The author is dead. Maybe Rogue Aces wasn’t intended to be a critique of the futility of war. Maybe it was envisioned to be little more than what it is on the surface: a light-hearted, procedurally generated shoot-‘em-up that brings a taste of rogue-lite randomness to air raids and dogfights. Maybe what I read as an anti-war message is just a byproduct of the game’s design and flippant writing. Or maybe the developers at Infinite State meant to say what the main campaign of their game effectively says: that war is a series of pointless goals passed down to soldiers by leaders who are cheerfully oblivious to their well-being, and one that only and inevitably ends in death.
In that campaign Rogue Aces pumps out its missions like a machine. Your fighter pilot takes off on an aircraft carrier with one mission in mind, relayed quickly and curtly by a short voiceover from your commanding officer. That mission can be shooting down a certain number of enemy fighters, or sinking a specific number of ships, or destroying crucial buildings at the enemy’s base. When you complete that first mission you have to return to the carrier for refueling and repairs, and then you immediately take off on your next mission. If your plane is shot down you have a few moments in which you can parachute to safety, taking another plane out on subsequent missions. There are only three planes on the carrier, though, and after that third one is destroyed your game is over. The machine spits out missions as long as those planes exist, and only stops when you die. The machine’s only output is death.
The game never pauses to mourn its dead. Whether it’s the soldiers you shoot down, or your own corpse, the commanding officer barely ever recognizes the death around him. When he does it’s always with a pithy one-liner, or a stiff upper lip retort that mocks the dry reserve of the British. The planes keep flying, and the bodies keep piling up, with no clear endpoint in sight. Because all you know is what you’re told to do, you have no idea what your army’s larger strategy is, or if this war makes any sense on any level at all. War is just the constant state of your condition, the entirety of the world you’ve entered, the alpha and omega of your existence. You live to fight and fight to die while your general snacks on tea and crumpets.
In that combination of bleak reality and jaundiced humor you can find echoes of Catch-22 and M.A.S.H. Rogue Aces never gets as dark or heavy as Heller’s novel (or, uh, as racist as Altman’s film)—in fact it basically tries to avoid that kind of gravitas entirely by couching everything in jokes and arcade action—but the game’s military is just as bureaucratic and just as disinterested in the lives of its men as in either of those pivotal works. It’s impossible to ignore the banal repetition of your sorties, or that the only possible reward for all this fighting is the ability to be marginally better at fighting. More than any hypocritical war shooter like Call of Duty or Battlefield, which serve up “war is hell” platitudes while reveling in the superhero thrills of risk-free combat, Rogue Aces exposes the soulless, mechanical nature of war. Like the nihilistic doctors in M.A.S.H. or Captain Yossarian in Catch-22, you’ll quickly realize how pointless these constant missions are, and how they argue that war’s chief aim is to perpetuate itself indefinitely.
This isn’t even subtext. It’s clear from even a cursory session with the game. And yet between the game’s cartoonish graphics (which seem to pay tribute to Greatest Generation hagiography), the almost single-minded focus on mechanics, and the fact that it never takes a break from its Beetle Bailey-ish sense of humor, it’s not clear if Rogue Aces is trying to say anything like this. We could ask the designers, but like the missions in this fictional war, whether it’s intentional or not is meaningless. The author is dead, alongside the several hundred pilots I sent to a watery grave while hopping from island to island in Rogue Aces.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.