Replaying Ace Combat 5 is generally not a rewarding experience, at least from the standpoint of my fond memories of first playing it a dozen years ago. Each playthrough exposes a new seam in its 'cinematic' design; its attempts at incidental drama which once so impressed me--even as I fell out of love with the main plot--now generally come across as hokey and childish as the rest of it. I still admire to an extent its narrative ambition, but its hackneyed storytelling and suffocating mission design prevent it from being more than a curiosity these days.
Bad game design is easy enough to explain, but what I've been wondering about lately is where exactly it went wrong on a storytelling level. Not just with plotholes mind, but rather the thematic foundations upon which the story is based. It isn't some fundamental flaw of Anti-War fiction in general; some of my favorite pieces such as War in the Pocket and Spec Ops: The Line. So AC5's issue is not so much its pacifism as much as the assumptions that undergird it.
I think some of AC5's problems are explained by the historical context in which it was released. AC04 was released immediately following the September 11th Attacks, and I believe the moral clarity of Mobius One's mission--even if tempered by the humanity of Yellow Squadron--along with the general WWII allusions helped make it popular with its American fanbase. But this was more or less a happy accident because the rest of the world's reaction to a wounded, newly assertive America was nervousness and anxiety. While our muscular response, especially before Iraqi Freedom, was seen as a justified reaction in most American eyes, many nations were unnerved by what they saw as budding militarism and violation of international norms.
I don't think it's necessary to agree with this mindset, but I think it gives some perspective into International culture at the time of AC5's development. Japan of course is particular, as they mixed their own peculiar (somewhat externally imposed) sense of anti-militarism in with the broader international misgivings (which later morphed into disgust following Iraq), and a result there's a lot of Japanese media--specifically in franchises dealing with war or the military in general--from that time that reflect those anxieties and disgust, such as Fullmetal Alchemist, Gundam Seed/00, Code Geass, and of course Ace Combat 5. (And Zero too: "Nuclear inspections huh? What a joke")
So that's, at least partly, the reason AC5 so proudly wears its Anti-War message on its sleeve. But why is it so bad about it? It's tempting to just say 'bad writing' and leave it at that, but Katabuchi--AC5's scenario planer and writer--was also the creator of AC04's story, which while not being the most substantial war story certainly had a more nuanced view about the realities of warfare. So what went wrong with AC5?
First of all, I think one of the core issues thematically is the weird sense of detachment the characters have to the actual war itself despite being active participants. I think this is partly a result of how Osea is a result of welding American military capacities and proclivities with a Japanese cultural antipathy towards militarism (see 'Defense Force'). The problem is the characters often seem to forget that they are defending against a hostile nation which launched an unprovoked war and has since intentionally committed several war crimes against them.
There are glimmers of earnest reactions to the war, such as the exasperated ATC in Chain Reaction, but more often than not the 'average' Osean repeatedly view Yuke atrocities through a bizarrely abstracted lens. Shooting up a civilian airport terminal and gassing a college town? Well, it's not really the Yukes' fault, it's Hatred. And besides, Osea attacked a college first~. There seems to be no understanding that equating a supposed Osean attack on a college--which for all they know could have been an accident--to intentional terror attacks against Osean civilians is a false equivalency, especially since they themselves are Oseans. This disconnect is best exemplified by some cuck in Mission 17 who complains "Bomb our warmongering president, we only want peace" as the Yuktobanians are in the process of committing yet another warcrime.
There's no sense of Osean National Identity, and that sort of uncovers what AC5 is really condemning: Nationalism. This can be seen in the one symbol of 'Osean-ness' the game does endorse--President Harling and his aspirational transnational liberalism. In AC5's worldview, everyone is a potential cosmopolitan liberal--an equal member of the 'brotherhood of man'--but those who cling to National Identities are so hopelessly retrograde, so thoroughly conceited, that they can be killed in the name of 'peace' without any pang of remorse.
Obviously, the treatment of Belka is the most indicative of this callousness. They receive none of the rationalization Yuktobanian actions receive, despite having legitimate grievances over being betrayed by the international order prior to the Belkan War. Nagase's flippant summation of Osea's annexation of South Belka ('Formerly a haven of Belkans, but now entrusted to Osean rule') is telling; Belkan attachment to their national identity makes them monsters and is the irrational root of their actions.
Ultimately, the game is a celebration of a Fukuyama-esqe 'End of History', where liberal democracy reigns triumphant over all competing ideologies, and the detente between world superpowers (or hegemony under a single hyperpower) results in a golden age of peace and prosperity. This view has no place for Belkans, no place for anyone who derives meaning from their particular political or sociocultural community. Everyone must learn to be good cosmopolitan liberals or be consigned to the rubbish bin of history.
Recent events, as you know, have put the lie to this sense of liberal arrogance. I identify with the liberal project, and understand the perils of unchecked nationalism. But a wholesale rejection is as invalid as a wholesale embrace. The truth is geography and sociocultural context matters in peoples' lives, and to invalidate these perspectives is to invalidate the way the vast majority of citizens in all nations live their lives. As long as the Cosmopolitan liberal demands to be treated as superior to 'parochial' viewpoints, they will be rejected and sow division, not create the harmony they claim to seek. AC5 falls prey to the bubble mentality that troubles most ideological communities these days; you either enthusiastically ascribe to its humanist aspirations or are a warmongering monster, and that is a childish dichotomy.
Fortunately, most other ACs have been better at addressing their themes. ACZ more visibly addresses the issue of Nationalism, but does so in a way that's much more sympathetic to the issues at hand, and understanding it's not as simple as blaming an abstract concept. AC6 even embraced a sense of national camaraderie among the Emmerians, and even respected Voychek's sense of national duty. Given Kono's statements about AC7 having multiple perspectives on the war, I feel confident that while AC7 will articulate an anti-war theme, it'll be far less didactic and more nuanced than 5's.
But where does this leave Ace Combat 5? To me, it's something of a cultural artifact from a time where the dream of an end of history and the anxiety of uncertain times coexisted uneasily, told through the lens of a removed observer. In recent years, rising territorial tensions have forced Japan to reevaluate its place in both history and the world. While the probably will still be Japanese idealists for years to come, I doubt they'll be able to so neatly side step the issue of Nationalism as AC5. History continues, and the global community, at least in its aspirational sense, fades as the Belkas of the world continue their seemingly inexorable rise.
Edited by Scherzo, 06 January 2017 - 01:10 AM.