The doing of violence against others in videogames has been the core means of interaction in this medium for a long, long time. That violence runs the spectrum from mild and light (Mario jumping on a Goomba) to more revolting and charged (the mishandled and disgusting-on-more-than-a-visual-level violence of The Last of Us 2), but rarely is that violence—regardless of its place on the spectrum—as overwhelming and absolute as it is in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. When you evoke this air-combat series, many people will think of their anime-like stories and the fluid, arcade/sim gameplay. This essay does not engage with those two avenues all that much. What I am here to talk (or write) about is the violence. The story gives it a mild purpose, but this is just about the act of doing the violence itself—specifically in the second story mission, “Charge the Enemy.”
The mission briefing revolves around Golem and Mage squadrons attacking an Erusean forward airbase. It is a very simple mission meant to introduce the players to air-to-ground combat and how to best juggle that with air-to-air combat. Players sortie their F-4E into the fray and the mission begins. A nearly billion-dollar weapon of swift death cuts through the sky on a trail of flaming jetstream. The ground passes by in a blur and then the fighter’s targeting system shifts from green to red. This is where the mission really begins.
Air targets, turrets, and small radar vehicles dot the landscape below and so the F-4E locks onto them and send off a missile or two. From a distance, the missile’s propellant streak is what helps guide one’s eye to the target, and then a small puff of orange offsets the greenery of the landscape. Target down. Billows of smoke are all that is left in your wake. Such sudden violence, such swift death—all at an incalculable distance.
Most modern videogames are seen through the iron sights of a gun. The violence is usually up-close and more direct. We’ve grown used to this, and that is why the immense violence from a distance in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown feels all the more jarring and uncomfortable. Couple that with how drones and fighter jets are used by the U.S. today and it becomes impossible for the violence of this game to not feel revolting. It is all so sudden and calculated down to the most minute trajectory. No one ever stands a chance. Blowing an enemy fighter out of the sky feels rewarding because, well, it is a challenge. You have to dodge incoming fire, trail them, lock-on (or lead your shot) and hope your missiles strike home. And when they do, enemy planes erupt into a skyborne plume of smoke, fire, and destroyed metal. But what of the enemy ground forces? There is nothing rewarding in the violence that the game tasks you to do to them.
In Mission 2, most enemy ground forces are stationary or the targets themselves are buildings, as the latter half of the mission tasks you with completely annihilating an entire enemy airbase. It all happens in a matter of moments, but from far, far away you wreak immense destruction against targets who only see you as a shimmer or a hint of silver in the blue sky above them. They lose sight of you in the clouds but your sights are always trained on them, you lock on from a quarter-mile above, and then they are greeted with the blunt and jarring finality of absolute death by explosive annihilation. This violence is presented in such a simple and matter-of-fact way that it always feels distant. The enemy is often no more than a blip on the radar, their outline is just a different color than yours is in the HUD of your fighter. Enemy targets always explode—no survival, just destruction. The ground forces scramble to fight back but you’ll always find them because you are in a fighter jet and are thus operating at a different dimensionality than them. Plus, shooting down is always easier than shooting up, and so their jeeps and convoys explode as they try and drive away. By the end of the mission, this base is nothing more than a smattering of smoke plumes and ground fires, a place turned to ash. They are the bad guys, yes, but it still feels off.
These futuristic planes of war should not exist, and yet they do. What else would they be used for anyway? War will always find a way to occur and so the fighter jets will always be sent off to do distant, horrific violence. The overwhelming nature of this violence is what gets to me. Each missile does not mean a body falls, it means that many bodies and buildings and anything else caught in the blast radius will and do fall. But these targets are always just blips in the distance. We are far away from them so we don’t have to humanize them—we are told to fly off and blow up an airbase, and so we do. I blew up the base and killed everyone in a satisfactory manner which means that I get a good score for that mission, but it is not hard to get a good score when you are a billion-dollar fighter jet with top of the line military tech being pitted against ground vehicles and immobile buildings and hangars. Whether it is thematically resonant or made reasonable or not, there is still something fundamentally disconcerting and sickening about taking control of a jet just to destroy targets a mile below you when, in fact, the U.S. is doing that on an all too frequent basis. These modern fighter jets that can break the sound barrier do not exist, and yet they do and thus they are here in this game for me to level up, to be the one who makes them reach their fullest industrialized, murderous potential.
The Ace Combat games have often said more about the true horrors of war than most AAA military-focused games, but what all can really be said when you are still operating industrialized pieces of overwhelming warfare? Yes, the story is an often emotional, sometimes fun anime-like journey through a fictionalized version of Earth. But is this a fiction and a mode of gameplay I really want to engage with when there are people in this world who have been raised to fear a clear, blue sky because it means that the U.S.’s drones and planes will better see them? I don’t really have an answer to these questions and I expect that a lot of us do not. I won’t disparage anyone for enjoying these games (they are good games!) but I think that the form of absolute, often colossal destruction done by pressing a button in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is too much for me.