Iron Storm: The Final Revelation

I had been wondering how the story would end. On the one hand, it seemed to be building up to a confrontation with Ugenberg. Hero Trounces Boss simply is how most action games go. Even Wolfenstein 3D had you personally duke it out with Hitler, and in a history without Hitler, Ugenberg is his equivalent. Equivalent enough to provoke the question: Without him, is there a war? Wouldn’t ending the war be a denial of the premise of the game, of a war unending? Moreover, in the process of looking for hints, I had learned that the game has a sequel, titled Bet on Soldier. It’s set in 1998. The war is still ongoing.

I had it figured wrong. The ending isn’t where the player enacts his ultimate victory. The ending is where the story amps up its sense of wrongness and confronts us with the futility of all our efforts. Ugenberg is killed by someone else, in a cutscene, precisely to keep the war going: the nukes his scientists were developing threatened to bring the whole thing to a decisive end, and the investors aren’t about to let that happen. It’s a development that reminds me of how Metal Gear Solid 2 makes the player anticipate confrontations and then denies them satisfaction. Now, the revelatory cutscene is kind of clumsy in delivery, and left me unclear about what was happening in the moment — only after finding Ugenberg’s corpse somewhat later did I work out that the player character had been observing it on a TV monitor. But there’s something undeniably effective about the way it forcefully foregrounds the dreadful truths that we’ve been basically aware of all along but haven’t been paying attention to for the last several hours of gameplay. It’s basically a horror story moment, really, and fits with what I’ve already described as horror-game decor.

The decor in Ugenberg’s actual quarters is notably different, mind you. I had been expecting an opulence that contrasts with the rest of the building — officers’ quarters in previous levels did as much. But I wasn’t expecting the enormous Buddha statue, or the sitar music, or the Escher prints displayed alongside the expected equestrian painting of Napoleon. All again accentuating the sense of wrongness, not just by being out of place, but by suggesting intrusive fragments of a better world, making everything else feel wronger by contrast.

The very end has more of that clumsy unclarity, leaving me unsure about things like “Wait, was that last abnormally tough soldier supposed to be the guy from the cutscene? If so, did I recover the magnetic keys from him or not?” and “What was with that cry of pain after I boarded the helicopter on the roof? Was that supposed to be the player character killing the pilot or the player character getting ironically killed?” But these are now small matters, irrelevant to the big picture. Alternate history is always something of a commentary on the real present, and it’s very easy to see the unending war here as just the slightest exaggeration of the permanent war footing we’ve been on since WWII. I’m a little uneasy about the idea that a shadowy cabal of international financiers is the real villains behind it all, because that line of thought leads all too easily to antisemitism. But taking it as just a caricature of the military-industrial complex, it’s significant that even the boots-on-the-ground soldiers were talking about their portfolios earlier, showing their eager complicity in the system they were born into and take for granted.

Iron Storm. What a weird little game.

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