Echo once bore the name of a minor noble house until the day her mother spit in her open mouth and demanded she never come back. All of this over a kiss. She climbed into the family’s ENF-4F Battlemech, ran ignition sequences, and left with the heirloom slated for her eldest brother’s 18th birthday. This was the first time she touched it, this body, the machine. It was intoxicating.
She would go on to enter the gladiatorial pits of Solaris where she showed incredible talent her rookie year, she always was a quick study. She left the pits with a 15W-6L record after refusing to throw a fight, by her logic anyone they sent to kill her would have to be a better pilot than her, and those were few and far between. So she moved on, took up with a mercenary company whose yellowed poster she saw taped up on the wall outside the arena she’d learned to call home. The barracks were cramped, her coworkers were assholes, the food tasted like rust. She loved it.
This is the story of Echo, this is the story of Battletech, a game that captured my imagination in a way that no other XCOM-like tactics game has. In every character I saw a story. In the sketches offered to me by procedurally generated portraits and personality traits I found characters who I came to love. One campaign came to be defined for me by Glitch, the crackshot sniper who’d been in our company since day one. She was so kind, so excited, I like to imagine she led orientation, that she was a shoulder to cry on. I remember when she died from a freak headshot fired from an AC-15. I remember wanting to howl.
When Glitch died and I looked at the husk of her ‘Mech I was unable to stop thinking of it as her. I renamed that ‘Mech after her, gave it a new pilot, sent it out into the field. But she was gone with only a body to remember her by.
From the first moments of the game you are asked to see your pilots as people first and foremost. The game asks you to create one of your own, a body to inhabit, a history to embody. You are presented with a collection of questions: Where is your family from? What happened to them? What did you do before now? These come to build a framework for who you are in the world. Unlike XCOM you are not the abstracted ideal of a commander, the perfect tactical mind divorced from the conflict itself, instead you are a concrete body susceptible to violence just like any other (although the game does not allow your character to die, you’ll only ever be injured for ever increasing stretches of time). This is, for me, what sets Battletech apart from XCOM, this effort towards genuine characterization, both of the player character and of the other pilots in their company.
As you travel throughout the galaxy the game presents you with short choose your own adventure scenes designed to further this characterization. Pilots are a little more than character portraits and stat arrays, there’s just enough characterization to make them feel recognizable. I remember when Safety and Isonade got in an argument and Echo was forced to tell both of them to stop acting like children. I remember when they fought together in the next mission. I remember the time I used Safety draw fire for a few precious moments, allowing Isonade to score a clean punch into the enemy’s spine before unleashing a full salvo of machine gun fire interspersed with jets of white flame. It was a poor tactical decision, neither came out unscathed after a hard barrage blindsided Isonade, but it felt right. The two bonded so I had them stick together and work as a unit, despite the inefficiency.
Safety and Isonade weren’t the power couple at the heart of Echo’s Marauders, that particular title went to Cobalt and Echo herself. They were a perfect team. Echo, a crack sniper with a talent for taking out ‘Mech’s with only a handful of clean slugs to the central torso. Cobalt, a brawler with seemingly nothing to lose. Cobalt had a habit of using her ‘Mech less like a weapons platform, and more like a battering ram. Despite this fact, she had the cleanest repair record of any pilot.
One mission in particular stands out. Half the squad was forced to eject, an overwhelming barrage of enemy fire from half a dozen small vehicles took out Safety within the first sixteen seconds of the engagement. Isonade managed to thin the herd before getting dropped by the two medium and light ‘Mechs holding up the rear. It was a long, hard fight. By the end of the mission Cobalt and Echo were both exhausted, low on ammo, and their ‘Mechs missing one limb each. The fight ended with Cobalt unleashing a storm of close range laser fire into the exposed chest of a fallen Shadow Hawk, lines of light danced across the sand leaving black glass rivers in their wake.
They were in a jungle bordering a shallow beach, the falling sun was casting crimson across the water. For some reason, probably a bug or just a load time, it took a moment for the dropship to appear. The image of the two broken bodies ankle deep in sand stuck with me. I like to think that it took hours for the dropship to touchdown at the LZ. I like to think Cobalt and Echo sat on the shoulders of their ‘Mechs and shouted jokes over the sounds of tired metal and trees held the wind. They’d both been injured during the fight, nothing major, nothing a few days rest wouldn’t fix. I like to think they helped to tend each other’s wounds. The gentle pressure of a well tied bandage like a reassuring hand. I like to think it rained while they waited, that they were caught out, wet and hot and tired. I like to think that was the first night they kissed. I like to think their lips held within them hours distilled, compounded into a form that was touchable and raw. Their memories made manifest by the taste of summer in the rain.
But what about the bodies upon whose shoulders Cobalt and Echo shared those precious hours? What do the Battlemechs of Battletech say about their pilots, about their players, and about the ways in which we see bodies? What are the fantasies at the core of Battletech? What is being idealized in the act of self-portraiture via warmachine?
Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is our capacity for violence. Battlemechs look human because it allows the harm they inflict to become readable to an audience. A tank is not a human body, it is not capable of the things we are capable of. I don’t know exactly what it means for a mortar shell to snap an axle, but I do know what it means for a leg to break. I know that pain, panic, and dread. Vehicle combat is often used as an abstraction of violence, this is why in blockbuster action movies cars explode left and right. It is as if the narrative forgets that there’s someone behind the wheel. By centering humanoid bodies, Battletech peels away layers of abstraction, it reminds us both who inflicts and who receives harm.
Battletech is the slow brutality of siege warfare consolidated into single points. Into arms and legs and chests. Consolidated into bodies like ours. To watch a ‘Mech take fire from half a dozen LRM suites in a single turn is to be forced to watch the inevitable come to fruition. That body will fall, that arm will break, someone will die today. This sense of siege is helped, in part, by Battletech’s ammunition system. Watching those numbers slowly tick down as you open fire again and again provides another point of pressure. The question is not only if we will survive the siege, but will we have the equipment to continue afterwards? The only other option is a different sort of violence, all swinging fists and screaming metal.
This framing of mechs is not unique to Battletech, from the beginning of the genre these have been among the driving forces in the aesthetic of mech media. Gundam is about the horror of war, and war gets a lot more horrifying when you are blowing up things that look like people. However, Battletech sets itself apart by one, focusing on slow violence, and two, emphasizing the disposability and modifiability of every part of the machine, including the pilot.
An arm crumples under a Hatchetman’s blade? Build a new one. An entire side of your ‘Mech was blown off from a point blank AC/20 shell? Build it again. Your SRM suite was knocked out by a few lucky shots from some second rate pilot that wasn’t even worth the AC/10 rounds you pumped into him? Crush them, and then build it again. This is the first of Battletech’s fantasies, immortality. ‘Mechs are bodies with an infinite potential for repair, there is no maximum amount of damage that will break them, that will remove them from your arsenal. If you have money, and you have time, then they can be rebuilt.
The second fantasy at the heart of Battletech is that of the numbers game. Not only can your ‘Mechs be rebuilt, they can be built better. Tweaking pieces for optimum performance, tuning armor, cutting weight. “How efficient of a body can you build?” Battletech asks, “how much profit can it extract each mission?” Regardless of its history, regardless of its name, regardless of the custom paint job, the numbers are always there. I can always see its capacity for violence in plain terms, how much heat it generates, how many weapons it can fire, how quickly it can close the distance between it and its target. Battlemechs are bodies made quantifiable, reduced to components and percentages that are easily understood. If you’re smart enough, if you have the right numbers, in the end you’ll win.
Both of these fantasies center on efficiency. Battlemechs are bodies designed to maximize how much profit they can produce which, in Battletech, is synonymous with how much violence they can inflict. Every part of the body is tuned, every part of the body can be replaced. Even the pilot.
What do you do if a pilot is killed, what if the enemy secures a headshot you never saw coming? Just hire someone new. For all the work Battletech does to humanize your pilots, the systems of the game itself treat them like commodities, like parts slotted into the ‘Mech. Sure, Glitch is dead, but for that ‘Mech to fulfill the same function I just have to hire someone with the correct set of skills. I can move on, because our bodies are disposable too. You can always repair a ‘Mech, unless you go out of your way to disable the option to do so in the difficulty settings, but you cannot save every pilot. Pilots are born to die, born to be, eventually, wiped out of existence and replaced. I have a habit of renaming ‘Mechs after their pilots if they die, as if that were some kind of consolation for their loss. It isn’t, because they are gone, and the world doesn’t actually care.
Battletech is driven by slow violence. By the crumpling of metal over time, by the gradual accumulation of harm, and by the constant pressure of a world defined by capital. Ship upkeep, salaries, repairs, refitting, resupplying, hiring, every action in Battletech has a price. There is a second siege in Battletech, away from the roar of gunfire and forests scarred by laser fire, there is the world and there is you.
Even if you execute every mission perfectly, even if you extract the maximum amount of profit from every pilot, it never ends, there is no epilogue. The game keeps going, your monthly budget keeps ticking down, the world of Battletech will never stop taking from you, it will never relent. You will never win, you will only survive. The Tauran Concordant will always be there. The Capellan Confederation will always be there. There will always be work and there will always be bills to pay.
There’s a tension at the core of Battletech. The way in which it works to humanize its pilots by giving them personalities and small stories, and the way in which it demands you to see them as components, as ways to produce profit. It is as exhausting as it is brutal. It is a game that asks you to do bad things, almost never explicitly. There aren’t dialogue choices clearly marked as good and evil. There are just systems interlocking, silent demands being made, moments where something has to give. Sometimes you look at how much money you have and how much you’ll be spending, and you realize that the only thing that’ll keep you afloat is to fire a pilot in the medbay, that the only way for your company to subsist, and you will never do more than subsist, is to abandon someone to death. The violence inflicted by capitalism connects all of Battletech’s disparate systems together, it brings into tension the pilot and the machine, the pilot and the corporation, it strains every relationship the game has.
Battletech turns everything into a numbers game, but gives every number a face. It encourages you to play towards maximum efficiency, and then shows you the futility and brutality of that reality. Battletech is not a hopeful game. Despite its difficulty XCOM at least presents the possibility of victory or escape from the alien threat. Battletech does no such thing. You aren’t going to beat capitalism. You are going to scrounge for scraps. You are going to take jobs that make you feel sick. And one day, one mission, you will die.
Shot. Shot. Drop. Clods of dirt cascade then armor dents, then armor caves. Echo already knows how this ends. She slammed her head twice today. The money just isn’t there. She will either die here in this machine from shrapnel puncturing her lungs or from a clean shot to the head or from a weighty fist in her chest, or, she will die in a few months, after the paychecks stop coming in and her hospital bills become too much to bear. The mission is already over, it ended the second OpFor touched ground and opened fire into Cobalt’s back, she was gone like that. She felt every hit. She watched her view screen crack. She heard the sirens blare. It was brutal. And yet the shots kept coming. So Echo stays here, she holds her ground. This pilot. This body, the machine. They will die here today. Her grip tightens. Shot. Shot. Drop. Shot. Shot. Drop. Shot. Shot. Drop. She remembers lips and she remembers songs and she remembers the taste of summer in the rain.