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Mecha; Their history in the West.

July 6, 2010

Mecha: Short for Mechanic, derived from the term Mechanic Anime, depicting quasi-anthropomorphic machines used by human beings as vehicles. Usually very large in size, these machines are most often applied to the purpose of war.

As we are on the peak of one of those strange, bell-shaped waves that culture sometimes forms, I can get away with talking about Achilles with a lot of you, prospective readers, being completely mystified. The two ends of a very long line are touching right now. Tales of the spear and shield aren’t so distant from our minds right now. I bring up the fleet-footed Achilles, the quintessential hero, as the first name in an article about Mecha because the type of stories that are told with both are largely the same.

Anything with massive somewhat human-shaped war machines invokes Achilles’ bronze armor, because it and these monstrosities are most often the instruments of epic storytelling. But the machines themselves are never the protagonist of the tale; invariably, it’s always the pilots that get the leading role. The fleshlings that link the Mechanic to the Organic, to paraphrase a Spielberg film, are what make these stories compelling. Achilles’ tale is as much about him as it is about of his armor, and how a friend borrowed it to try to save his comrades, the Acheans. The shining bronze breastplate, shield and spear were extensions of the warrior that wield them, amplifying their ability well beyond the limitations of mere mortals in the field of Mars.

The modern iteration of this same idea is Mecha; it’s the means by which an ordinary man can become a hero. He becomes a nigh-unstoppable force fighting for his ideals, for love, for family, for cash, and everything in between. You can trace a line from the Greek warriors all the way to the warrior chaste of Clan Wolf, touching upon European knights and Japanese samurai along the way. It’s an idea that appeals to all of us, and it’s revised time and again by popular imagination, to be used as a vehicle for a plethora of anxieties across the ages.

The *BattleTech universe is one of the most prominent examples in the West of the Mecha phenomenon. It is overly pulp, similar to *Futurama’s own world, though differing from it in that it isn’t a parody of itself. *BattleTech was created in 1984 by a Chicago-based company named FASA, as an American interpretation of Japanese Mecha, namely the machines from *Macross, with themes and a mythology that appealed to its target audience at the time. Like the *Illiad, *BattleTech fiction told epic tales of pilots and their instruments of war. And, like in the *Illiad, no one bothers to explain how things work; Achilles is who he is through the magic of the gods and his own willpower. In *BattleTech, Mechs work because of vaguely defined science, more evocative than explicative. The focus of the narrative is on the character and inspiration of the pilots, not on how things work. Flash Gordon would be entirely at home in such a world. Throw terms around like “laser”, “nuclear reactor”, and “neurohelmet” and the rest will fix itself. What matters is the visceral experience of the laser-beam’s glow, piercing through tons of ferro-fibrous armor to breach the power core, much like the tip of a javelin punching a hole in a shining breastplate, stringing out the innards of a doomed hero as it runs him through. It makes for great storytelling, until it’s questioned. That is to say that if anyone tries to confront this universe and their expectations about reality, such as the fact that very large caliber guns can shoot really, really far, but that a UAC-25 can’t hit anything past an arbitrary 250 meters, then the logic behind the tabletop game collapses. To do so is, nevertheless, entirely unfair to the game.

The sentence “A realistic videogame simulating a fantastic machine, based on rules with a ‘not-on-speaking-terms’ relationship with Isaac Newton” is paradoxical in a dizzying number of ways. It also accurately describes what the *Mechwarrior series set out to do. Simulating something that blithely disregards the laws of physics, but more importantly, the laws of common sense, can be very awkward. I should note that common sense is a dynamic category in itself, as what would’ve stood up to its scrutiny five years ago simply doesn’t today. This wasn’t a particular problem for *BattleTech, it could exist on its own terms comfortably. That is, until simulating the experience of piloting a Mech struck someone as a fun idea for a game. Questions were asked, and the emperor may or may not have been dressed. Taking that game, and then trying to cater to the lowest common denominator audience with it by dressing it up as a half-hearted shooter can very easily cripple it so it appeals to no one. That mistake is born from the entirely separate intention of making money, but such are the concerns of our time.

As it turns out, dovetailing back onto the Acheans beating at the gates of Troy, simulating the experience of being something like a Greek god battling other deities is also very, very difficult. Maybe things were easier back in the day of *Mechwarrior 2 and *Populus II, when those games dealing with that subject-matter were wildly successful. Maybe players were more readily amused, and willing to overlook inconsistencies. The expectations of the audience and the financial backers of videogames changed, and that might’ve been a problem on a different scale.

*FASA, while still active, produced an innumerable amount of Mech models, as well as other vehicles, beyond the ones they copies from the Macross series. Their original creations became iconic, separate from their Japanese inspiration, and kept the *BattleTech tabletop game alive and well for two decades. With art that would be at home on the cover of any good heavy metal CD, this particular brand of Mecha is, to this day, heroically posed in the imagination of countless people on either side of the Mediterranean. The Atlas and the Timberwolf are easily identifiable as two of the most impressive *BattleMechs, surrounded by legends of their own.

Back on point; to simulate something that isn’t real you have to virtually create it first, which is a feat of the imagination that few could even attempt, let alone be successful at it. Games like *Quake Wars and *Battlefield 2142 actually ‘create’ very little; they employ established paradigms of ubiquitous machines to produce ‘futuristic’ counterparts for them. The G.I. Joe toy line does basically the same thing; the Kung Fu grip was the most original idea in it. FASA’s legacy is very well established when those games also include Mecha, in whatever form. That is proof that this type of machine is part of what we expect from the future. We expect Mecha to be real someday, and part of the reason for that is *BattleTech and its denizens, the same way flying cars that fold into suitcases once were. Completely flat escalators that would carry us nowhere special were part of those expectations, though those joined reality after all.

Some time ago, FASA ceased to exist as a meaningful entity, which is part of the reason why this article was written. Their franchises, including one titled *Classic BattleTech, have passed onto other stewardships. Now, *Mechwarrior is a franchise of its own with little relation to the videogames, past the moniker. Whether we will see it once more as an AAA videogame is a question still waiting for an answer. On the other hand, there are plenty of community-driven projects. You can turn over any rock in google and come across things like *Megamek or *Neveron. These are continuations, and sophistications, of yesteryear MUDs (Multi User Dungeons, for the luddites) that run *BattleTech’s rule set in a text-based world. That is a much kinder medium, without the pressures inherent in a blockbuster release, done for the sake of the universe itself rather than turning a profit. The short-lived *MechCommander series is closer to those projects that *Mechwarrior ever tried to be.

However, *BattleTech isn’t the only source for Mecha in the West. As the lines of communication are strengthened across the Pacific, we have access to their creations, and we respond with more salvoes of our own.

*Robot Jox! I can hear some of you demanding it already, and I couldn’t get away without mentioning the movie. I place it here for chronologic order, as this movie was released November 1990, and the next title I’ll mention comes years later. Yes, this is another example of Mecha arriving to the West with vengeance, and who could miss the quiet tribute to the source of their inspiration, having the engineer of Asian descent label the controls with Origami? The movie, at every degree of scrutiny, remits the viewer to Mecha Anime. There is also a scene in *Alien 2 that is of particular interest. As it turns out, Ripley is a Mech pilot herself, which I find pleasingly fitting.

Times change, power shifts and culture does as well, and it has to, in all of its expressions. *BattleTech was aging by the beginning of the last decade of the past millennium; there was room for something else, something new that followed the new paradigms.

Enter *Dream Pod 9, a Montreal-based outfit, stage right, wielding the Terra Nova universe with a more contemporary, self-aware brand of science fiction. *Heavy Gear, and *Heavy Gear 2, published by *Activision, came from it. *Heavy Gear is more modern than BattleTech in several key points, such as basing its machines, called Gears, on designs not so foreign to reality. Drawing inspiration from designs from the Anime “*Armored Trooper VOTOMS”, *Heavy Gear introduces us to more feasible machines in a world that isn’t so fantastically removed from our own, at least technologically. These machines are much nimbler, smaller, and versatile than the Mechs we knew. What they lack in raw power, they make up in finesse, and they’re certainly no less heroic.  Gears, to put it another way, are the D’Artagnan to the Mechs’ Achilles. They’re another sort of hero altogether, but just as inspiring and honorable.

As I mentioned before, this universe builds itself on a more believable foundation; Gears redeem Mecha in the eyes of Newton.  *DP9 also focused its energy on creating and populating a single planet, Terra Nova, with people rich in history and culture. Recently, they’ve begun to explore the other human colonies with an attention to detail that *BattleTech, in the grandness of its scheme, lacked. *Heavy Gear, the universe, hasn’t had a new videogame made in its name for almost a decade, but it’s still very much alive in the tabletop medium, amongst the people who know of it. There is a degree of polish in *Heavy Gear which makes it more consistent with its internal logic.

Looking objectively at the games representing these two franchises, there is plenty of praise and criticism to be made. I’d dare to say that neither has had a truly honest depiction of the richness of their universes, as they’ve been distorted to fit some parameters they couldn’t escape at the time, whether they were technical or administrative. Despite that, they were terrific introductions to worlds that come alive, if not on a computer screen, then around a table with friends, dice and figurines. Taking that experience to a larger audience would be a project worthy of enthusiasm, which remains from being sincerely attempted, in any genre. The simulations we’ve seen up until now are incomplete, but they come from the desire to see the numbers and lines come off the graph paper, and become tangible, become fluid. Taking another shot at it at it would certainly not be wasted effort.

In the meantime, Japanese developers churn out Mecha games regularly with varying levels of detail and success. However, their franchises don’t have permanence most of the time, and when they do they’re nowhere near as rich as our own. There are gems that don’t make it across the Pacific, perplexingly. I suspect that the effort involved in producing an export version of games like *Powerdolls isn’t seen as worthwhile, perhaps because of how the Western market for such games is perceived.

On the other hand, if we look across other games with nothing even remotely related to these titles, we’ll notice that their influence has already spawned Mecha all over the place. All it takes to do so is present a bipedal vehicle and, voilá! Mechs! What is so special about these worlds that wasn’t already done in other popular franchises like *Warhammer 40k or *Starcraft? The shape of the machines isn’t the central feature of *BattleTech and *Heavy Gear; it’s their heroic nature. Certainly, there are similar objects in other science fiction/fantasy franchises. A Goliath is a Mech, for example, there’s no denying that. *Warhammer and *Starcraft have their heroes as well, in fact, and their worlds are satisfactorily inhabited. That notwithstanding, they’re also diffuse, impersonal. Armies come and go, with little individuality, from one game to the next. One space marine is as good as another.

Pilots, however, survive. Even if they’re just a name on a sheet of paper, a set of numbers that barely shift the scales one way or the other, they weave stories by the mere suggestion of their presence. Eventually they can pick each other out across the battlefield, like the Greek heroes, and respect each other like only equals amongst warriors can. It might be a romanticized view, but it’s one that’s shared amongst the enthusiasts of the genre and those worlds. They’re the ones keeping those worlds alive, even when their creators can’t. *Mechwarrior and *Heavy Gear made pilots out of players, and there are those of us that’ll wait for as long as it takes to take our machines to the field once again.

SLDF 3rd Master Sgt. Tankero, still on patrol.

From → Videogames

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