A Simulated Retrospective, Part 4: Space

Welcome to the fourth and final part of this Higher Level Gamer Critical Retrospective! For these Retrospectives, I’ll take a broad approach to examine some of the tropes of particular game genres, their historical contexts, provide some examples, as well as explore why I think these genres are fun.

As a reminder, this first retrospective will consist of four parts, and will concentrate on marginalized or otherwise underrepresented simulations. I’ve already gone over pirate, Old West, and submarine simulations.

In honor of this final chapter of the first ever Higher Level Gamer Critical Retrospective, we’re going to space!

It might seem strange to think of space games as an underrepresented genre. After all, the last decade or so has seen the publication of the Mass Effect franchise, of Sins of a Solar Empire, of the Halo series, of EVE Online, of Metroid, of… you get the idea.

However, “space” wasn’t always the realm of action-rpgs and RTS games. Rather, previous space simulations were deeply rooted in a style of play common to flight simulators or trading games. As such, most space sims told the story of a lone pilot who sets out to conquer the stars, or of a stalwart soldier pitted against deadly enemies.

It’s that particular lineage that I want to explore today, the one that goes back spiritually to the ace pilots of the two World Wars, the one that places you into a cockpit and asks you to dogfight a multitude of bogeys.

And for such a lineage, there’s really only one place to start.

Wing Commander was published in 1990, and for the first time fans of space opera had a game to call their own. Heavily inspired by the Star Wars franchise, Wing Commander puts players in the role of a nameless pilot – who later will be retroactively identified as Christopher Blair – fighting for the Terran Confederation against the feline Kilrathi.

Wing Commander‘s game play is fairly simple. As you play through the mission-based storyline, you’ll go up in rank and have access to a wider array of ships to fly against the enemy. As such, Wing Commander‘s game play is very close to that of older flight simulators. However, Wing Commander did do something different, something that would become a trademark of the series.

As you play, the game keeps track of how successful you are. If you successfully complete your missions, the subsequent missions push you further towards the heart of the enemy. However, if you fail most objectives, the subsequent missions become increasingly defensive in nature, forcing the player to fight for the Terran Confederation’s survival.

Nowadays, having two endings might seem like the least that a story-based game can do. However, multiple endings contingent on player action weren’t a commonality back in the 1990s. The Wing Commander franchise was one of the first time that I experienced a true sense of freedom in an action game.

Of all the games in the series, the one I – and perhaps most fans – remember most fondly is Wing Commander III. In terms of gameplay, Wing Commander III didn’t really deviate from the previous entries. Players were still put in the role of Christopher Blair, and the major game mechanics of the series were still present and well implemented. However, for the first time, Wing Commander III offered players a full cinematic experience.

It was the first time that I had seen FMV – Full Motion Video – be used effectively in a game, and it was awesome. Wing Commander III was essentially a space opera movie in which you played through the key battles. It was also one of the first time that I had seen big Hollywood stars appear in a video game. Wing Commander III featured Mark Hamill as Christopher Blair, Malcolm McDowell as Admiral Tolwyn, John Rhys-Davies as Paladin, Josh Lucas as Flash, and Tom Wilson as Maniac. It was, in other words, a space fantasy geek’s dream come true.

The video game and cinematic elements were also well intertwined, making the experience feel as if the players were responsible for the moods and events during the cut scenes. I remember one time, after an unsuccessful mission, the game gave me the option of getting drunk. I proceeded to do so, only to find out that the Kilrathi was staging a surprise attack on the carrier. Needless to say, my drunken state did not make the subsequent fight any easier.

At this point, I was going to say a few words about X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, but I’ve decided otherwise. Sure, XvT was the first time I really played a game set in my beloved Star Wars universe, but as a space sim, it’s rather banal in that it does most things right without doing many things wrong. It’s fun, but not spectacular. To me, it’s biggest characteristic was that it was set in the Star Wars universe.

FreeSpace 2, published in 1999, however, does deserve elaboration. On the surface, FreeSpace 2 is a run-of-the-mill space sim. You play the role of an unnamed pilot who goes through a series of missions that make the story progress. However, FreeSpace 2 raised the bar with scale.

You see, most earlier space sims pitted players against small fighter ships or otherwise static capital ships that were part of the background. When capital ships were part of the fight, they didn’t do much other than be there. As such, capital ships were never really the main attraction of space sims.

FreeSpace 2, however, changed that. FreeSpace 2 went big. FreeSpace 2 went massively big. As the player, you’re still in command of a single fighter. However, you’re playing in a field where multitude capital ships are engaging one another, seeking each other out to duel. And these capital ships dwarf your fighter by several orders of magnitude.

The first time I saw FreeSpace 2‘s ships was one of those “oh shit” moments. The first time was shot down by a capital ship’s beam weapon was a “holy shit” moment. Oh sure, most times you’ll be pitted against other fighters or taking down turrets, but there’s always the chance that you’ll run into the path of one of those beams. And even if you don’t, they’re a beauty to behold. FreeSpace 2 made you feel as if you were part of something bigger rather than the one that’ll save the entire universe.

The early 2000s came around and I eventually bought a Nintendo GameCube for the sole purpose of playing Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader. Rogue Squadron departed from previous space sims by adopting an arcade-like style of play that emphasized fast action and a third-person perspective. Rather than seeing the world through a HUD, players could see their own ship go through acrobatic maneuvers in space as they fought against the Imperial Navy.

In this sense, Rogue Squadron II was a spiritual successor – at least in terms of gameplay –  to games such as Crimson Skies and Ace Combat that emphasizes high action and acrobatics as opposed to the die-hard realism favoured by older flight sims. Rogue Squadron II introduced space sim fans to a type of play they had not known before.

Rogue Squadron II was exhilarating to play. The arcade-style gameplay was perfectly suited to reproduce the type of action found in the Star Wars movies. The game made you feel like Luke Skywalker or Wedge Antilles as you raced down the Death Star’s trench, engaged TIE fighters in dogfights, and made attack runs against Star Destroyers. I was a Star Wars character and I loved it.

After Rogue Squadron II I ran into a game called Freelancer. Published in 2003, the game was one of my first experienced with open worlds as far as space sims were concerned. Prior to Freelancer, most of the gameplay of space sims was focused on the space combat and divided into a series of missions. Freelancer, however, took a page from the Book of RPGs by replacing linear missions with “geographical” quests. Players had to explore the galaxy in order to advance through the game’s linear plot.

It might seem strange that, with a topic such as space sims, I haven’t yet mentioned Starflight, a game I dearly love. The game doesn’t really fall into the particular lineage that I’m talking about here. It doesn’t really take its inspiration from flight sims. However, there was one aspect of Starflight that remained with me while I was playing space sims, and that is Starflight‘s truly nonlinear approach to gameplay.

So far, all the games I mentioned so far possess a fairly linear story. Sure, there might be kinks here and there, but on the whole you know what you’re doing and why, which is largely a by-product of the games’ mission-based gameplay. I spent years searching for a Starflight-like game, and I thought I had found it a few years ago.

Space Force: Rogue Universe was an indie game released in 2007. Visually, the game it beautiful. It offers detailed planets and satisfactory explosions. However, the gameplay never really takes off. Combat is slow and plodding, a far cry from games like Freelancer or Rogue Squadron II, and the story is linear and rather cliché. To top it off, the voice acting is bad enough to be distracting.

On the surface, Space Force appears to possess everything necessary to be the next Starflight. Much like Starflight, Space Force‘s sandbox mode allows you to wander around the universe to create your own stories. However, it doesn’t really work. The game never really takes off. It’s fun for a little while, but then quickly tapers off and becomes mind-numbingly repetitive.

That might seem like a strange comment to make given that I’ve described Starflight‘s action as repeatedly mining and selling minerals. However, Starflight manages to provide the sandbox experience within the actual game – as opposed to a separate sandbox mode – through mystery, misdirection, and sheer wonder, which is something Space Force never really accomplishes. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played, but I don’t really see myself playing much more of it.

Perhaps closer to the goal is StarMade, an sandbox indie game still in its alpha phase of development. A good way to describe StarMade would be “Minecraft in space.” Though it doesn’t yet have Minecraft‘s level of polish, StarMade potentially possesses the characteristics that make Mojang’s game wonderful to play. Players collect resources to build space ships and space stations. Occasionally, pirates will attack you, and you can retaliate by seeking out and destroying their bases.

So far, most of my experiences with the game has been with recreating iconing sci-fi ships. However, there’s the potential for more. There’s Starlight-like potential there. I suspect that most of this potential will be directed towards, or enacted through, multiplayer gameplay as opposed to a single player campaign. Having played briefly on a public server, I can see how the game could become as complex as EVE Online. It’s nowhere near that level yet, but it could get there. Maybe. In the meanwhile, I’ll continue flying my Slave I around the universe.

The militarization of video games isn’t something new. In fact, it’s an old phenomenon rooted in the even older militarization of communication technologies in general. In popular culture, this militarization often takes the form of shooters. Since the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the dominant national discourses promoting national security that emerged at that time were able to insert themselves into discourses of digital entertainment.

If we take the video game design as an example, we can observe that game designers began to increasingly produce console games that incorporate elements of the shooter design strategy. Games with military themes, such as Halo: Combat Evolved or SOCOM: US Navy Seal, became increasingly popular both with designers and consumers at this time. Digital leisure then acts as a vehicle for military discourses, ethics and politics to become interiorized by game players. The relatively ‘safe’ digital representation of warfare becomes substituted for the traumatic experience of war.

This interiorization of militarization can be seen to be actively at work in space and flight sims. Few military games are as personalized and individualized as these ones. If games like Call of Duty individualize warfare by allowing you to play as one member of a squad, space and flight sims individualize and personalize the entire context of the game. In Call of Duty and Battlefield, you know who your squadmates are, and you know the name of your main antagonist. If you’re lucky, you might know the name of a few Bosses. Beyond that, you don’t really know who you’re killing. However, in space and flight sims, you often do.

Because air combat has long be depicted as a medieval joust between two worthy, honorable, opponents, space and flight sim enemies are rarely unnamed. Largely, you know exactly who you’re fighting. Not only that, but prestige is acquired by keeping count of the exact number of individual lives you’ve taken. Pilots and snipers are probably unique in this particular aspect. In space and flight sims, you aren’t a hero because you’ve liberated a town. You’re a hero because you’ve killed five individual representations of sentient beings, and think that it’s okay.

I’ve been struggling to find a way to conclude this first ever critical retrospective, and I don’t think I’ve yet found a good way to do so. I’m hoping that the format has been interesting and different enough from traditional retrospective that focus solely on a chronological list of games and their technical accomplishments. I was trying to avoid reproducing the traditional hagiographies of gaming, if you will.

Part of my motivation for writing this critical retrospective stems from my own dissatisfaction with the traditional topic of game changers. During this ongoing round of Blogs of the Round Table over at Critical Distance, Gaines and Nick have been quite explicit about their dislike of the concept, while I’ve taken a more oblique approach.

With the new generation of consoles hitting the market, discussions of change are inevitable. As an anthropologist, change is something with which I’m familiar. My entire discipline, in fact, is focused on understanding how the world changes. Decades of social science has taught us that change rarely just happens. Rather, change is a process contingent on many social and historical forces.

Too often I see these social and historical forces absent from any discussion of change in gaming. Are individual games and technologies important in the story of how gaming changes? Sure. But only insofar as they’re entryways into understanding why, as a cultural group, we suddenly value what those games and technologies bring to the table.

Was Doom a game changer as far as gaming was concerned? Sure. But not because it was the first massively popular FPS, or even because it popularized multiplayer gaming. Rather, Doom is historically relevant because it represents the extension within gaming of a particular ethic that had been present within the world of information technologies since the first commercially available telephones. Sadly, this particular historicity too often is absent from discussions of change when video games are concerned.

Decades of scholarship across a multitude of disciplines, and years of personal interactions have taught us that games matter. It’s probably time for us to recognize that they likely matter even more than we’d like to admit.

And that’s it for this first Higher Level Gamer Critical Retrospective. I’ll likely tackle this format again sometime in the future, but for the next few weeks I’ll be tackling subjects that I’ve been pushing back for over a month now. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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3 Responses to A Simulated Retrospective, Part 4: Space

  1. I see exactly where you went wrong with your Star Wars sim experience, but at least you avoided X-Wing, which was impossibly hard. TIE Fighter, on the other hand, was a fantastic game with a beautiful storyline that artfully walked the line between the Empire being evil and the Empire just doing its job. While the campaign was extremely linear, the way the story progressively built on itself (including when they introduced an expansion pack to take you through to the eve of the Battle of Endor), was amazingly immersive. From trying to complete your standard mission objectives, to trying to progress in the Secret Order of the Empire by completing their bonus, often hidden objectives, was hugely addictive.

    X-Wing vs TIE Fighter was a dog of a game, but it got somewhat better when they introduced the Balance of Power expansion, which saw you being able to play a campaign in the Outer Rim as either the Rebel Alliance or the Empire. Of course, I may have been a little biased at how exciting it was to finally fly my TIE Fighter alongside a Super Star Destroyer.

    As for Wing Commander, again such a brilliant example of a space sim done well. They lost their way somewhat with Wing Commander IV and recovered slightly with Wing Commander V, but the damage was done when they tried to turn it into a proper Hollywood movie.

    I still remember purposefully going down the losing path in Wing Commander III to experience the Kilrathi Dreadnaughts coming out of hyperspace in Sol. It was an impossible battle, but worth playing just to get the end scenes with Prince Thrakath.

    • Erik Bigras says:

      I am cautiously optimistic about Star Citizen, Chris Roberts’ new game. It won’t be out for a while yet, but so far the concept is interesting.

      One interesting thing that you point to is that, for all its highs and lows, the X-Wing franchise was probably one of the first ones that I can remember that allowed you to play as the “bad guys.” Perhaps because of their roots in flight sims, most (if not all) previous space sims put you in the role of the hero who would save the world. Even today, military sims that allow you to actively play as the “enemy” are rare, or are the domain of what Alexander Galloway (2006) calls countergaming.

  2. Pingback: What I’m Playing Now: Elite Dangerous | Higher Level Gamer

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