The good ol’ days of “Into the Breach”

Into the Breach is a 2018 turn-based strategy game developed and published by Subset Games. It is set in the far future, where humanity is fighting a war against giant insectoid monsters called the Vek. The player commands a small team of humans piloting giant mechs. Since in the future the Vek have already destroyed the Earth, each new game starts by sending the pilots back in time. You win the game by defeating the Vek before they can annihilate the Earth.

  1. The darkest timeline

Into the Breach resonates with a particular meme that was at its peak popularity roughly 1 year before the game came out: The Darkest Timeline (https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/the-darkest-timeline). It was still popular at the time of release (early 2018). It describes a certain view on the current state of the (mostly Western) world, that basically everything is as bad as it can be, and you can’t do anything about it. Climate change will kill us all (it is heavily referenced in the game); Donald Trump spews constant hate and nonsense on Twitter with total impunity; corporations are stealing tax money and your personal data; governments are inefficient; politicians are corrupted liars; the economy is at the whim of China/bankers/whoever. But wait, what if there was a way to go back in time and punch all your problems in the face before they become overwhelming? Replace all the problems listed above (real or imaginary) by giant insects from outer space, give the characters the possibility to time travel and fix the timeline. Even if we do indeed live in The Darkest Timeline, we “just” have to travel back in time and save the other Timelines, by destroying this threat that the people in charge at the time were unable to deal with. This makes it very appealing for any proponent of The Darkest Timeline.

Earth’s future: Archive, Inc.; R.S.T. Corporation; Pinnacle Robotics; Detritus Disposal.

The game cleverly leans on a common fear of Western societies the idea that it is too late to act on these major problems, that we should have acted earlier (if only we had known better!). The empowerment comes from giving the player the possibility to act preemptively, but with the knowledge of things to come. You have undeniable evidence that the Vek will be a problem (the population of the Earth has been wiped out), so you can go back in time and drown them BEFORE the damage is irreparable. Cleverly, the game mixes the imaginary future Vek problem with problems that are relevant to our present. For example: climate change (the islands were created by the rise of the ocean levels); over-pollution (Detritus Disposal); or rogue artificial intelligence (Pinnacle Robotics). These problems are all potential existential threats in the future, but we are aware of them now, today. Thus the game asks you: “What are you doing to solve these potential problems? Are you actively doing something? Or are you waiting until they become as threatening as the Vek, and once it is too late wish that someone invents a time machine so you can come back now and burn them with a flamethrower?” The power wish fulfillment of the time travel mechanism comes at the cost of asking yourself: if you could have prevented the Vek/ other problems before, would you have done it, or are you the type of person who sits idly and complains that it is the fault of those who came before?

2. Pixel art for the sake of philosophical consistency

The style of the game is reminiscent of early 90’s works: original X-COM, Dune II. It came out in the middle of the 80’s/90’s revival in pop culture (books, movies, TV shows, and of course video games), blending its message within a layer of nostalgia that appeals to many players. In the same way that characters from the game jump back in time when everything was still possible and not irremediably corrupted by the Vek, the player experiences this by way of the game’s aesthetics. The whole design participates in this achievement: the pixel art of the graphics; the music heavy on synths; the dialogues appearing through small windows in the corner of the screen (without voice acting of course); the limited animations… The style is completely in phase with the substance.

Of course, during the era that the game references most players were either kids or not even born. The 80’s and 90’s are seen through pixel-colored glasses as “better times”, when everything was simple and optimism ruled. For example the video games of the 8 or 16 bits era are sometimes remembered as perfectly crafted jewels dedicated only to the player’s enjoyment, in contrast with modern games that are accused of being “political”. Ironically, Into the Breach’s human pilots are in a vast majority women, PoC, disabled or a combination of these. In the same manner, the game features prominently political themes as discussed above.

The roster of pilots available.

The art direction of the game is a success, perfectly blending with its themes, while at the same time subtly hinting that the nostalgia it leans on is nothing but a time mirage.

3. Being a good guy will give you more XP

So we have discussed that the game gives you the opportunity to be a righteous savior while not taking any risk of being on the wrong side of history because you have perfect information about the future events. In order to push this reasoning to the maximum, it rewards you for making “good” decisions. Your general health (the grid system) is tied to human habitation buildings: let too many of them get destroyed (and kill the people who live in them) and you are closer and closer to a game over. Additionally each casualty will reduce your final score. This way the value of human life is not an abstract concept but can be calculated very precisely in terms of game penalties and rewards. Is it still an ethical choice to save or sacrifice Earth’s inhabitants during your battles? In terms of consequentialism, the choice is clear: the only “good” action is to save as many people as possible.

You always have another chance to save more civilians.

Again the game tricks the player into behaving a certain way through its mechanics. If you only look at a superficial level, you choose to heroically defend all these people. At the end of a battle they will cheer for you from the (intact) buildings. But this choice was actually moot since there is no viable alternative.

In conclusion, Into the Breach is a resounding success thematically. On the surface it is a simple game that offers you the possibility to be a true hero by defeating an absolutely evil menace, all wrapped in stunning 16 bits pixel art. But if you just scratch it a little bit, it encourages deep reflexion on what altruism really is, why we love retro art so much and what it takes to make us act against existential threats.