Unmanned is the story of a day in the life of a military drone pilot. You make small decisions, guiding him through his routine – shaving, driving to work, calling his wife during his break, and, yes, conducting strikes on targets – people – thousands of miles away.
It’s a game about the use of unmanned drones in far-away conflict, but it’s far less directly political than most of Molleindustria’s other games. It’s not really about the broad political, social, or ethical impacts of our increasing reliance on drone warfare, at least not explicitly. Instead, it’s an understated look at the personal effects of war on the the people it doesn’t directly touch.
People like the drone pilot’s family. His wife understands little of what he does for a living, learning only from the snippets he chooses to tell her over the phone. His son thinks he’s more keyed in, but his enthusiastic questions reveal a troubling level of ignorance. And then we have the pilot himself – someone who certainly has a causal role to play in war, but who is nevertheless disconnected from it. Who fights battles in a far-off land through a hazy, grey-white computer screen, dispensing violence to hazy, grey-white people.
The game’s all about those disconnects. The disconnect between civilians and the realities of how war is often fought. The disconnect between the way media portrays war and the way war actually can be. And the disconnect between many of the people who actually engage in war and the places – the real, physical places – where they fight by proxy.
That disconnect is presented magnificently throughout, and it seeps into every scene – even in the mundane ones where you do nothing but shave, or try to get to sleep, or drive down the featureless desert highway. Because while you’d expect the game to dramatically juxtapose that everyday mundanity with the high-octane, adrenaline-fueled suspense of operating military drones, it doesn’t go that way at all. Here the bluster and violence of combat is reduced to the same kind of mundanity that faces the protagonist throughout the rest of his day. When he comes home from work he plays videogames with his son for bonding time, and the military shooters they play together are more tense and visceral than the real war he’s just left.
You only pilot a drone in the game for a very short time, because piloting a drone for the military is just a small part of this man’s life. It’s a chore – a job that gets done and largely left behind as any other. He and his co-pilot are uninterested in the people they’re watching through the screen. They chat, they bicker, they flirt as they steadily track a man who, for all they could possibly know, they may be ordered to kill in just a few moments.
If you’ve ever watched leaked videos of US pilots mistakenly killing civilians you’ll recognise this kind of thing – the chilling neutrality with which people can talk about the taking of another person’s life. The sudden jarring leaps of logic that turn a Reuters reporter holding a camera into a possible terrorist into a terrorist into a target, into a target brandishing a loaded Kalashnikov. And it’s not an indictment – those videos aren’t just indictments of those few people, just as Unmanned isn’t an indictment of a protagonist who is ready, when ordered, to fire upon an unarmed person he can know nothing about. Instead it’s an indication that, perhaps, when you spend countless hours looking at people as tiny, indistinct figures through a greyscale camera, it can become steadily easier to pull the trigger.
At the same time we see the protagonist dealing with his family. We see his wife’s probing questions – she doesn’t know where his planes fly or what, exactly they do. Maybe she doesn’t even know that he kills people, but if she does she almost certainly doesn’t know exactly who or exactly why. And perhaps the game’s most effective moments revolve around the son. He asks you about weapons and the army as you play together, swapping the controller back and forth on every death. He conflates one historical group of people with another. He talks about his school, his doctor. He asks you about your job, your father’s involvement in the Second World War. In one playthrough of the game you may decide to play the tired, distant father. In another you can be a friendly and attentive one, but you can’t ever really make him understand, even if you bother to try.
Unmanned is about the personal impacts of certain aspects of war, and the way that media dealing with war – anything from news to films to games – can affect, and possibly even warp our understanding of things. It’s also about feeling drained and dulled all the time, and being a strong husband and father in difficult circumstances. It’s about both the significance and insignificance of tiny decisions. It’s a powerful game, and it doesn’t attempt to give us any easy answers. Instead it simply presents us with moments – some mundane, some full of levity, and some unaccountably difficult to explain or to judge.
You can play Unmanned online for free here.