“Unmanned”, by Molleindustria

Unmanned (Molleindustria, 2012) is a recent piece by Molleindustria, an hybrid between a computer game and a digital narrative – similar in some ways to what designer Paolo Pedercini already attempted in Every Day the Same Dream (Molleindustra, 2011). It is a slow-paced, reflexive game – more like a piece of interactive art than an entertainment product – that tells the story of an American soldier supervising drones deployed in the Middle-East.

The rhetorics and the narrative of Unmanned are centered around games and reality: it is a piece depicting a soldier who uses a game-like interface to control a drone on the other side of the world, pushing simple buttons to cause lethal outcomes – at the same time, the player uses another simple interface to control the game.

As a semiotician, one of the first things that I noticed is the clever use of diegesis and embrayage/debrayage. To cut short a very long story, we may say that those are semiotic tools to build different levels of fictional worlds – in a similar way to what it’s shown in Christopher Nolan’s movie “Inception”. We can call embrayage and debrayage the literary techniques to describe entering and exiting different layers of narrative reality.

Indeed, Unmanned features some interesting embrayages: the protagonist’s “entering” the point of view of the drone, as well as his dream. But, to make things more interesting, the player himself “enters” the protagonist’s reality and, through him, they control the drone.
It is a clever chain of control that challenges and problematize agency and the perception of reality. Who is controlling what in this game? Who controls the drone? and what difference is there between the dream sequence and the war sequence? And, again, what’s the difference between the player and the protagonist? and between the player and a real drone pilot?
Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from Inception may find something very familiar in this game.

More reading
Greg Costikyan on Unmanned
An interview to Paolo Pedercini
Walkthrough and review

2 comments
Al Matthews
Al Matthews

Hi. I'm wondering about the discoverability of gameplay controls in Unmanned. It's been a minute since I played, but I seem to recall missing a target while I tried to figure out what was expected of me. I think I also shot somebody without asking. It seems to me that the profound disorientation of clutching at what's offered to the first time player here; _especially_ the opaqueness of goals and controls; the Zork-style banality and blindness of available choices when we're actually permitted to make choices; and this all, counterpoised to the "national security" context, are all provocative and even profound here. So too being insulted by one's spouse; or casually asked, by same, to leak classified information. These choices by the player -- whose results, having experimented with the game, are not yet clear to me -- strike me as offering an ultimately very nuanced relation between player and protagonist. I have not seen these quite teased out in the criticism linked here. FWIW, the nearest comparable I can deliver to the experience of playing Unmanned, is an audio collage called "CNN Concatentated," by Omer Fast. It's in fact an audio and video piece, but only the audio is known to me. Here is a link. http://www.some-assembly-required.net/blog/2006/06/episode-83-some-assembly-required.html Warm regards, Al Matthews

Gabriele
Gabriele

Hi Al, you point at some really interesting features - and you're right, they aren't discussed in this very short post. I will definitely look into them. Also, if you want to share your perspective with us (maybe on Unmanned, maybe on other games) you're invited to join us for the ICIDS workshop in November. It will be accessible via google hangout, and you'll be able to present briefly yourself and your points! (see the invitation in an earlier post on this blog) Best, G: