header is screenshot from Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon
On Borrowed Wings
Don Everhart

People talk about you as though you’re not in the room. Your brain is full of mush. Human experimentation of some vague but dangerous kind has made you a superhuman mech pilot. Even so, you’re outdated. A mark four instead of a six or nine. Your sense of self is determined by others. Maybe you can grow into a name.

Armored Core VI is the latest entry in a series loosely connected by themes, signifiers, and expectations. These games share an emphasis on competing with other, named mech pilots. These pilots are given brief descriptions, call signs, insignia, and are embodied in the shape of their machines and the weaponry that they bring to bear. Rewards are put towards the player’s own garage so that they can build storehouses of parts. Those parts can be swapped in and out depending on the approach that one wants to take and the allowances for material resources such as maximum loading weight, energy and power, and mobility. A blank, ambiguous character is consonant with all of that flexibility. While the other pilots that the player encounters have emblematic loadouts, the player’s mech bristles with whatever they can buy. Two legs, four legs, tank treads, chicken legs? It’s all the same as long as you can make the thing run.

Armored Core VI's first mission embraces how the player character can slip into, and in fact requires, the shell of another pilot. You are launched through space to a hollowed-out husk of a planet. Once you arrive, your first task is to root through the ruins of crashed mechs to find one with a usable mercenary identity. Your handler, Walter, directs you through this scavenging. He calls you “621” and insists that is a more real name than “Raven,” the call sign of the crashed pilot whose identity you assume.

It’s not unusual for videogames to have protagonists who do not speak for themselves. Classic examples include the player character from Chrono Trigger, who becomes more of a character after “death” (in quotes as players have the option to use time-traveling shenanigans to swap in a body double at that moment). There is a range of possibilities for these characters. Often, like Chrono, videogame characters have a default, canonical name. They’re surrounded by characters who speak to them and, through them, to the player. Chrono’s friends and party members congratulate him, joke with him, and mourn him. His adversaries frequently underestimate him. And Chrono has a mother who doesn’t seem all that worried when his friends show up to crash at his house without him. If players bring him back from the “dead,” she doesn’t blink an eye. 

I’m a sociologist and so I’m used to the idea that self and other are inextricably intertwined. Some American sociologists and German-Austrian social phenomenologists agreed on that subject in the mid-twentieth century. Down in the roots of social constructivism, an idea that is popularly used to resist essentializing aspects of identity and personhood, the entanglements of I-me-we-other still bubble. G.H. Mead, for example, put forward the idea that the self is composed of a push and pull between the internalized attitudes of others (that’s the “me,” by his definition) and the “I”, the part of the self that creatively acts and responds. That stew is the unstable and fluid basis of our experience and understanding of society and, through it, ourselves.

Game writers often struggle with character and selfhood. In narrative games, writers have to make decisions about how much they will encourage players to see themselves, their thoughts, reactions, words, emotions, and choices, in the character they control. Is the player character an avatar of the player or a character of their own? There’s often plenty of slippage and plenty of it unintentional, depending on the game. I think that the developers and English-language localizers of Armored Core VI embraced this ambiguity and slippage at many points in how the story is told.

Characters seem to acknowledge that 621/Raven doesn’t make a sound. In the briefing for a sortie in the game’s first chapter, a corporate squad that call themselves the Redguns hire 621 as a mercenary. They provide 621/Raven with yet another new call sign in order to mark them as part of that goon squad: “Gun 13.” Baptizing the character is G1 Michigan, who requests that Gun 13 sound off. No sound plays. There’s a pause. Michigan says, “good enough.” After he leaves the call, Handler Walter growls about how you’ve been given another name and says that he’ll stick with 621.

Do players bark out a “Gun 13, sir!” in the intervening pause? Perhaps, but 621/Raven doesn’t. G1 Michigan is hardly the only character that chatters away at the player character. Once launched on that introductory sortie with two of the Redguns, G5 Iguazu and G4 Volta, your new colleagues have plenty to say to 621/Raven. They don’t get anything back, at least not in the way of words. Iguazu and Volta start off complaining about the tagalong mercenary, but as the carnage you were hired to perpetrate mounts, their chatter turns complimentary. 

In an alternate version of the mission, players are given a choice partway through the level to betray the Redguns on behalf of the Liberation Front, whose installation you were hired to help trash. It’s an unusual surprise that can only be encountered after playing through the story at least once. Previously, at least in how I played it, decisions consequential to the game’s plot were only offered in the selection of missions, not during them. If you elect to take the Liberation Front’s offer and open fire on Iguazu and Volta, they address 621/Raven/G13 Raven directly, yelling, “what the hell are you doing?!” There’s no verbal reply, but there is plenty of communication in action. Raven is betraying them, playing the mercenary, taking a higher bid, and blowing the Redguns’ Armored Cores up.

Many action games from the 2000s and into the 2010s attempted to bring players into the role of characters with voiced dialog and personality. To accomplish this, the writers and designers of these games sometimes gave players a guiding hand in how that character’s personality developed over the course of the story. This approach was often unsuccessful. In the initial games of the Infamous series, protagonist Cole MacGrath is an irritable courier who develops control of electricity. He is pitted against mobs of paramilitary soldiers and other superpowered adversaries. And he has two opposing directions in which he can use his powers, roughly corresponding to “good” and “bad.” Both are caricatures of morality. Will you rescue people from goons or murder street musicians out of annoyance? The story isn’t impacted much either way and will hit the same major beats. Ultimately, these choices are less about story and character and more about putting another leaf on the skill tree. This puts character in the service of gameplay, under a supervisory eye that says that, no matter what, games should be fun toys with which to play.

As the story in Armored Core VI unfolds, characters often actively resist moralizing about choices. Walter repeats, “it’s just a job” in briefing after briefing, at least until the plot progresses to the point at which it becomes the job that he and his associates consider to be important. The thing is, Walter’s job is morally charged. As Autumn Wright explores in another one of this issue’s essays, there’s more to the hollowed-out planet of Rubicon 3 than massive mining rigs, scrappy survivors, and marauding corporate kill squads. There’s the stuff that attracted those corporations and their mines in the first place: a resource that visually looks like streams of glowing red particles called Coral. But, as the game and Wright make clear, Coral is much more than a resource. It’s a sentient ecosystem. And it’s one to which the augmented humans that pilot Armored Cores have a unique relationship.

Reading in-game biographies of some of the other pilots in Armored Core VI shows the degree to which 621/Raven is flawed, outdated, and in bad company. The other corporate hit squad, the Vespers, appears to be deeply interested in human augmentation to the point that humans are deemed expendable test cases for the development of new technologies. One of the game’s chief villains, V.II Snail, is described as going through hundreds of people to find something to give him an edge. He’s provided with an accent that sounds snobbish and his words have a condescending tone. There’s plenty there to motivate players to repeatedly blow his mech up in the final chapter. Snail wants to use Coral to make him a superior pilot in every sense of the word. Yet even in a game with multiple endings, none of them align with Snail’s goals of continued corporate extraction and supremacy. Even if the player entertains the thought: “what if the corporations won?,” Armored Core VI does not. 

621/Raven has a different kind of relationship to the Coral that begins at the denouement of the first chapter: it speaks to them directly. In a voice that identifies itself as Ayre, the Coral makes itself known through speech that can only be heard by 621/Raven/The Player. Ayre is identified as a disembodied presence, in contrast to all of the characters who are presumably embodied and who otherwise populate the game’s mechs and crowd its comms. Ayre doesn’t seem to mind that 621/Raven doesn’t verbally reply. It’s in your head and soon, perhaps using tools that Raven does not have, is organizing jobs on your and the Coral’s behalf. I wonder how much of Ayre’s faculties in organizing and liaising with the game’s factions comes from whatever is left of 621’s mind, how much might come from being able to directly interface with Armored Core technology or your garage, and how much comes from being an unknown, silent observer of the likes of Handler Walter. 

The climax of the game, for those looking for a sense of developing identity, comes in one of the last missions of its third chapter. 621/Raven is tasked with defending an old spaceport from attack, but when they arrive, the battle already appears over. There’s another Raven waiting for you in the rubble. They know that 621 is operating under a stolen callsign. Their operator conveys this and says, “let’s see how far they can fly on borrowed wings.” You duel. After you win, Ayre conveys that the call sign “Raven” isn’t meant to refer to an individual. It’s a title used by generations of mercenaries who champion free will. In contrast to Walter, Ayre then says that is the name it would prefer to use for you.

If you choose the set of missions that support Ayre’s aims, that conflict manifests itself in a showdown between you and Walter. Hurtling through Rubicon’s upper atmosphere on a stolen colony ship, you face his Armored Core. It glows red with Coral energy. After defeating him in combat, Walter croaks out, “look at you … 621 … you found … a friend.” He lowers his weapon, explodes, and Raven plunges once again through the atmosphere of Rubicon.

Don Everhart thinks that games are good to think with. You can find him on cohost or bluesky.