Unmanned begins with an immediate divide: on the left, the game’s title screen, and on the right, a man standing in an empty field, mouth agape. The latest game from Molleindustria, released earlier this year, is just as political and subversive as any of the studio’s previous work. While the game’s central metaphor may seem blunt at first, its sublety surpasses much of Molleindustria’s previous work. Self-proclaimed creators of “homeopathic remedies to the idiocy of mainstream entertainment”, Molleindustria has firmly established itself as a purveyor of critical games. While Phone Story might be their most famed work, Unmanned might be the best from the studio.
Playing Unmanned is an exercise in splitting one’s attention. The game follows Kirk, a military drone pilot over two days as he runs through the tedium of his life. In the first moments of the game, the left title screen fades to a shot of Kirk sleeping. The right, then. is his dreamscape. An arabic man chases him through a field, followed by a woman in a burqa, and a child. If players manage to avoid the family, Kirk spreads his arms and turns into a drone, just before waking. Only in dreams are the player’s points of interest isolated to just one screen.
For most of the game, players interact with Kirk’s world on the right screen and make conversation on the left. The game’s difficulty lies in carrying out both acts simultaneously. In its most basic form, Unmanned explores the way we divide our lives and the world around us. As a drone pilot, this division is particularly unsettling. Kirk tries to follow a “person of interest” on one screen, holding the person’s life in his hands, while also holding a conversation with his partner. It is frightening how easily Kirk separates the displeasure of long-distance warfare from his daily life.
Yes, Unmanned is clearly critical of drone warfare and the increasing distanciation modern warfare creates between the arbiters of destruction and its victims. Delays and divisions abound in the entire system of military operations. The fuzzy and grey video feed from the killer drone disfigures reality, transforming the grotesquerie of missile strikes into something far too similar to a video game. The tracking system itself veers and sways, and if players choose to launch a missile at the target, a significant delay exists between the launch and the explosion. Like September 12th, the procedural rhetoric of Unmanned conveys quite clearly how the culmination of these divisions results in sanitized murder.
Unmanned (Molleindustria, 2012)
Unmanned carries this analogy even further. Kirk’s family has no comprehension of the seriousness of his work. On the phone with his wife, Kirk is divided by distance and lies. A gulf divides Kirk and his child as well, chemically (his son might be overly medicated for ADD), technologically (the boy’s conception of warfare is utterly corrupted by video games), and physically. In other words, Kirk has more than one excuse to avoid spending time with his son.
Perhaps the game’s best depiction of divisions, real and fake, occurs while Kirk drives to work. His vehicle constantly veers slightly left, constantly threatening to enter the opposite lane. Meanwhile, the player’s attention is drawn towards Kirk’s internal monologue, allowing his mind and his car to wander. When a song pops into his head, Kirk starts to sing along, prompting a timed mini-game in which players click on the lyrics of the song. Meanwhile, on the right screen away from the player’s attentions, the camera zooms out above his car, the continent, the world, and then to a satellite, maybe the same one that allows Kirk to control robotic machines of war in the skies of a country far away. In this moment, the two screens beautifully illuminate the divide that we create between ourselves and the systems in which we live.
Unmanned also takes the opportunity to chastise the mainstream games industry as a whole. In his blog on Gamasutra, Grek Costikyan is right to point out the game is boring and for a reason. Molleindustria divides Unmanned from games that beautify warfare through game design. Boredom serves a dual purpose of conveying the actual tedium of modern warfare (artfully portrayed in Sam Mendes’s Jarhead) and expressing how “fun” can become a tool by which we again divide ourselves from the world around us.
Unmanned caps off this critique with its own take on achievements. Players receive medals when they successfully complete menial tasks. When the game ends and the list of medals scroll by, the absurdity of their titles—“Excellence Earned in Shaving”—reveal them as farcical, a nice prod at the vapid achievement systems in a slew of games. With Kirk in firm salute on the left, credits rolling on the right, his ludicrous sense of accomplishment mirrors the pride we feel overcoming trivial obstacles in any war game. “Congratulations! Applause all around!” Unmanned seems to say, “You earned a trophy”, and the divide between ourselves and the systems around us grows a little wider.