This is one of a series of interviews I conducted for my article about what text can say about war that AAA games can't. You can read the other interviews by clicking here.
I contacted Paolo Pedercini about all this because he made Unmanned, which is featured in the article. Unmanned concerns an individual cog in the military machine but uses text to simulate his experience of war in quite a different way to most games. Also, he comprises the staff of La Molleindustria, which makes radical games in at least two senses of the word 'radical'.
After seizing control of a local radio tower, I asked him the following questions.
What was behind your decision to use text in the way you did in Unmanned?
I made a few prototypes not centered on text and it became apparent to me that I couldn't tackle the issue of drone warfare with a gamey kind of game. The experience of a drone pilot is already way too similar to the gamer's experience: mediated reality, god-like vision, joystick interface, physical safety... I would have re-stated the old cliche' about the conflation of reality and virtual sphere. Instead I decided to extend the scope to what's around the act of fighting a remote war, I wanted to touch upon a broad range of issues: like military heroism in the 21st century, the blurring of frontlines and home front, the gamification of everyday life and so on. I felt I could only do that with a fragmented narrative.
How would you describe the role of the text in that game?
The game juxtaposes a sphere of action and a sphere of language and thought using a split screen view and a dual gameplay that require a degree of multitasking. You have to split your attention between thinking/having conversations and executing mundane tasks, often conflicting or resonating thematically with each other. The text is in charge of the linguistic function. There is a fancy term in gaming "ludo-narrative dissonance" to describe when the mechanics of a game conflict with the plot. The typical example is Bioshock, a game whose plot criticizes a dystopian Ayn-Randian society but whose standard first-person-shooter gameplay level celebrate individual affirmation and a kind of technological super-humanism. I thought that if we increasingly see our lives as games, like the protagonist of Unmanned implicitly does, then we may experience a kind of ludo-narrative dissonance. The stories we tell ourselves are often conflicting with our daily actions and the rules we decide to follow.
Were you conscious of entering the territory of mainstream war games, and potentially critiquing them? If so what was your aim?
Yes, that's the purpose of the project Molleindustria. The idea is to provide a homeopathic remedy to the idiocy of mainstream games. Independent developers and artists can't directly compete with big conglomerates in terms of cultural hegemony. But we can create short and meaningful experiences that can temporarily reverse the order of discourse and prompt people to approach other games with different eyes.
Do you think games using text extensively can say something about war which bombastic high-fidelity 3D graphics cannot?
There is definitely a symbiotic relationship between technologies of simulation/immersion and military apparatuses. The two fields have been evolving together since forever. For instance the Army got interested in videogames only after the release of Battlezone, the first immersive 3D title. But there's also another tradition within gaming that doesn't have much to do with simulating bullet trajectories or collisions between rigid bodies and more with storytelling and role-playing. That tradition has privileged the openness and the flexibility of text. In a way we are still stuck in the meta-genre defined by two of the earliest games: SpaceWar! and Zork.