Mourning the Redshirts

I’ve been thinking recently about a project on Kickstarter called The Mandate, the idea of which, I have to admit, has me hooked. It’s not hard to understand why the idea might be appealing: the chance to assume the role of a starship captain, roaming the stars, caring for your crew and your ship, and engaging in diplomacy, piracy, and pyrotechnic space battles. The combination of role-playing and spaceship-porn is such perfectly distilled geekery that I’m surprised there aren’t more games like this.

One of the most interesting aspects, to me, is the way the developers are emphasising mortality. The development updates and trailers stress, firstly, that each crew member will have a name, a personality, and various aptitudes, representing a character rather than just some statistics; and secondly, that each life is fragile. Damage to the ship will cause sudden decompression, sucking crew into vacuum, while boarding actions can result in the deaths, not just of combatants, but of civilians or crew gunned down by accident — or, ominously, by marines disobeying (or obeying) standing orders. Developers Perihelion have said explicitly that they want to represent ‘attrition’ as a normal result of violent conflict.

This is relatively novel in games. Not that most games featuring violent conflict avoid depicting death — murder-porn is disturbingly ubiquitous — but death that is beyond the player’s control and can strike anywhere is unusual.

On the one hand, Strategy games tend to depict people as mere statistics. When people are reduced to military units or blocks of population, it’s hard to feel much about their fate. Having your phalanx lose half its hitpoints isn’t quite the same as seeing ensign Jenkins vaporised by a torpedo hit. Also, most strategy games, like games in general, aim to make outcomes at least somewhat predictable. You might initiate a battle knowing that your phalanx will take damage, but in a real war there is no way of knowing who will die or how. I should note that Paradox’s Crusader Kings games do depict war as something that randomly maims and kills actual people — or the aristocracy, at least.

Of course, even numbers can be poignant. I remember a moment during a game of Stalingrad I once played with my brother: he’d just encircled and annihilated several of my divisions, and asked me how many soldiers would have been in the ‘pocket’. I thought for a moment. ‘About forty thousand.’

On the other hand, there are more intimate tales of war. Unfortunately, these tend to make the player-character and other ‘important’ characters into invincible action-heroes — at least until it appropriate for them to die. The Mass Effect trilogy made a real effort to emphasise the mortality of its characters. This was especially true of the second game, whose dangerous final heist could claim the better part of your crew. However, because the lives and deaths of Commander Shepard and his crew were scripted, they always felt a bit forced. If a character has spent the game mowing through hordes of enemies and stubbornly refusing to die in even the most ridiculous situations, it feels a trifle hollow for them to suddenly die because you picked the wrong dialogue option. More importantly, Mass Effect 2 always cleaved to the rule of predictability: you could avoid losing anyone if you were scrupulous and attentive. The other games in the series did have unavoidable deaths, but the player was still given some control over who actually died; death became another one of Bioware’s sterile ‘dilemmas’, a choice of the lesser evil.

I shouldn’t finish this without mentioning  XCOM and FTL. In both games, the player commands a small group of decidedly mortal soldiers or crew, and death can be quite sudden and unpredictable. However, in the case of XCOM (I haven’t played FTL), conflict is always unavoidable. There is nothing wrong with this per se, except that in XCOM you tend to regard death as a tactical error. Since your soldiers are always in danger, the aim of an encounter is to achieve your mission without messing up and losing soldiers. Since you never really had a choice about whether to fight the alien menace, each soldier’s death might be your fault tactically, but not morally — diplomacy or avoidance were never options.

One last thing: the issue of ‘realism’. In gaming, I feel that realism is a double-edged sword. Gaming’s need for obvious cause-and-effect segues neatly into literary realism and possibly, I think, into certain reactionary tropes — I’ve hinted at this before. On the other hand, there is clearly some subversive potential in games as systems (I can’t take credit for this idea — I believe Gonzalo Frasca used to talk about this sort of thing). In the case of The Mandate, the decision to represent ships and their passengers and crew as individuals subject to arbitrary systems has the potential to show war in its full moral dimensions: as an arena of pathos, unpredictability, and undeserved death and suffering. Hopefully, Perihelion will be able make good on their promise.