This article was originally written for Who Dares Rolls (www.whodaresrolls.com) and is reproduced here with permission.
Note: This article also includes some references to personal experiences of death and loss, and discusses those themes.
6 Minutes of Power Remaining is by Kris Ruff
A lot of the games in the Emotional Mecha Jam focus on humanising the mech in these mecha stories – often through making it a role played by a player, whether or not it is actually a sentient AI. This opens the theming of the games up to wider questions touching on those explored by cyberpunk fiction; whether or not a meaningful bond can exist between a human and an inanimate, or non-sapient object. And, indeed, when one considers the relationships forged in war between human and AI, there is the question of whether something made as a weapon can feel friendship or love.
Drawing back from the specifics of 6 Minutes – which could be read as another game about accepting mortality (a very common theme in this because ultimately mortality and the ethics of killing versus the ease of it in games are underrepresented in tradtional RPGs) it’s worth introducing this review by asking why it’s important to ask these questions, and how a game like 6 Minutes builds on a wide variety of sources. Taking a trip back in genre history, the idea that a mech or robot can be, if not fully sentient, capable of emotional response begins right back with Astro Boy (1952) and Tetsujin 28 (1956). Even when subsequent works did not directly work on these themes, questions of the “humanity” of machines (and the tension between machine and human) can be seen in super robot stories where the machine can act in strange, supernatural ways in times of need (building to Space Runaway Ideon which questions whether humans could ever control a powerful enough machine, and how much it will control them), in stories about the dangers of automation and the loss of some intrinsic human spirit in mechanised warfare (see Harlock SSX, Gundam Wing, Macross Plus), and then, eventually, in cyberpunk questions about whether a machine can feel and ever be human.
Perhaps some of the most unlikely yet effective anime that plays in Astro Boy-esque fashion (for Tezuka’s manga is stunningly angry and politically charged in a way that will surprise readers expecting light adventure, and little imitates it perfectly) with marrying endearing designs with unexpectedly interesting prominence given to AI and robot-human interaction are the Braves super robot series that ran in the 1990s. From a rocky start with Brave Exkaiser’s talking car and trains, the series rapidly became surprisingly interesting (maybe not always effective or particularly deep, but committed nevertheless) in exploring a core premise of amiable human kids meeting giant sentient robots. Brave Police J-Decker has a group of robot cops paired off with human women by the series’ end, and is very strongly about presenting its huge rescue vehicle mechs as fulfilling the expected roles of a police procedural. Brave Express Might Gaine has an interesting take on the usual evil clone plotline via Black Gaine. GaoGaiGar, the final entry in the franchise, ran in two directions with a cyborg protagonist in love with a human woman – and whose job of being the heart of the main robot was destroying his body – while also having a growing family of robots that had differing AI and personalities.
This isn’t a comprehensive examination of how mecha and science-fiction anime has personified giant robots, and it isn’t intended to be (because that could be a series of long articles, and would invite a lot of consideration of a wide range of political and moral themes); in a sense it is only a foreword to the next step of understanding what makes 6 Minutes quite a bit deeper than you might think. I’ve briefly covered how machines being more or less humanlike is central to a good amount of the genre’s history. Now it is time to turn this around, and consider how much of this involves humanising a weapon and trying to give it purpose outside of killing. The question of creating an artificially intelligent entity for the purpose of war can go in the direction of should we depersonalise killing but can also be taken in can something made to kill also love? And in that, there is a whole other trope of the mecha genre that is opened up; the tragic supersoldier. The immediate reference here is the waifish, strange Newtype woman from Gundam – Lalah, Four, Rosamia, the list goes on. A lot has been argued about how these characters are depicted, whether the narratives of a sensitive man trying to “save” them (often unsuccessfully) from a life of killing works as well as intended. From a personal perspective the superpowered-woman-as-plot-token device is generally at its most interesting either when the whole series offers something more (see Zeta Gundam), or when the woman’s “plot-token” status is questioned and her need to be protected by a sensitive man is challenged (Nadia, Eureka Seven and arguably Diebuster). Here we have people, moulded by circumstance into soldiers of varying willingness, and the question of whether they can live the normal lives anyone deserves. In a lot of cases instead they die or are captured or turn evil. And (sometimes a little uncharitably) you can argue they die so other characters, especially the male lead, can have character development.
So, mecha anime has two intertwined and interesting tropes that I would argue inform (either consciously or unconsciously) some of the games in the Emotional Mecha Jam. Or at least my reading of them. How, then, does this bring us back around to 6 Minutes? The game’s premise is this; a sentient robot is dying, and its pilot is also at risk of dying. The game involves two players, one taking each role, mechanically playing out the final moments of this relationship. Its closest mechanical analogue is the utterly fascinating hidden action selection semi-roleplaying board game Fog of Love, which attempts to turn a love story into a board game by having players try and second-guess each others’ answers to situations in order to become more or less in tune with each other. I really enjoy Fog of Love, I enjoy the absurdity it creates, the larger than life characters and the very clever way it takes familiar board game mechanics of collecting resources and bidding blindly on things and turns them into the fate of a relationship.
6 Minutes is a little similar. Players simultaneously select and reveal their “action” in three turns, trying to balance the emotions running high in this life-or-death situation. The aim is to try and keep hope and love alive without giving into despair or resentment. Not so different to Fog of Love – even if the theme could not be more different. You are playing this to give one or both sides a noble, peaceful death. To try and, right at the end of existence, let a being created as a weapon act on emotions of peace. You could play this in a, if not lighthearted, heroic fashion, something uplifting and stirring. It would touch more then on the idea of going to fight no matter the odds, of dying safe in the knowledge you die as part of something bigger. Of, in a way, making the emotional sacrifice so everyone else keeps heart. Or you could play it much more sombrely, and really lean on how death is terrifying, parting unbearable. I would not want to do this; I would not want to relive or interrogate memories of loss and try and map them onto a fictional trope, because it would feel to me like simultaneously putting undue pressure on an outlet of enjoyment for me and also cheapening, in a way, the real emotions and experiences being dug up. I have noticed, as I sit and read and reflect carefully on the games in this jam that feel like outlets for considering mortality and grief, these are emotional escape valves that need some quite careful use. Not everyone will get the desired result from them, and not everyone will find them enjoyable.
There is one other angle in this that is very interesting – the failure state. Well, I suppose it would be considered a failure state, because it is the diametric opposite of the peaceful, noble death you are aiming for. I would say Acceptance/Peace are the success states, the “best” (and talking about any grief response as better or worse isn’t hugely useful) outcomes. You die with your affairs in order, and the one left behind has no regrets. By extension then Revenge/Despair would be the negative emotions winning, and yet they are the ones that map interestingly and closely onto the fictional inspirations. Especially revenge.
Now, vengeance is a tricky thing, and not really something to endorse. But the hero knocked down and needing to get back up and come back stronger to get some revenge on the archvillain is a heroic thing in mecha stories (and indeed superhero fiction, and action films, and more). The Revenge outcome in 6 Minutes encompasses both the “this is your midseason power up” reading of a beloved mech blown apart by the villain (see, for example, Might Gaine getting destroyed and replaced by Might Kaiser in the show of the same name, and the hero being able to get even with the villain who “won”) but also leads inexorably into a more toxic kind of vengeance, the idea that the pilot will fight the greater universe that has wronged you. That way villainy lies. That isn’t losing your mech and getting a better one to get even, that’s letting a visceral reaction to grief doom everything. That’s Ideon going out of control, Mazinkaiser on the rampage. I’d exercise caution in managing tone, expectations and content if I played 6 Minutes and I’d probably want to frame it more on the idealised, noble super robot style of moment of crisis than a deeper exploration of losing a friend. But looking at it from a perspective informed by the many, many ways the mecha genre has explored building relationships with a weapon and then losing it/them means I’ve seen all these readings.