No modern-day military practice comes under more fire than unmanned aerial vehicle attacks. Bombing by UAV gets called out as cowardly or as a morally indefensible method of waging combat. It’s derisively been called video game warfare, a way of distancing the American public from the acts of violence done in their name. Fittingly, then, there’s now a video game about it.
Playable on Mac, Windows and in the browser, Unmanned — made by indie dev studio La Molleindustria — puts players in the mind of a UAV pilot, laying open the nameless squarejaw’s troubled dreams and bloodless life. As you shave the character’s face, sit at the controls of a drone plane flying over the Middle East and play parodies of Call of Duty and Battlefield-style first-person shooters with his son, you can earn bizarre medals for the most mundane activities.
Clicking through his emotional process and dialogue with others pulls you through a chain of barely sublimated dysfunction and inner turmoil. Or you can play it with a might-makes-right single-mindedness, fully able to justify the remote killing you’re doing.
Either way, your achievements are dubious, best garnered by embracing delusion at every turn. I launched a missile without authorization during one of my playthroughs, killing a turbaned person-of-interest with a pixellated poof. The co-worker sitting next to me yelled at me for breaking protocol but I suffered no further consequences other than that. Unmanned‘s not likely to win any debates about UAV usage, but it doesn’t seemed designed to. Rather, the game shines a light on the idea that it’s not just people in countries where the bombings happen who suffer from this practice.
Molleindustria makes video game polemics, interactive shit-stirrers designed to fan the flames of debate, outrage and activism. The whole point of the indie developer’s games is to force players to re-examine the way they move through the world and what they take for granted. Their Phone Story took players into the troubling conflict minerals harvest and the assembly lines that make the iPhone possible. LeakyWorld created a playable metaphor around the Wikileaks phenomenon. Every Day The Same Dream — a title about the joyless hamster wheel of cubicle drone life — is the game that most resembles Unmanned. No matter what choices you make in either Molleindustria game, you’re still trapped by forces out of your control.
Unmanned‘s a sharp satire that highlights how video games can circumvent traditional modes of political discourse. Instead of writing your congressional representative, you could send a link to download Umanned. There’s little chance of it going off target.