“Unmanned.” Your War Machine or Yourself?

Unmanned is a piece of playable fiction created by Jim Munroe  and Mollenindustria (the company that produced Everyday the Same Dream) in 2012. It fits the trend of Choose Your Own Adventure style games, but adds elements that make it so much more. The player takes control of an unnamed drone pilot in the military system. Even though the setting of the game takes place in what is presumably Afghanistan or Iraq the central focus is not the war that the character is involved with. The player does not take the character around and use guns or machines to kill the enemy as is the goal in the majority of war games. Rather, Unmanned focuses on the internal war that is brewing in the mind of the central character. Throughout the course of the five to ten minute game the drone pilot has to make decisions dealing with guilt, the fear of death, marriage issues and the prospect of cheating, challenges with his son who has ADHD, and deciding whether or not to actually do his job. These choices are presented in dialogue, either an internal dialogue with yourself as you think reflect on your position or external dialogue as you converse with your co-pilot, wife, and son. What the player decides to say holds weight and influences the direction of the game and the reactions and impressions that the player interacts with has towards the character. The game itself provides a fascinating perspective on a military worker and how his career choice, and the things he has had to do because of that choice, has affected his psyche. 

Dialogue and interactions are usually presented at the same time as some sort of mini game. The screen is split, on the left there is dialogue and on the right there is a mini-game.

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Dream sequence where your character is running from the “terrorists” or possibly interpreted as running away from his inner demons

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Interpreting your dream while introspecting on your life

The first one that is presented is while the drone pilot is asleep. The mini-game shows what he is dreaming about, which happens to be himself physically running away from what seem like terrorists and then turning into a plane and flying away. The player has the power to allow the terrorists catch up to the character and beat him into submission or have him run away from those chasing him. The outcome of the game reflects later as the character is getting ready for work (shaving in the bathroom), where he considers what his dream meant. The player must then make a decision: should the dream mean that he was to be punished for his actions, he wants to escape from the war zone, or nothing at all/it was just a dream. This choice once again reflects how the character will act in later interactions and what sort of introspective thoughts he will have. The player has control over whether they want the character to be content with his position and what he has to do for work or whether he suffers from an extremely heavy and debilitating conscious.These choices continue through to the end during conversations with your co-pilot about possibly cheating on your wife, whether or not you follow through with orders to fire a missile at an unsuspecting target, and how and what you say to your young son with ADHD.

The character does not have the control, you as the player have the control. This represents how life operates in military service (and, one could argue, in most any profession). Sometimes you do not really have a choice in what you can and cannot do and sometimes what you are forced to do have repercussions that reverberate throughout the entirety of life. In this game, if you successfully complete a mini-game or have a successful conversation with someone you earn a medal for doing so. These medals, however, are of the most trivial kind. One is labeled “Legion of Karaoke Commendation” and you get it for successfully singing along to a song on the radio. Another is given for “Commendation in Driving” for keeping straight while driving on the road. 

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A few more examples of the medals given for successfully completing conversations and mini-games

These awards are given to represent how the simplest of things can seem like tremendous tasks when dealing with the stress and chaos of someone in the military, someone with depression or PTSD, or even someone who simply has a lot on their minds. But they are also given out in successful completion of each mini-game, representing that there is a ‘correct’ way to do things in the world in which the character finds himself in. He must follow orders, he must drive straight, he must use the missiles to blow up an unsuspecting target because those are what his commanding officer and society expect him to do. Despite there being a physical choice presented in the game, the ‘wrong’ choice will award no medal indicating a failure to conform to the standards. 

This relates to the title of the piece, Unmanned. Living his life in the way that awards medals for getting through some of the most mundane activities as well as some truly difficult decisions (shooting out missiles) has made it so that this character has become physically ‘unmanned’ or dehumanized, even automatic in a way.  The character has become what he controls for work: a drone. We the players are controlling his actions just as much as authority figures and family obligations are. The decisions that he makes are often not for his own benefit, for the benefit of others (aside from a rare few times and even those can be argued are awarded for merely conforming). All in all, Unmanned is a truly intriguing game that is 1. different every time you play and 2. delivers a strong message about military/professional/every day life and how the decisions we make on a daily basis have a lasting affect on ourselves and those around us.

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