Before you even start playing the game, Steel Empire begins on a paradox. Its story postures at condemning imperialistic conquest, but by choosing the name Steel Empire, the game centers empire above whatever harm it claims that empire brings about. The further I pushed into the game, the more I saw similar tensions pop up left and right. The narration tells us how humanity fears for its destruction, but the accompanying imagery communicates hope and happiness. Likewise, the game is willing to adorn itself in steampunk details if that means the player will look back on this era through a nostalgic lens, but it’s not quite as willing to engage with the darker implications that era in history suggests. Because the game can’t resolve these tensions or even completely hide them, it falls back on spectacle and impressive technique, hoping either one might distract from its underlying problems.
Steel Empire begins on a very similar note to SkyGunner: a romantic depiction of the 19th century, looking with hope at what the technology of the future has to offer mankind. Yet this is where the similarities end. SkyGunner’s ardor for the 19th century stems from the liberation of escaping the Earth’s gravity and realizing the boundless freedom the skies above us have to offer. That freedom doesn’t exist in Steel Empire’s register. Instead, we begin the game with the following language: “from the blast furnace and smoldering boilers[…]it is the ultimate weapon.” The most immediate takeaway from this quote is the very strong material presence it establishes, both for the weapon itself and for the production that went into it. (In fact, it’s because we’re given the latter that we even have the former.)
Yet presence alone can’t explain why the game looks at the 19th century so fondly. What makes this weapon (the Imamio Thunder, by the way) the pinnacle of scientific achievement isn’t its presence, but the strength it represents; the raw industrial power that was imparted into the machine through its creation. It’s a theme that’s constantly reflected throughout Steel Empire, whether the game’s goading the player on with words like, “Finally, the time to overwhelm them has come!” and, “Win the peace and return with glory!”, using all of its finely wrought detail to show the player every last pipe/vent/bend/surface on a given machine, or simply overwhelming them with spectacle.
Still, I’m left wondering if “admiration” is really the best attitude to take toward the developments the game shows interest in. It would be reckless to argue that the advances in technology the 19th century directly led to things like imperialism, or that they made the act of killing easier by putting the killer at a distance from their victim. You could trace those developments back to the beginning of human history if you wanted to. However, the 19th century certainly accelerated that process and dragged it into territory it had never seen before. The Maxim machine gun became integral to British imperialism in Africa because of how effectively it could kill large groups of people in a short amount of time. Likewise, the Colt Revolver became “The Gun That Won The West” because it completed America’s violent expansion across the Western Frontier.
To look at a historical situation like this with admiration feels insensitive, like Steel Empire wants to use a steampunk aesthetic as window dressing but isn’t prepared to address any of the thornier issues tied up with it. And unlike a game like Metal Slug, there’s no satiric bite to mitigate the situation. All Steel Empire can offer is condemnation of the Motorhead Empire, the antagonistic force you fight against and possible stand-in for Nazi Germany. In light of the game’s continued admiration for the machinery of war, such gestures feel more like empty platitudes than they do statements with any real conviction behind them.
Then again, the power that something like the Imamio Thunder represents isn’t the only issue the game has to contend with. So enamored is Steel Empire with the machinery on display that it crowds out whatever human presence might have filled the game otherwise. Moreover, this isn’t just a problem with the narration, but a problem that’s absolutely central to how the game conceives itself. Steel Empire is a fairly typical side-scrolling shooter in which you pilot one of two aircraft (a plane or a zeppelin) in your fight against the Motorhead Empire. From a mechanical perspective, the game is designed rather conservatively: it uses a lot of the vocabulary shooters of its kind have used for years and it isn’t all that interested in questioning it. Enemies fly in the patterns you’d expect them to, weapons work as they have in so many other games before Steel Empire, etc.
The one addition it does make, though – the ability to shoot in either direction – provides some valuable hints about what tone Steel Empire hopes to cultivate. Given the opportunities this makes possible, you’d think the game experience would end up being a stressful and chaotic one: enemy aircraft hounding you on all sides, you perpetually unable to predict which direction the Motorhead forces are going to assault you from. I will grant you that the experience the game presents is chaotic. However, that chaos never veers into genuine stress. If the game’s interested in promoting a sense of chaos, then it’s definitely a controlled chaos. It does what it has to do to suggest the din and strife of the battlefield, but it never commits to that vision so much that the player actually feels the stress of being on the front lines. Instead they can enjoy whatever this life has to offer without accepting any of the risks that might go with it. Of course, I doubt Steel Empire was all that interested wartime pandemonium in the first place. It’s much more likely that the game’s main interests lie in populating the world with action and ensuring a steady procession of narrative beats. The result is somewhat similar to SD Gundam: Operation U.C., albeit with a more natural connection between one beat and the next.
But I digress. To return to the point at hand, what allows players to enjoy the game in the first place is just how strongly it distances players from any human presence. Even if you never see the pilots in SD Gundam, the game at least acknowledges their role in the conflicts you play through. Steel Empire, on the other hand, can’t make this concession. We only ever see machines over the course of the game, and nations comprise the only named actors within the story. This is a militarist’s view of war. Warfare is no longer a conflict involving human lives; it’s a conflict between nations (discrete political concepts), or between the machines that are used to wage war. Because this kind of warfare poses no risk to people, it becomes much easier to argue that war is a necessary part of human existence; maybe even a beneficial one under certain circumstances. I don’t want to dismiss this conception out of hand, as it can work if a game’s circumstances are abstracted in a right way.
Unfortunately, Steel Empire’s circumstances aren’t. For reasons previously discussed, the game can’t distance the reality it presents us with from the reality we know. But even supposing that was possible, the game never shows much interest in doing so. Its interest lies in the personal. Rather than pulling its story out to the level of nation states (like so many strategy games do), it instead pulls its focus in close. We follow the heroic exploits of a lone pilot, or we witness the tragic loss of the air fleet surrounding that pilot. As impactful as these scenes might have been, in this context, they come across as confused and lacking their intended dramatic weight.
I feel I should clarify that I don’t think the game is glorifying violence or anything as cliche as that. The fundamental problems with Steel Empire are far more mundane than that, and while they may not necessarily plague a lot of games, these problems have certainly been discussed many times before. On the one hand we have the game’s emphasis on spectacle. The bullets filling the screen, the explosions punctuating the action, the frequent acts of destruction; these are what breathe life into the game. And on the other hand we have the game’s burning desire to create exciting scenarios and evocative backdrops/settings, but without any real idea of what it should do with them (beyond the emphasis on spectacle, I mean). Assessed on the game’s own terms, Steel Empire would be a mild success. However, it remains to be answered why we should enter this situation on terms as narrow as the ones the game provides us with.