Molleindustria's Unmanned: Excellence Through Boredom
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Unmanned is a boring game. This is not a criticism; it's part of the point.
In Unmanned, you play Kirk, a USAF missile operator assigned to drone duty. While the game does partly involve missile attacks on what you believe to be hostiles, the larger point of the game is the distancing that drone warfare involves; the discontinuity between its effects -- large explosions and death on the ground; and the nature of the "warriors" who control the craft, sitting in a remote structure someplace safe, staring at a screen.
The game is played in two side-by-side windows. They're used for different purposes at different times; often, one contains dialog. Dialog is via a conventional tree structure, with your dialog choices often affecting whether or not you receive a "badge" -- the game's only system of rewards; there is no score or win condition. Often, you're playing a minigame in one screen while engaged in a dialog in the other; the minigames are tuned to low difficulty (increasing the sense of anomie and tedium), but the need to respond in one screen while acting in another means that inattention to the minigame can have negative repurcussions there.
The two-screen system is more than mechanical, however; it is metaphorical. Some time ago, The Onion reported that Americans spend 90% of their waking hours staring at glowing rectangles; that's satire, of course, but there's a germ of truth. We spend a huge portion of our lives mediated by images on a screen; most of us work that way, and much of our leisure time is spent that way. Even when we commute, our immediate environment is separated from the world through which we travel by a screen -- in this case, the windshield of a car, rather than a videoscreen.
And of course, drone operators work this way, too; they are present in a workplace somewhere, but operating their craft, and attacking their enemies, through a screen, another glowing rectangle. They are experiencing telepresence, the feeling of being immersed in a remote scene rather than in your real physical surroundings -- a feeling we gamers also experience, albeit we more often find ourselves in Azeroth than Afghanistan.
In other words, by using two screens, Molleindustria is saying something not only about drone warfare, but about how we live our lives; physically present in one place, but mentally elsewhere, and much of the time, more involved in the elsewhere than the here-and-now.
In Unmanned, you spend most of your time not operating your drone but living Kirk's dull life. Most of the minigames center on everyday tasks: driving, shaving, having a smoke. Sometimes you play a "videogame," represented in Unmanned by little point-and-click shooters, that, like real military-themed FPSes, are mere power fantasies, utterly removed from the moral issues, visceral fear, and horrific loss experienced in real combat. These games -- the real ones -- are the opposite of Unmanned: loud, explosive, amoral, immersive, not-dull -- and ultimately devoid of subtext.
Unmanned is not, however, a virulent screed against drone warfare (nor against Call of Duty); indeed, Kirk is at one point given the opportunity to say that it's foolish not to use a military capability if you have it. Rather, Unmanned raises its points more subtly: the difficulty of being sure that the little target on your screen isn't a civilian, the distancing effect of telepresence masking moral choices, the dealing out of death while suffering no risk.
Unmanned has not received anything like the attention garnered by Molleindustria's other games, such as the McDonald's Game or Oiligarchy -- and perhaps the subtly of the game is partial explanation. Unlike the earlier games, it is not a slap in the face, an explicit and somewhat angry attack; it's more nuanced, troubled by but not wholly condemning its subject.
From my perspective, this makes it a far more interesting game: more adult; its subtleness more impactful from an artistic perspective, if less so from a political one. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say it's Molleindustria's best game to date.
The attenuated nature of the game also may partially explain Unmanned's obscurity: As I said before, it is a "boring" game. Gamers are trained to react to "boring" games by putting them down; they are not likely to play a little longer, to understand that boredom is part of the subtext of the game, to see that it is boring for a reason, that the designers are purposefully shaping a boring experience to bring out a sense of the anomie of life, and the distancing that drone warfare brings to combat. They are not likely to tweet or message each other, "Hey, check out this cool boring game!". Games are supposed to be "fun," though as I've argued elsewhere, if all a game is, is "fun," it's not a very good game; like any other form of art, meaningful works need to transmit something more than the obvious.
This says something more important, perhaps, about the lack of sophistication of "gamer culture," than about the game, however. Unmanned is subtle, effective, and excellent in its own, unique fashion.
(Cross-posted from Play This Thing!.)