Unmanned is the work of game designers Molleindustria (creators of Every Day the Same Dream and other games tackling issues from the fast food industry to where you get the rare minerals for your smartphone), writer Jim Munroe and musician Jesse Stiles. It won the Games for Change “best gameplay” award for 2012, and also took home the Grand Jury award at the 2012 IndieCade conference.
I can now say that the game deserves all the honors it has received. It is remarkable for its novel gameplay ideas, unique split screen presentation, and the quiet way it goes about treating its subject - the life of a drone operator in the present-day Central Intelligence Agency. It is a nuanced portrayal of a complicated subject, but it is done with style, heart, and a good dose of humor. Unmanned is an outstanding work that should be part of every gamer’s vocabulary.
The game begins with a dream sequence (pictured above). On the left side of the screen, you see the protagonist sleeping, and on the right side, you are controlling his dream, as he desperately tries to escape angry Arabs who accost him. If he gets hit in the dream, you can see it register on his face. This is a great introduction to the way the split screen presentation works. At many points in the game, one side will be displaying your dialog choices while the other contains a minigame or shows the results of your choices. And often you will have to rapidly switch back and forth while maintaining your attention on both.
You play as an operator of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly called “drones,” that the U.S. military and CIA have been using extensively in recent years to destroy suspected terrorist targets without putting boots on the ground. This practice is controversial because, while it undoubtedly saves U.S. lives, it is the cause of many more civilian deaths and friendly fire incidents, and has become a flashpoint for anti-American anger around the world. The writing in this game could easily have leaned toward heavy-handed preaching, but Munroe instead focused on the personal story of the protagonist, letting the audience come to their own conclusions about the global consequences and human costs of UAVs. The writing is incredibly authentic and mature, something gamers are currently starved for in the industry.
The game consists largely of branching dialog trees and minigames. Both are done extremely well, and they integrate seamlessly with each other so that neither feels arbitrary or superfluous. The minigames feel like a more polished, more cohesive version of Dys4ia. You go from mundane tasks like shaving and smoking to targeting and killing suspected terrorists, and there are even minigames where you have to play a little gallery shooter version of AAA military FPS games. Some of these are more fun and interesting than others, but they fulfill the crucial role of giving you a closer, more physical connection to your character.
The dialog trees are well done and pretty extensive. I’ve played through the game three or four times now, and still haven’t seen it all. Sometimes the story moves linearly, but most often you are given two or three different dialog options for how to continue. The options are not your standard good/evil binary, but rather occupy a much more grey space. This gives players the chance to play their own version of the protagonist. They can play the stereotypical, jingoistic military meathead who hates women and loves killing foreigners. Or they can play a devoted husband and father just trying to do the right thing and get through another work day. Or they can play a conflicted man, troubled by his actions and emotionally distanced from his family. There are many ways to experience the story, and it’s highly recommended you try a few out.
However you choose to play it, you definitely should. It’s absolutely free, will only take 5-10 minutes for each playthrough, and happens to be one of the better free games to come along in a while. You can play the game in your browser (or download for PC or Mac) at this link.