At one point in playing a WW2 game his son gets Nazis and ‘commies’ mixed up – they are both legitimate targets in the language of war games, it is inferred. Similarly if the player as drone pilot questions a decision to bomb a suspect, he loses the round. Even in the bomber’s real life the context and legitimacy of the killing is not important. Therefore he invents medals for everything he does in his life, instinctively, to makes sense of the arbitrariness of it. Playing two forms of game at the same time reinforces this sense of pervasiveness.
04 April 2012 – article addition:
This interview with the game’s co-creator Paolo Pedercini is worth taking a look at for further analysis of Unmanned.