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AC5 Return to the Party: Peace, Nationalism, and the limits of Cosmopolitan Liberalism


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#1
Scherzo

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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 AlchemistGundam Seed/00Code 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.

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#2
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A very good articulation.

 

Another stone in Ace Combat 5's pile of failures is the writer's conflation of the horrors of war from a soldier's perspective with the impact the war might have on civilians. Ace Combat 5 very deliberately and sometimes viscerally tries to make us feel things about what's happening on the ground throughout the first half of the game. In contrast to the weirdly clinical attacks on civilian centers you mentioned, you have the chaotic atmosphere of Narrow Margin, with its implied scene of people burning in the water. The people burning scene is ineffective, but I still love how evocative the "NO, STOP, YOU'RE FIRING ON THE DOCKS!" line is. Then there's the panicked enemy chatter in Powder Keg, hinting at the firestorm going on below, etc.

 

In fact, the game is constantly trying to humanize the combatants themselves, to varying degrees of success. I'd even venture to say that these two elements together are part of the reason why the game passed muster by so many of us when we first played it back in the day. The Oseans and the Yukes are all Genuine People who end up dying because of those other, Mean People. Why can't the Genuine People just stop fighting? Because there's seemingly no reason for them to have been fighting to begin with, since as you say, the game never bothers to sell us on the underlying issues of national identity which the writer seems to understand only as a casus belli, and otherwise doesn't take seriously.

 

Anti-war media which casts national identity as a weak justification for war might be especially virulent in Japan, whose militarism during the late Meiji era up to the dissolution of the empire was explicitly tied to Japanese national identity. But I don't want to be one of those academics who relates everything to WWII, so I'm gonna have to think about that one a bit more.

 

Kinda ironic that ACZ ended up being about cosmopolitan liberal soldiers deciding to stop fighting for their bloodthirsty nationalistic governments and trying to unilaterally impose internationalism though, huh?


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#3
Scherzo

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Yeah, I think some of the early radio scripting stuff in missions like Narrow Margin is effective at creating a strong 'audioscape' of the battlefield, especially how it'll often have background chatter that is not subtitled.

 

What the game doesn't address is why there is a seed of distrust or animosity between Osea and Yuktobania to begin with. I think the game, if anything, says that it's wholly fictitious, just something the Mean People cooked up because... hatred?

 

I think it passed muster because there's something genuine about it's desire for universal understanding, but I think it's either ignorant or insincere about the challenges to get to that point.


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#4
Hue

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A very good articulation.

 

Another stone in Ace Combat 5's pile of failures is the writer's conflation of the horrors of war from a soldier's perspective with the impact the war might have on civilians. Ace Combat 5 very deliberately and sometimes viscerally tries to make us feel things about what's happening on the ground throughout the first half of the game. In contrast to the weirdly clinical attacks on civilian centers you mentioned, you have the chaotic atmosphere of Narrow Margin, with its implied scene of people burning in the water. The people burning scene is ineffective, but I still love how evocative the "NO, STOP, YOU'RE FIRING ON THE DOCKS!" line is. Then there's the panicked enemy chatter in Powder Keg, hinting at the firestorm going on below, etc.

 

In fact, the game is constantly trying to humanize the combatants themselves, to varying degrees of success. I'd even venture to say that these two elements together are part of the reason why the game passed muster by so many of us when we first played it back in the day. The Oseans and the Yukes are all Genuine People who end up dying because of those other, Mean People. Why can't the Genuine People just stop fighting? Because there's seemingly no reason for them to have been fighting to begin with, since as you say, the game never bothers to sell us on the underlying issues of national identity which the writer seems to understand only as a casus belli, and otherwise doesn't take seriously.

 

Anti-war media which casts national identity as a weak justification for war might be especially virulent in Japan, whose militarism during the late Meiji era up to the dissolution of the empire was explicitly tied to Japanese national identity. But I don't want to be one of those academics who relates everything to WWII, so I'm gonna have to think about that one a bit more.

 

Kinda ironic that ACZ ended up being about cosmopolitan liberal soldiers deciding to stop fighting for their bloodthirsty nationalistic governments and trying to unilaterally impose internationalism though, huh?

 

I don't understand why they have tried making the player emphasize with civilians with no actual civilian point of view. Both sides are so difficult to compare that what is supposed to be an experience with strong impact ended up being mere radio chatter. Yes, maybe the player is supposed to use their civilian experience to fill the gap, but that's lazy as fuck if that's the case because in AC 5 the player is not a civilian, but an air force then navy pilot. If we do take Spec Ops: The Line as an example, the context of something like say the white phosphorous attacks on the enemy only to brutally choke and burn innocent civilians is as aimed at the player's actions as Walker which then translates to the player's civilian life outside of playing a burly white dude from Delta. This was only possible by making the impact of the player's actions directly relatable to the characters themselves.

 

Now this made me think of another reason why the first half didn't have the impact it should have. Well, it's because this is a game about aircraft. Aircraft are not an effective way of translating the horrors of war AC 5 was mentioning. Infantry? Yes, this might have some impact, because you get to clearly see the panic. In the airport mission, there's mentions of attacks on the civilians such as tanks shooting at the terminals and shit. If the game was an infantry combat game you'd know that tanks are the big bad, the big juggernauts that only seriously heavy firepower can take out and whose firepower can decimate infantry stupid fast and with ease. Then there's obviously the whole play on NPCs with gory wounds and misery that could be used to incite shock in the player. Also a few panicking civilians running around and getting gunned down, but it's not as effective as just static enough NPCs hiding and stuff. With aircraft you only hear the atrocities on the ground. The disconnect is quite serious as you can't see what's down there at all, at least not in AC 5's game engine. It doesn't help that something as nightmarish as tanks for infantry and civilians end up being mere targets for aircraft, so the relative danger is also badly translated. In AC 4 this has been countered by the cutscenes representing only civilian life along with a few air force jocks. The civilian and foot soldier part wouldn't need to be so badly mentioned in the actual game at this point. Maybe that's considered lazy, but it's simple and effective enough. ACZ did something else. When the nukes started dropping and your plane was in the area, HUD totally screwed up because of the EMP blast... that hits you. Of course your plane so high above is totally screwed, so one can only imagine how totally fucked everything below must be. And of course Pixy tries killing you and yep apparently that either inspires guilt or see how that explosion that was so bad just made the guy snap like that. It's a case of things being so fucked for the player in a machine that has that much influence over the battle that it manages to incite more shock than what AC 5 tried. It's also aided by pilot interviews with the people that were shot down as they too were in the same shoes as the player. They were also hotshot pilots and thus the player is more prone to relating to them.


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#5
Scherzo

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From my reply on r/acecombat:

 

I think there are multiple problems with how Ace Combat 5 deals with the concepts of Hatred and Conflict. In a broad sense there's the issue that the game doesn't really say anything meaningful about the nature of hatred; it merely has contempt for people who feel. Sure, 'hatred breeds hatred', but why does hatred exist to begin with? How exactly does it effect people? We certainly, repeatedly, have the idea that hatred corrupts people stated to us, but it's never actually explored in the narrative (I'll return to this in a bit).

In a more specific sense, AC5 contextualizes its hatred as national antipathies, and particular that the roots of these antipathies are either entirely artificial or the work of bad actors. Therefore rooting out the bad actors will result in a new era of international cooperation. Now I'm not against reflecting on how self-interested actors can manipulate the rest of society, but again we don't really an inkling of why military hardliners are doing what they are doing besides the frustratingly vague concept of Hatred. It also doesn't leave any room for any natural antipathies that could exist between the nations; either socioculturally or due to geopolitics.

Geopolitical context is important to Osean-Yuktobanian Relations, particularly their previous antipathy, which is explicitly referred to as the Cold War in supplementary material. The Belkan War is treated as epoch ending event which spurs international cooperation between Osea and Yuktobania; and Belkan efforts in 2010 are portrayed as their attempt to either rollback the clock or invent animosity whole-cloth.  Whether you believe in an 'End of History' or not, the focus of the narrative doesn't seem to be so much individuals dealing with and overcoming hatred so much as about global reconciliation (Again, I'll get back to this).

One major issue is the ease it expects people to overcome their national identities and see 'the truth' about the war. You mention examples of positive national pride, but again these are much like my President Harling example--they're all couched in a sense of transnational liberalism (I could harp on more about how Yuktobania--the USSR geopolitical and (as shown in supplementary materials) sociocultural proxy--has exactly the same political context as Osea, but that's sort of beyond the purview of this essay's point). There's no conflict between the 'truth' of the manufactured nature of the war and the on-the-ground reality that each side has by this point sincerely done horrible things to the other. You either always hated the conflict, immediately dropped any antipathy when the 'truth' was revealed, or were warmongering monsters. 

As a point of comparison take Gundam Unicorn. Like Ace Combat 5, Unicorn champions the idea of universal brotherhood, and claims it was denied, at least to a significant degree, by specific bad actors. But it doesn't wipe away the fact that both sides have caused the other legitimate pain and suffering; and that this pain isn't merely some abstract byproduct of 'hatred' but real and palpable to those who experience it, and simply difficult to overcome. When Loni Garvey (ironically voiced by Karen Strassman) gives into her anger towards the Earth Federation and commits to targeting civilians, it's not merely idiotic but rather has an element of tragedy. There's no real element of tragedy to AC5's proceedings; the warmongers are denied any interiority or sympathy, which turns them into a mere monster to be slain.

And that's AC5's real problem in terms of Hatred, the lack of any real narrative tension or character growth in regards to it. We never get to see the effects of a character overcoming or succumbing to hatred--Wardog is as anti-war in Lit Fuse as they will be in ACES. All we get is didactic examples of 'hatred is bad m'kay' without any context for what hatred actually does to people. This is another reason I think it has more to do with internationalism than individuals grappling with hatred; it's presented as if it were something you can easily switch off if you're a 'good person'; it doesn't bother with the messy reality that plenty of Oseans have legitimate reasons for hating and fearing the Yukes, and vice versa.

 

Saying let go of hatred is nice and all, but actually exploring why people hate to begin with and developing empathy for them is way more useful in bringing people to a common understanding than merely broadly condemning them for being idiots, as AC5 does.


Edited by Scherzo, 01 January 2017 - 08:58 AM.

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#6
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I wonder if "Hatred" became this war's version of "Just Following Orders"?

 

Like I feel like the writers tried to use it to give the Oseans and Yuktobanians an out for all the various shady and sometimes outright evil things they did. Gassed a college town? Oh the Belkans were behind it all. Shot up a civilian airport? Oh the Belkans made us do it.  Launched an invasion of a country likely resulting in thousands of civilian casualties? Oh our hatred was controlling us.

 

Like this is a bad precedent to set and I'm damn glad they handled it better in later entries into the series. 

 

Actually on that subject, anyone remember Inferno from Zero and how horrified Pixy and PJ were at the rampant destruction. Likely mirroring the players reaction and probably causing a change in how they play the game, tying into the Ace Styles quite nicely. AC5 could have used some more of that, because as it was whether it be graphic limitations, limitations of genre of games, or the limited skill of the writers, it just didn't have what it needed to hit the points it was going for. 

 

Or basically what Scherzo said.


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#7
Hue

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I wonder if "Hatred" became this war's version of "Just Following Orders"?

 

Like I feel like the writers tried to use it to give the Oseans and Yuktobanians an out for all the various shady and sometimes outright evil things they did. Gassed a college town? Oh the Belkans were behind it all. Shot up a civilian airport? Oh the Belkans made us do it.  Launched an invasion of a country likely resulting in thousands of civilian casualties? Oh our hatred was controlling us.

 

Like this is a bad precedent to set and I'm damn glad they handled it better in later entries into the series. 

 

Actually on that subject, anyone remember Inferno from Zero and how horrified Pixy and PJ were at the rampant destruction. Likely mirroring the players reaction and probably causing a change in how they play the game, tying into the Ace Styles quite nicely. AC5 could have used some more of that, because as it was whether it be graphic limitations, limitations of genre of games, or the limited skill of the writers, it just didn't have what it needed to hit the points it was going for. 

 

Or basically what Scherzo said.

 

I felt that the shock could have been better translated in ACZ, but it's by no means as bad as AC 5.


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#8
Scherzo

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Altered the title to make this a general 'returning to AC5 thread'; did that so Nemo could feel free to post various thoughts about AC5 as well.


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