Game of the Month is an ongoing series that examines critical issues in game design. Through close readings of prominent, innovative, and experimental games, I hope to explore their structure and aesthetic significance. The current Game of the Month is Steel Battalion.
My VT is under fire from two sides. As I yank the throttle into reverse, my foot hammers on the dodge pedal to sidestep one salvo of enemy rockets—but my rearview camera feed flashes as another barrage slams into my mech from behind. I’ve blundered into a trap, and my enemies are strafing closer, flanking me. I can’t change course fast enough, and now my VT’s dodge is on cooldown. They move in for the kill.
For one agonizing instant I glance down at the control panel, searching in vain for a solution, when I hear the shriek of my VT’s alarm. Damage critical. Red lights flash all around me as the mech sounds its death rattle, both in Steel Battalion’s heads-up display and on the controller’s embedded LEDs. My eyes dart to the far corner of the dashboard where the emergency button blinks urgently, cordoned off by a black-and-yellow caution label. I flip the hard plastic casing and press the Eject button, the game’s display filling with smoke and static as the pilot’s capsule detaches. I live to fight another day.
Steel Battalion joins a select number of games that raise the specter of the player’s own mortality. Like ZombieU and Dead Rising (which both deal with the struggle for self-preservation in a post-apocalyptic setting), the game maintains a stranglehold over its own save data. To die in a mission brings a player face-to-face with a kind of oblivion; watching helplessly as their progress is erased from the console’s hard drive. Survival horror games with self-destruct saves often have an element of basic strategy, limiting resources like health kits and ammunition to encourage careful exploration. While Steel Battalion has a finite supply of in-game currency, it seems more concerned with bringing the player into the cockpit than punishing costly mistakes. Lunging for the Eject button offers a heart-pounding instant of adrenaline, though the campaign does not change substantively as a result.
The game’s mission structure is partially to blame here. Steel Battalion’s levels are utterly sequential; to play the 3rd mission, the player must first complete the 2nd mission, and so on. If you fail a mission (and manage to Eject in time), you’re quickly returned to the level select screen and have to sit through the same mission briefing all over again. Steel Battalion simply doesn’t want to acknowledge the player’s failure. Even missions that are supposedly urgent—your superior officer likes to drone on about matters of national security—are instantly restarted, as if nothing had happened. Linear progression is really a crutch in this case, one that robs a lot of significance from the Eject function. I think Steel Battalion might have been better served by a generative or hub-based level system, allowing the narrative to react to catastrophic mission failure.
I’m reminded of a similar mechanic in the Total War series, which features a two-level strategy system. Players must capture and control territory using a handful of Generals; subordinate characters that can govern provinces and maintain public order. However, Generals are also powerful units on the battlefield. They can bolster the morale of nearby troops and can often turn the tide of a fight with a heavy cavalry charge. Knowing when to commit your General is a fundamental element of strategy in Total War, because if a General dies in battle, he also dies on the campaign map. It’s a decision that often carries a heavy price, a meaningful choice the player has to make. In Steel Battalion there is no decision. When the alarm sounds, you hit the Eject button or you perish.
But what if that alarm was a warning, instead of a declaration? If it played when you reached 10% health, not seconds before your VT exploded? There’s a missed opportunity here for a powerful risk/reward mechanic, daring the player to tempt fate. When ambushed by those enemy mechs, my first reaction was to lunge for targeting joystick, holding the reticle steady as I pulled the trigger. Just a few more seconds, I thought. I can bring them down. If the red lights flashed at that very moment—DAMAGE CRITICAL—I would have stared down the threat of my own annihilation, white-knuckled hands clutching that insane controller in a death grip. And returned fire.