Insomnia | Reviews



By John Szczepaniak / December 11, 2008

War has a permanent place in the history of gaming. It’s been de-fanged, packaged and handed to the player who is starved for excitement, exhilaration and enjoyment. War games have seldom gone beyond those three e- s. This poses a problem, since war by its very nature is seldom any of these things. War is viscerally frightening and brutally unpleasant. It is also final, since dead soldiers do not come back to life, a sharp contrast to how the subject is handled in videogames.

The job of arousing fear in players has normally been relegated to horror-themed games which, if successful, the idea goes, would have made people reluctant at times to play them. But fear has rarely been successfully used in games. Tekki challenges the status quo and also the future of games design by emotionally manipulating the player in a way that has never been done before. It lets you taste gaming pleasure before threatening to dash it against the rocks if you don’t fight for it. It is without doubt one of the most revolutionary titles in the history of gaming; not because of its high priced controller, as some may contend, but because of its unique saving mechanism. While many have been quick to gloss over this factor, some even dismissing it as “annoying at best”, the fact remains that it has been used in such a way as to be completely terrifying. Like no other game before it, Tekki is capable of inducing extreme amounts of raw, almost mind-numbing, terror. Its ability to induce fear makes it the most “realistic” war simulator yet.

Unlike any other war game, even more realistically-themed simulations such as Full Spectrum Warrior, Tekki has more accurately recreated those unpleasant feelings one has when indulging in media that portrays conflict. It’s the closest alternative to war available, even if it puts the player in a multi-story walking war machine, because you constantly face the possibility of your own demise. Other media portrayals of real and fictional wars have relied on a passive viewer associating with the imagery displayed on their own terms, but they are always kept isolated from events by the fact that they are still only viewing things, not fully experiencing them. They can easily justify things in their own mind whilst sitting in a warm and comfortable room, at no point affected in any way by events. In Tekki, suddenly the imagery of war not only has a more direct effect on them, but their avatar affects the conflict. There is genuine causality in every action or failed attempt.

If you die in Tekki, your avatar dies for real. Your save game is erased and your post-mortem stats are recorded. There is no reprieve and no second chance.

Games have admittedly used death in emotionally-affecting ways before. Remember losing Jops half way through Cannon Fodder only to see his gravestone haunting you until the end of the game? But never before have those who create games taken the liberty of punishing the player for dying by erasing all evidence of their hard work. The only way to avoid death is to hit ‘eject’ in time once the klaxon sounds. That klaxon sound will end up burned into the subconscious of all Tekki players, causing a 'Pavlov’s Dog' type reaction where the adrenaline jacks up and the eyes widen and whiten as your hand instinctively lunges for the only button that can save you. As a result, the farther one progresses and the more hours one clocks up, the more fearful the possibility of death becomes. Restarting the first five missions on the easiest difficulty is painful enough, but being forced to begin anew after completing your 100th mission, having clocked over fifty hours in campaign mode, is simply too much. Losing and dying no longer become options in open warfare once a certain point is reached. It is here that Tekki pulls you into its trenches and won’t allow you to leave.

Even if you do not die, and manage to hit the eject button before the Vertical Tank (VT) explodes in a shower of flames, there is still the risk of relegation. Every player earns supply points with which to buy further VTs; lose a VT out in the field and you have to buy a new one. Waste too many supply points and you will be unable to purchase anymore, thereby left unable to fight and relegated out of the war. For the player this is death in all but name, and should be equally feared.

This long lasting experience begins slowly and with a lighthearted tone to it: the excitement of assembly, your initial training mission and the laughs that ensue after toppling a VT for the first time. This innocence slowly gives way, gradually revealing a more jaded and shell- shocked Tekki warrior. After a few hours, the player has mastered the controls and the cockpit starts to feel cramped as every button and gear is mapped to memory. There is no solace, no place to hide during the mission and no pause button; the VT becomes a second skin and every cannon shot is felt. Soon after, common sense prevails and 'Soy Sauce' becomes the official song of war being played for every mission.

My first and only relegation happened on my initial play through. I took too many risks, made too many mistakes and mission nine ended up claiming all my VTs, all my supply points and eventually my military rank. Every player has at some point experienced such a major loss, and if they have not, then they should. The experience is akin to being hit in the stomach by something heavy at high speed. Blood rushes to the face, the mind clouds over, one begins feeling dizzy and speech becomes incoherent. All the blood, sweat and tears to come this far were in vain, and everything is lost in the blink of an eye. This birth by fire marks the beginning of the true Tekki pilot, since before you were like a child lost in a dream, unaware of the real danger of the situation. From that point you vow never to be humiliated again, to never rush in where angels fear to tread and to never face the wrong end of a Vitzh’s gun. You know the true horror of folly in combat, and whilst begrudgingly starting from the beginning, are ever wary of the Hai Shi Dao frontline.

After about ten hours, the player develops what VT veterans call the thousand-yard stare. Their eyes glaze over once the cockpit hatch closes, and the radio crackles to life as they give running commentary of events halted only by loud screams of “We got HOSTILES! Enemy VT comin’ over the damn wire!” Their brows twitch with every railgun blast and their hands shake with the roar of machine guns. Reloading the cannons becomes an instinct and one learns to love chaff as if it were fresh underwear. Even so, the fear has not yet peaked and early missions are approached with a macho bravado.

After twenty hours, the player refuses to leave the house and can be seen wearing the same sweat stained jungle camouflage vest for weeks on end, while crude raggedy bandanas made from the sleeves of old T-shirts push back their spiked and greasy hair. By now the brow twitching and glazed look is uncontrollable, following a heart stopping incident that nearly saw them annihilated by encroaching enemy reinforcements, and every comprehensible sentence they say is followed by the words “out in the field, man.”

The player begins to take precautions: tinned food and bottled water are stored close to ‘the equipment console’ since it’s never known when leave will be given in order to have a proper meal with one’s family again. Experienced pilots have also admitted to keeping a portable latrine close to hand to relieve themselves of the large amounts of water drunk to combat the dreaded tension felt whilst "playing".

After thirty hours of this so called ”game”, an armchair and controls on a table are no longer good enough. The pilot builds himself a proper cockpit to sit in, using old cardboard boxes and tape. The TV is no longer used for such petty things as watching television, and is thereafter referred to as a VT combat monitor. Logos are painted on the side of the makeshift room-filling-cockpit, and the words ‘no fear’ and ‘VT killer’ are scrawled on its sides. The pilot also demands that everyone refer to them by rank only. By now, slight trepidation has festered into full stomach-based dread, the kind that stops people from reloading their guns on night missions for fear of the noise alerting nearby enemy placements.

By fifty hours, all pilots should have passed the point of no return. The in-game boom-box has been replaced by a real life cassette player that pumps out "Ride of the Valkyries" at full blast for ninety minutes before the tape needs to change sides. Many develop a small ritual preformed before every mission starts up: all buttons and switches are individually checked, a small mantra is chanted and the eject button casing is removed. It is at this point in the campaign that pilots no longer want to participate, not because the thrill of combat isn’t enjoyable, but because the risk of defeat is too great. Some crack and refuse to do anything other than training ops or free mission mode. For everyone else, they have by now unlocked all the VT models and even rescued Corporal Arnold, thereby removing the weight limits on VTs. They deserve to be called 'masters' for their proven high level of battle skill. Which is ironic, since despite this high level of skill, many begin refusing to enter higher level missions without at least three railgun attachments and a full compliment of re-supply choppers.

In their sleep players have nightmares about Jaralacc ambushes and downed choppers. They no longer use or trust the radar, since later levels have radar invisible enemies, instead relying on gut instinct. They even resist the temptation to boot the game up; often it only brings flashbacks of past battles. Suddenly, as clear as day, fleets of enemy attack choppers can be seen swooping in, reminding them of that dreaded mission twelve where they were once stranded, guns jammed and out of ammo as their buddies were cut up by enemy fire. Memories like that can create twitch players where any movement results in machine guns being fired almost randomly, because who knows where those rocket carrying ‘freedom-fighters’ might be hiding in the trees. In those cases, such as mission five, the flame thrower becomes your best friend.

Some reviewers have criticized the game for being too pre-scripted, too linear and having poor AI. That after completing the first set of missions the others become repetitive. They are missing the point.

Tekki works on an entirely different mental and emotional level than other videogames. The fear is palpable as you progress through the game thanks to the saving feature. It is this, and not the controller, that makes it so chillingly realistic: without the fear of death, the possibility of the save game being erased, Tekki would have been one tenth the game it is now. It is because of this reason that it could only have worked as well as it does being pre-scripted, as opposed to non-linear with adaptive enemy positioning and AI. The game would have been rendered unplayable if the missions had any kind of randomization in them. On later missions, which are tough enough anyway, the possibility of encountering a rogue Behemoth or hidden Jaralacc would have been simply too terrifying for all but the most battle hardened pilot. There is a point in gaming where realism must be left behind, where the limits cannot be pushed further or the game would lose all elements of enjoyment. While Tekki puts us in as real a situation as possible, that genuinely makes us fearful of our own demise, to go any further would be to cross the boundary. Imagine if the attack chopper convoy from mission twelve suddenly swooped in whilst trying to destroy the battleship because it had called for reinforcements. Or if light enemy VTs could be sent in via an aerial drop at a moment's notice. Already frayed nerves would snap under such unpredictable tension. Even with enemy layouts memorized some players have trouble focusing, since at the back of their mind are they thinking ‘what if I don’t make it back after this mission?’ Mission nine (the one I was relegated on), has a slight degree of randomized elements, with the position of the enemy occasionally changing and even higher level mechs showing up randomly. This can frustrate; since enemies are not where one expects them to be, the mission becomes frantic as you run around wildly taking damage trying to find them, only to be taken out by a Behemoth that has suddenly appeared, or a Regal Dress that didn’t show up on radar.

As for arguments pertaining to the poor enemy AI: they are nonsense. Even an idiot with a gun is to be avoided, and so it is in Tekki. They may walk into fire, turn on the spot and miss nine times out of ten, but when they do hit you, if you are not fast enough reaching for eject you will die. The danger of these seemingly incompetent foes is heightened greatly because their efficiency is directly connected to your permanent existence in this virtual world. This in turn fundamentally changes the way you approach and perceive them. They are no longer mindless targets in a digital reality, but reach the status of genuine threats even in spite of their seeming stupidity.

As well as fear, Tekki also works on other emotional levels. The mission where the player must hunt down and execute VT platoon deserters is particularly poignant. After a fierce mountain campaign, the commander informs you that some of the men couldn’t take the pressure anymore and went AWOL with the platoon’s VTs and recent armor and weapon upgrades. They were tracked to a local village, which they’d raid for supplies. These people were once in your platoon, your comrades. Soldiers just like you, tired of the fighting and the pressures of war. They wanted out, but as the commander showed, the only way out of the platoon was in a body bag. This again sets Tekki apart from other war games, since in all my years I can’t recollect any war games where you had to kill those on your own side while destroying the evidence. I have to admit that this mission left a bad taste in my mouth and it made me feel uneasy about future ones. It just didn’t feel right having to do those things. But that is war: sometimes you are given orders that you do not want yet must carry out because those higher up say so.

For all these things, Tekki must be commended. Few other games have come close to generating such strong and overpowering emotions. The emotional response is so strong that it fundamentally affects the way you approach and play the game. Imagine how much more immersive and horrifying the Biohazard or Silent Hill series would be if your save was deleted after being eaten. Or if in Medal of Honor games, dying meant restarting the whole campaign. Tim Rogers once revealed how Kojima contemplated using such a design element in Metal Gear Solid 3, where death would have meant the erasing of save data, but was persuaded against it by the rest of his team. What consequences would this have had on how a player would approach the game?

For modern players, who have become obsessed with perfect game stats and the ultimate save file, Tekki is a revolutionary wake up call that shakes the foundations of established game design. It has taken the very thing players hold so dearly and put it at risk, and then made them fight bitterly for it. In a way, it harkens back to the days before the save feature, when 'Game Over' meant restarting from scratch.

Modern titles allow the player to save and die an unlimited amount of times before completing the game, where a simple medical kit can heal even the most severe of wounds, while in Final Fantasy a Phoenix Down is enough to re-animate most fallen allies. Die in these games and you lose nothing, except maybe the few minutes it took you to reach that section. In such examples there is no cause and effect, there is no penalization for carelessness. In Tekki it is the opposite. Something is lost when you die, something you regard as precious and hold dear to your self: the in-game persona of who you are, which you have spent so much time developing. No other game has so accurately recreated the folly that is human conflict, or more importantly the unpleasant emotions that go with it.