Of Mechs and Men

Aesthetic Distance and Hawken

[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon!]

Austin C. Howe once tweeted that games are “empathetic”, not “immersive”; that is, they don’t make you feel like you’re “there”, they communicate what “there” is like. I replied to their tweet, but until I started writing this article I didn’t actually know what I was talking about.

When people talk about immersion, they generally are referring to the decreased “aesthetic distance” achieved by playing a game rather than watching it. Aesthetic distance is the difference between a viewer’s conscious reality and the fictional reality presented in a work of art. “Violating the aesthetic distance” is when something occurs to jar the viewer further away from the previously-maintained aesthetic distance.

I have come to two major conclusions:

  • Games can be immersive. If a horror game isn’t immersive, watching an LP of it would scare you just as much as playing it does.
  • Aesthetic distance in games is highly dependent on how well a game’s mechanics match the rules of the game’s fictional reality.

There are two types of immersion, following the definition that I used: “digital” immersion and “analog” immersion.

  • “Digital immersion” is giving the player discrete decisions to make that affect the game’s world in ways that align well with their apparent fictional realities. It can be done with or without a realtime component.
  • “Analog immersion” is giving the player the ability, in realtime, to interact with the world as if they were part of it.

Western mech games have, with varying levels of commitment and success, striven to provide analog immersion through the realtime experience of piloting a mech in their universes. This is important to me for two reasons.

First, almost all games have gameplay that gratuitously violates the aesthetic distance. You might get involved with interplanetary politics in Mass Effect, and characters may benefit or suffer in the story for your decisions, but the moment that someone draws their gun for a real-time firefight with you, they are the same generic, blatantly AI-driven, cover-taking mannequin as every other enemy in the game. On top of that, the game simply does not let you lose the firefight and still continue the game; once combat begins, you generally know that, in the plot, you kill them. (Metro 2033 actually avoids the fatalistic structure of shooter segments extremely well, but it is a notable exception.)

Second, I am a massive fucking dork for Western mech games, but the genre has all but disappeared. I think their focus on analog immersion is important in a modern context, where we have many games that are lauded for digital immersion, but less recognition for games with analog immersion.

I think a lot of people don’t really know what “Western mecha” is, at least in comparison to Eastern mecha. Many people suggest the Western adjective is defined by gritty, ultra-militarized worlds with a rarity or absence of fantastical weapons and a rigid adherence to “real robot” principles. This too is an Eastern combination of tropes, pioneered by the anime series directed by Ryōsuke Takahashi (Fang of the Sun Dougram, Armored Trooper VOTOMS). For reference, Fang of the Sun Dougram began airing on October 23rd, 1981, and VOTOMS began airing in 1983; Battletech, the board game that led to the Mechwarrior game series, was released in 1984.

In my opinion, what defines Western mecha is the same thing that defines Western mech games — a focus on the mech as a vehicle, rather than as the pilot’s avatar. This leads to most Western mecha being handless; if a mech has hands, control generally has to be abstracted (heavy computer intervention, something esoteric like neurohelmets…) or otherwise made nondescript. It’s also why in most Eastern shows, including every Gundam series, the majority of a mech’s control scheme is holding onto levers and yelling.

Eastern mecha focuses on the fantasy of increasing the power of the human form by mechanizing it; the intent isn’t to have someone pilot a mech, it’s to have someone inhabit one. Eastern mecha engage in ground combat that rapidly alternates between dramatizations of various eras of armed combat, and engage in space combat that would look perfectly at home in any given shonen series.

Western mecha fight like tanks, like skirmishing battleships, or combat vehicles in general. They aren’t strangely-ornamented people fighting in underscaled environments; they’re war machines and have to be controlled as such. Pilots use joysticks, pedals and various buttons, and in contrast to Eastern mecha, these features are generally detailed and directly control individual functions of the machine.

Many, many small elements have originated in one “genre” or the other, but the vehicle-vs-avatar emphasis is the key to giving the West-vs-East definitions any meaning. There are two major “western mecha” multiplayer releases that I have played and enjoyed. Mechwarrior Online is doing pretty well for itself, but Hawken is less conventional by the genre’s standards and is also largely dead. I’m going to talk about Hawken and its successes in closing the aesthetic distance on its rickety thrusters.

It’s Really Too Bad that Nobody Plays Hawken

Hawken is, as the title bar of its site calls it, a “Free-To-Play Mech First-Person-Shooter”. It uses an arena shooter framework (eg: Unreal Tournament, Quake Live, or to a lesser extent, the Halo series’ multiplayer) to give players an excuse to shoot at each other from the cockpits of bipedal mechs. It is unfortunately an F2P game, which means it abuses the concept of progression like every other F2P game. The art really stuck with me because the mechs themselves are quite inspired by Maschinen Krieger, a long-running dieselpunk model kit “universe” by Kow Yokoyama. (I am somewhat obsessed with MaK too. Go figure.) The aesthetic is generally much “junkier” than MaK ever was, but with real money, you can alter your mechs’ appearances to better match my taste.

As demonstrated.

Hawken largely plays as an FPS, but its genius lies in how it closes aesthetic distance while blending mainstream Japanese and Western mecha aesthetics. The game’s archetype is one of the most Western genres ever — the first-person shooter — but its speed and depiction of said speed are reminiscent of any given number of Japanese mecha anime or game series.

Metal Machine Music

Starting off, I’ll analyze the easiest thing Hawken could have done to help close aesthetic distance. It’s largely played in first-person, and the first person view simulates viewing the world from a mech’s cockpit. You have no option to play exclusively from third person. During the beta, almost all of the game’s information (in particular the health count and fuel meter) was displayed on cockpit elements, but they later moved most of the information to a digital overlay for legibility. (They’re projected upon the player character’s helmet visor, as implied by the pre-round bootup screen.) The game still has 4 relevant screens on the mechs’ “dashboards”; three large screens indicate the availability of your consumables, and one large one indicates whether or not your mech’s special ability is ready.

The game puts in some effort to convince you that the cockpit is your seat and not your face. First, the cockpit animates in time with the audible footsteps of your mech, and weaves about in reaction to the use of your thrusters. Second (and less common in mecha games as a whole), game-world sounds are equalized to demonstrate that the mayhem outside of your cockpit is heard through the mech’s hull rather than being heard directly. This leaves the “high end” of audio for the in-game alerts; missile locks, the damage alarm, and piloting computer notifications. All of those are done in a way that suggests that they’re coming from speakers within the mech.

Hawken does many other little things to convince you that you’re piloting a mech and not just playing a first-person shooter. Many maps have props that your mech can destroy or punt by walking through them, helping to depict your mech’s size. You get a good understanding of your mech’s five- to eight-metre stature by passing by — or through — streetlamps and parked trucks. Lastly, Hawken is also the only mech game I’ve ever played that reacts to the player dragging against walls. Do so and you will hear metal grinding noises, see sparks, and get small clouds of dust. Many mech games acknowledge collisions — Mechwarrior Online now has some barely-audible audio when such collisions are registered, and Steel Battalion had the pleasingly simulationist feature of falling over if you run into a wall hard enough — but few mech games acknowledge the real-world implications of dragging along walls with a vehicle.

I kicked that truck instead of helping my team.

As an arena shooter, Hawken’s movement is much faster than the movement in any other Western mecha game. The backbone of its speed lies in how it incorporates the mechs’ design into the gameplay. Every mech has thrusters mounted to its chassis, and you can perform a number of other advanced maneuvers at the expense of “fuel”.

The most relevant part of Hawken’s movement system is that it has a modifier key that operates most of your fuel-consuming maneuvers. While holding it, you can press left or right to dodge in that direction. Pressing backward with the modifier will allow you to perform a fast 180-degree turn; every mech has a limited pitch/yaw speed, with heavier mechs having slower rotation speeds, so a separate button to quickly spin around sometimes proves useful. Lastly, pressing and holding forward will let you leap forward into a “boost”, which acts as the game’s “sprint” button, with a twist.

While boosting, you can change the direction of your thrust by turning to face in a different direction, and/or boosting “diagonally” by adding the left or right movement buttons to your boost. Doing so slowly applies thrust in the new direction. You are, of course, boosting around; your mech is slightly off of the ground, so the thrusters can only provide so much change in direction over time. You can, however, switch between boosting and dodging to immediately leap in another direction. Combining these elements lets you perform aggressive evasive maneuvers, or simply lets you pull off 90-degree turns in a heartbeat. There is an amazing sense of urgency generated by these evasion/escape mechanics, especially when you’re low on health and the resultant alarm is increasing in pitch and frequency as you take additional damage.

Hawken has some nice window dressing for when you are at low health. On top of the aforementioned warning alarm, you get cracked-screen effects, which deepen with damage. They apply to the player view — that is, before the exterior view — which suggests that the pilot’s visor has cracked. It’s not as plausible as the external camera’s lens getting cracked, but it could be a technical limitation, and it definitely still helps sell the condition of your mech when you can’t really see the rest of it without entering Repair mode.

On the verge of death.

You have two ways to regain health in the game. (you could call it Armour or something, as I’ve seen one player do, but I mean, come on, it’s health.) First, you can stand near these spheres of energy that spawn from players on death, which flow into your mech and repair it while you are near them. (They get smaller as they get used up.) Second, you can hold the Repair button. Holding the Repair button takes you into third-person view where you see your mech shutting down, deploying a repair drone, and after about 3 seconds, regaining health as the repair drone swivels around your machine, making repairs. Releasing the Repair button makes your machine suddenly jump upright, throwing you back into first-person mode as soon as you have control again. The repair button is an excellent blending mecha repair tropes with “healing” mechanics. The Health Orbs thing concedes much more to playability than aesthetic distance, but it becomes more meaningful in the context of Hawken’s Siege Mode.

Siege is a two-phase game mode; in the first phase, teams compete to gather energy (referred to as EU — Energy Units) from stations on the map. If a mech picks up EU but is destroyed before returning to base, the EU falls to the ground as a sphere, like the Health Orbs do. When a team returns enough EU, their base launches a flying battleship. In the “second phase” (which is whenever any battleships are in flight), teams can fight for control over an anti-air station. The station follows control point rules, and once a team controls the anti-air station, it will fire massive missiles at the opposing battleship (if there is one). Battleships can be damaged by mech weaponry, but they receive massive amounts of damage from the anti-air station; it fires a missile every few seconds, and 3 missiles destroys the battleship. Teams can gather energy to launch their own battleship during this phase, but for obvious reasons, launching a battleship while the enemy controls the anti-air station is ill-advised.

I watch as my team’s battleship launches missiles at the enemy base. We have the anti-air station secured.

Siege is really something. It’s entirely functional as an FPS game mode and is constructed entirely out of traditional game mode trappings, but it illustrates these tropes in an immersive way. (Blizzard, knowingly or not, copied Siege’s structure through Heroes of the Storm’s “objectives” system.) The battleships announce their presence with a sci-fi-movie-prerequisite ominous bassy horn; the cockpit computer announces when your team or the enemy team has launched a battleship; a commanding officer of some sort occasionally pitches in on the radio to restate objectives and urge the team forward. Battleships that dwarf the mechs inch across the sky, firing missiles into the opposing team’s megastructure that dwarfs the battleship itself. When both teams have a battleship, they will instead engage in combat with one another, just above the anti-air site. Teams of mechs fight over the two-storey anti-air station, sometimes breaking to simply fire upon the enemy battleship until reinforcements arrive. The anti-air station, once controlled, unfurls like a metal flower and unleashes mech-sized missiles, obliterating the opposing battleship. The battleship explodes, spreading small globules of EU across the map, and the race to launch another battleship begins.

Unfortunately, unless Hawken suddenly becomes popular again, or you and 5 friends sneak into matchmaking picking Siege as your only playlist, you will never get to play Siege yourself.

Hawken doesn’t delve deep into control scheme emulation or simulating machinery, but it doesn’t need to. It does everything else that a Western mech game needs to do to close aesthetic distance, and it does it better than most other Western mech games, with a tenth of the surface complexity. You don’t need a button for windshield wipers to feel like you’re a pilot. You need a game that can only be won by acting like a pilot.

Why did I read this?

Like every other obsessive nerd on the Internet, I grew up leaning on some form of escapism that grew to consume my imagination. For most North Americans, it was some combination of console games and anime. For me, having a tech-savvy father who purchased and built desktop computers, it was the virtual worlds of mechanized warfare that games like Mechwarrior 2, 3 and 4 offered me.

I grew up driving cars with manual transmissions, so the idea of piloting a vehicle for pleasure was a reality. It was not a big stretch to enjoy mech games that made it feel like I was doing something more exciting, in much cooler vehicles, wielding controls with more interesting output.

I find myself a bit isolated in this interest these days. I’m a Millenial™, but I struggle to find common ground with others my age in mecha spaces. If they care about mecha, they’re generally invested in the concept of mechs as semi-magical avatars. A mech with twintails or a cape is more interesting to them than a mech that looks like a bipedal crab. But all I want is to live in a world dominated by horrible, bipedal crabs.

Who knows. Maybe writing about this game, drawing attention to a part of the mecha fantasy that is ignored by mainstream mecha, will help spur more interest in Western mecha, or at the very least help to gather the kind of people who share my absurd fantasies. We’ll see.

Thanks for reading.