Games with moral agendas can be hit or miss. Sometimes a game simply wants to be played, but other times it wants to tell you something explicitly (see McDonald’s Video Game). This approach can be counterproductive. If a game gets too wrapped up in its own perceived importance, it can neglect the subtlety and awareness it takes to communicate an effective message.
In Unmanned, you play as a man who remotely operates an armed aerial vehicle, capable of dispensing explosive death from a comfortable chair and a safe distance. The game opens with two scenes presented in a split-screen fashion. On the left is a sleeping man with blonde hair. On the right, you control a waking version of this man with mouse clicks as he runs across a sparse, brown field littered with goats. As he runs, angry people chase him: a man with a dark beard, a figure whose face is covered, a child with a stick. If they catch up to the blonde man, they physically assault him, and he covers his head. If you manage to stay out of reach, the man begins flapping his arms, turns into a plane and flies away. Soon the dream ends, and the sleeping man wakes. Now, you’re standing in front of a mirror, shaving (don’t cut yourself!) and deciding how you feel about the approaching workday. Does “Another day” equate to “another terrorist dead,” “another dollar,” or “another step closer to my grave?”
Unmanned uses cutscenes, or non-playable narrative, in a way that I’m surprised more developers haven’t thought of. Instead of trying to make cutscenes more gamey by adding QT events, they simply allow the scene to unfold next to a separate, but related, minigame that reinforces whatever point the scene is trying to make. You’re often asked to switch between two screens, performing some menial action on one side and switching to the other to advance the story. This process caused me to cut myself shaving more times than I’d like to admit.
A sort of dramatic irony emerges from the way these scenes are arranged. Later, after he gets off work, the man plays some modern military shooter with his son. Here he is, unwinding after a day of controlling a real-life killing machine on a screen by killing fake people on a screen. You control the avatar in the game they’re playing, which mimics shooters like Call of Duty in a point-and-click fashion (pretty meta, eh?), while a conversation about death, weapons and war plays out between the man and his son.
One of the things I found most interesting about Unmanned is that it doesn’t so much focus on the larger political and ethical implications of UAVs, though it touches on them. The narrative is centered on a single character, and most of the conflicts are presented as internal manifestations. The game is poignant and provoking, and the simple split-screen presentation cleverly illustrates the blurring discrepancy between thinking or talking about something and physically making something happen, a tension that is very much at the heart of the game. Unmanned raises some dark questions: What is a man thinking or talking about while he controls a machine that can end human life? How does it make him feel? What is killing like when most of the physical sensation of the act is removed? In one of the dialogue trees, the man describes his day as “boring,” and most of the game’s interactive components are intentionally monotonous. The protagonist is obviously conflicted about doing his killing from a safe distance, but would he feel better about it if he was actually sitting inside of the plane? I can’t say, but I can say that Unmanned left me feeling like there’s something cold about the distance.