Saturday, January 24, 2015

Analysis: Ace Combat

When you talk about games, you quickly find that a lot of people take games personally. Like, everyone has a game or a movie that they love so much that any criticism of the work feels like criticism of themselves. Everyone has a game or a movie or a band or a tv show that they feel attached to, like it was made for them alone, no matter how many other millions of people watch it or play it or listen to it.

Ace Combat was mine. Its setting and narrative stuck out to me, and because it was relatively low-key in the gaming world, I felt a sense of ownership towards it, like I was one of the few people who was really in on it. Back before the massive network of wikis, there was a site called Electrosphere that accumulated data about Ace Combat to form a rudimentary encyclopedia. And I contributed to it. I went through text dumps and sound files to pick out obscure details about setting history and squadron names and all sorts of shit. I cared. I gave a shit about that setting and that world and that story.

I'm telling you this to give context to my dismantling of the series. I've been accused of being heartless or petty or unfair or insensitive when discussing games that other people like, but here's the facts. This is a game I loved, that I identified strongly with, and that I personally invested in. And I'm going to tear it apart, because at times we must purge things from this world because they should not exist. Even if it means losing something that you love.

Ace Combat takes place in the world of "Strangereal", a world which is essentially "modern earth" with different geography. Which is to say, it is a world that has "modern technology", but simply isn't "our world". It's a type of "alternate world" that I rarely see - a world that is (for the most part) totally realistic, but simply isn't Earth. Although there is one other relatively prominent example - the setting of Papers, Please, which is an example of the concept being applied well.

There are several reasons Ace Combat was made this way. Firstly, the designers wanted to be able to have war narratives without involving real-life politics. While there are stand-ins for real-life nations (the most obvious being the "Cold War" between "Osea" and "Yuktobania"), the fictional setting allows for a level of detachment so each side's actions can be viewed more objectively. There are "real politics" involved, but only on the level of basic philosophies (left-wing vs right-wing, hawk vs dove, etc). As a result, we end up with a narrative that has the basic beats of a real story, but doesn't connect as directly into our existing prejudices and assumptions.

The second reason for the non-real world is that it was designed to facilitate large conventional wars that wouldn't make sense in real life. Strangereal is a world without nuclear deterrence and without modern ideas of a "just war". As a result, wars fought purely for territory and dominance extend even into the 21st century. This is, of course, necessary to the gameplay - Ace Combat is a game about massive battles between fighter jets, not guerilla warfare in proxy states. What's curious about it is that while the setting generally shows the value of nuclear deterrence, there's also a pretty strong anti-nuclear message in the games themselves. Nuclear weapons are treated as being uniquely horrific in a setting where massively destructive wars are commonplace, even though we don't have those wars in real life anymore because of nukes.

The setting's biggest flaw, in my opinion, is its over-reliance on Anglo-American themes. If you're going to build a fake world, it seems like you should get more exotic with your influences. What's the point of building a whole fake world if you're just going to have people named BOB JOHNSON in every country? Oh, sure, you've got a Fake Germany and a Fake Russia and another Fake Russia, but that only takes you so far. It's established that there's black people and asian people in the setting, but there's no sign of a country where they're the majority. Get creative with it, for God's sake.

The Ace Combat games have the same basic gameplay ("fly around, shoot planes"), but different framing devices for the stories they tell. Ultimately each game tells the story of a single badass pilot who won all the battles and did all the important things, but the way the world around that story is presented changes from game to game.

Ace Combat 1 & 2 are pretty direct arcade-style games. Their stories were limited to briefings detailing why you were in a particular area blowing things up. The most notable thing about these games is that the war depicted in them is relatively pointless; it's a wholly political affair, with no real sense of a good or evil side. The remake of Ace Combat 2 fleshed this out even more; the rebellion exists because a faction in a government feels that their country is too reliant on another country. Which is to say, it's a boring C-SPAN level plot, which is itself pretty interesting when most of the other games try to provide some moral justification for the player's actions. This isn't about defending one's homeland, you're just a pilot fighting for a pro-government faction against rebels. 

Ace Combat 3 was, weirdly enough, a cyberpunk game with an anime style detailing a war between mega-corporations. The big innovation in AC3 was that the "silent protagonist" turned out to be an advanced AI running a simulation about the potential effect of a skilled fighter pilot. It also introduced a "non-protagonist" pilot who had the level of skill traditionally associated with player characters (i.e. "he won wars by himself"). While I don't think of AC3 as being particularly good, it did toy around with the "ace pilot" formula pretty well.

Ace Combat 04 was the first "conventional" Ace Combat game, detailing a war between the far-right country of Erusea and the neighboring "Independent State Allied Forces". Like Ace Combat 1 & 2, there were briefings and operations, but the game's cutscenes were told from the perspective of a young boy caught up in the war. The player character is important to "the war", but is only tangential to the boy's story. There was a sense of things going on outside the player's immediate purview - an attempt to tell a story, to make the setting larger than just "the ace" and "the pilots he's killed".

Ace Combat 5 was probably the most direct storyline. You're playing a silent protagonist with multiple talkative squadmates. Things happen in a linear fashion. A character dies in a cutscene. So on and so forth. AC5's most prominent idea is that "war is bad", and while its setup is very distinctly "Cold War", its themes are actually pretty heavily Japanese. Osea, the USA stand-in, has a self-defense force instead of an army, and its pilots espouse anti-war ideologies even as they shoot down enemy planes. Ultimately the war turns out to have been orchestrated against the wills of both countries, and the whole situation is resolved.

Ace Combat Zero told its story in the form of a documentary. The player took the role of a mercenary pilot defending the country of Ustio from its neighbor, Belka. The game introduced a "morality system" of sorts. Certain targets, such as civilian buildings and damaged planes, could be destroyed for extra money. Doing so would make you a "mercenary", while abstaining would make you a "knight". In-game comments about your character would differ depending on your playstyle. The game's cutscenes were done as interviews with pilots that you shot down, who would comment on their own experiences as well as your flying style. Like AC04, you got the sense that there was a "real war" going on, even if the player wasn't really part of it. People responded to death and loss like people do, and the documentary style created an air of legitimacy about the whole thing. It felt like a story that was being taken seriously.

Ace Combat 6 is the worst. Not just the worst Ace Combat, the worst, period. It's a story about "fake America" fighting "fake Russia" and it basically plays like a jingoistic shooter. There is zero doubt that the "Emmerians" are the good guys and the "Estovakians" are the bad guys (or, best case scenario, misguided tools of a corrupt leadership). However, the cutscenes of the game did focus on civilians trying to escape the war, and a main character loses his family while he's off fighting, so that's...something, at least. In every other regard AC6 is unacceptable, F-, see me after class.

Ace Combat X took place in the setting's equivalent of South America, which was a nice change. The story was told from the point of view of a foreign journalist writing an article about the war as it developed. While the story itself was pretty unsubtle (the bad guy turns out to have been corrupt!!), the presentation was pretty okay, and the tone made it feel like part of a larger world  - not the most important conflict in the setting's history, but a relatively normal part of it.

The weird thing about Ace Combat is that it actually doesn't really have LND - at least not in the traditional way. Your skill is 100% acknowledged as being totally fucking canon, and every other character treats you like you're the greatest pilot in the world despite your apparent lack of speaking ability. Compare this to something like Call of Duty, where the game never really acknowledges your superhuman combat ability and regenerative powers. You're just Sergeant Whatever, a dude who has killed hundreds of guys but still gets orders barked at him constantly like you're an idiot or something.

What Ace Combat does have, though, is shitty AI. AI that, at best, is reasonably competent and can take down the player if it has the advantage of numbers. At worst, though, the game's AI is barely capable of flying in a straight line. The player doesn't have to expend a lot of effort to shoot enemy planes down; they make no attempt to evade or use tactics or anything like that. They're supposed to be trained pilots, often veterans, and yet they exhibit the piloting skills of a rookie on their first day trying to figure out what all the levers do. And you're supposed to feel totally badass for gunning these losers down by the boatload. This is a phenomenon I have written about before.

I mean, this is hardly exclusive to Ace Combat, but AC is also trying to go out of its way to "build a setting". It has interviews with veteran pilots. It's trying to be a war story. It's trying to make a world. So it's one thing if the protagonist is overcoming enemies that feel like legitimately tough and competent characters, and it's totally different if the protagonist is overcoming enemies that feel like incompetent losers. It's denigrating to the story and to the experience as a whole.

I'll compare it to another game, Vector Thrust, which is an AC-inspired flight game. Compared to Ace Combat, Vector Thrust's combat is a lot more intense and dynamic. The AI is capable of more aggressive tactics, and the introduction of countermeasures (chaff/flares) makes the combat more tense on both offense and defense. As a result, a battle with only a few planes can feel serious and tense, and the player will actually lose most of the time if the odds are against them. Victory feels earned, and the setting feels cohesive. You feel like you're actually fighting veteran pilots, not hapless incompetents.

The strangest part about AC's system, though, is the fact that the games are so overtly anti-war in the first place. AC5 in particular talks about the horrors of war at every opportunity, and paints militant aggression as unequivocally evil or misguided. Yet the game has no qualms about making you the most awesome pilot ever and having everyone tell you how great you are. It's not even really meant to be subversive, like where you'd feel guilty for all the killing you're doing. You just kill people, and then eventually you kill the real bad people and it's like "oh okay, guess that's over".

For contrast, the anime series Area 88 was a big inspiration for Ace Combat. However, the mental toll of killing was a pretty huge theme in Area 88, even if the protagonist was an unnaturally skilled pilot. Fear and guilt are major concepts in the series, and the protagonist often justifies himself as "fighting to survive". Ace Combat says that war is bad, but doesn't really talk about any ideas of mental strain or guilt.

It's a series about fighter jets. Everyone wears flight suits. It works. I already covered this.

Although it's a pretty distinct reminder that "being realistic" is an easy default, despite games' insistence to the contrary. It's easy to design realistic-looking characters in realistic-looking uniforms. It's simple. It's effective. Games have to go out of their way to make ridiculous armor or costumes for their characters. They have to go out of their way to sexualize women. They have to go out of their way to make themselves ridiculous. From a design standpoint, realism is the path of least resistance. Games usually eschew realism because they feel like they have to.

Ace Combat has a neat idea for a setting but wastes itself on self-indulgent power fantasies. It's like having a documentary about World War 2 interrupted by Stolz Der Nation. You're just sitting there trying to learn about the effect that war has on the human psyche and BLAM, there's a shift into a cartoonish world where enemies charge at a lone warrior and he guns them all down. Am I watching a documentary or am I watching an action-adventure? I can't do both. You've got to decide.

In that sense, Ace Combat is the epitome of "gaming". It tells the player they're the best and the most important, but it also tells them they're mature and serious and adult. It coddles the player while assuring them that they're All Grown Up. And that's what gaming is.


  1. Thanks for the article; enjoyed it quite a bit. I'm glad you're posting these again!

  2. Ugh, I had a long comment here but it seems to have been eaten, so I'll try and recap.

    1. Thanks for this as well, it's spot on and AC is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me too.
    2. I wonder what your take on AC: Assault Horizon is, it's thirty times worse than AC6, and it ditches "Strangereal" for actual Earth, so the politics get really weird and the whole game goes whole hog in terms of "METAL SHARD DESTRUCTION" with actual not-blood-but-oil smears on your HUD when you murder a pilot in strange scripted dogfights.
    3. I've been playing AC: Infinity and despite the F2P garbage, I've been having fun because it's essentially just multiplayer coop or pvp and it's populated by slightly more adept enemies. There's also a strange story mode but it's money-gated and seems to be a greatest hits of sorts (Earth has still replaced Strangereal, but the Ulysses thing happened, causing weirdo fake countries to exist in the post-apocalyptia, and it's kind of bananas.)

    1. Assault Horizon is the only Ace Combat game I've played and, generally, I enjoyed it. It didn't last too long which was good, because there wasn't a great deal of variety. Judging by this critique, it would seem best to simply divorce Assault Horizon from the idea of it being an Ace Combat game.

    2. Yeah, I don't consider AH to be an Ace Combat game, mostly b/c I'm talking about Strangereal as a world. Talking about AH is as relevant as talking about TOM CLANCY'S HAWX (tm)

      I think "moving to reality" is a natural step after AC6, because at that point they were clearly done with "building a world" and just wanted to get cheap points for jingoistic garbage. I mean, they went back to Strangereal with that remake of AC2, but it's pretty clear that "Strangereal" as a concept is just Done.

  3. Kind of strange to imagine you as being a fan of anything.


    2. I'd forgotten about those. If I may be so bold as to recommend some sites to you.

      It's not exactly about fiction but it does tackle historical fictions we have about Buddhism, colonialism and history. I think you may enjoy it, give ya a break from dem darn vidya games

      This website tackles the popular culture in some similar ways but funnier and more pedantic. They've gone over some o the points you gone over, such as the difference between D&D dynamic imagining and the illusion of freedom in games like Dragon Age