Retroactive storytelling and character definition in Unmanned

by berv

Now that it’s been a few days (and I’ve had the chance to bounce it off a few people), I wanted to comment on Unmanned, a browser-based game by Molleindustria. Though I would describe it as more of an interactive story than a game in the traditional sense, I found it to be an incredibly compelling journey of character definition.

Unmanned has the player inhabit the character of a predator drone operator for a day, tending to the oft-monotonous tasks of his day to day life and spending his idle moments introspecting and chatting with the people of his world. The game runs with a split interface, forcing the player to perform simple actions (e.g. shaving, staying in your lane on the highway, etc.) on the right half of the screen while choosing from dialogue options on the left. As a mechanic, I thought this was a solid mirror of how we seldom give anything our full and undivided attention and appreciated the light task-juggling required. But it’s the dialogue that really drew me in, and that’s what I’d like to discuss.

Regardless of the dialogue options you may choose, the game essentially unfolds in the same way, but, for the first time in a long time, I’m happy with this. Why? In this case you’re just living another day. Nothing of any immediate consequence happens; it’s all just a matter of course in the life of this character. His definition, however, comes through his player-chosen reactions to this fairly standard fare. Will he be a guns-blazing oo-rah patriot, a caring and sensitive father, a worktime paramour, or some combination of the above? I found myself equally as curious about where this man was as to where I could steer him towards; I was simultaneously discovering as well as defining his character. Where most games would make the player’s choices affect only the present and future of their character, I felt as if Unmanned also extended these choices back into the character’s past, running the player through a sort of retroactive character creation. There are pieces of the character’s world that are firmly in place (e.g. his job as a predator drone operator), but how the player approaches these setpieces changes the story considerably (is he good at his job? how has it affected your son?). It’s rare that I find a game that weaves the story around my actions rather than in spite of them, even going so far as to shift the foundations to accommodate (for another interesting example of this, check out the text-based Aisle). More and more I am convinced that the key to character definition in games ought to live in player actions rather than in prewritten exposition. This, I think, links in more deeply with the inherent interactivity of a game, standing in contrast to a piece of passive entertainment such as a book or a movie. Though I’ve enjoyed many pre-written stories told in video game form, I might have enjoyed them just as much in another medium. Unmanned leaves much of the world grey and undefined until the player shapes it, which in my opinion makes much better use of the interactive nature of video games.

The questions Unmanned has left me with are those of design: how flexible can a game world be? Is it possible to leave every aspect of both world and character up to the player? Given how much I bought in to the setting of Unmanned, I’m wondering about the intersection of established and establishing world: how much can be left up to the player while still providing a compelling setting to explore? Is it too much to ask of a player to make them responsible for everything?

More to come on this, I’m sure.

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