What I would want to see in a game based on one of the best sci-fi universes of all time

TNG_crewThere’s a very obvious reason why I’m writing this article: I’ve been watching a ton of Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

In fact, I just finished the series. Seven seasons, mostly of good-to-great quality, of a science-fiction series with the kind of optimism, open-mindedness, and ideals that I don’t think I’ve ever seen elsewhere in my life.

A lot of movies, literature, games and television have happy endings, but they don’t arise out of genuine optimism (unless it’s someone like Spielberg). Instead, they rise out of business concerns like placating an audience.

TNG’s optimistic view of humanity in the future — a humanity that has largely shed it’s pettiness, become benevolent explorers of the galaxy, and adopted an open-mind of alien cultures — fascinates me for many reasons.

One of which is that the vibe of TNG, or even the vibe of Trek overall, has largely been ignored by subsequent sci-fi properties where cynicism, pessimism and darkness are hip. And, yeah, one of my favorite shows of all time is Breaking Bad, but I don’t see why everything has to be so relentlessly dark.

The most talked about TV shows, now that Breaking Bad is over, are The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, both of which feature horrible things happening to people while horrible people perpetrate them and succeed. Prestige television seems to focus almost exclusively on the amoral, with shows about serial killers, meth dealers, and crooked advertising agents.

It’s not much different in the video game world. The most popular, and, to be honest, some of the best games of the past few years center around bank robbers, mercenaries, apocalypses, and patricide. I honestly can’t remember playing a game that exuded optimism about the future of humanity.

There have been plenty of supposed Star Trek emulators in mechanics or plot, but the distinct vibe is never replicated. It always gets too dark and pessimistic. And this comes from a guy who spent his high school days as proudly cynical.

I’m also not saying there isn’t a place for dark and gloomy, I’m just saying there’s room for more of the opposite. I’d like to see people get excited about a game that looks ahead and tells us positive things.

With the recent release of The Banner Saga, I’m seeing yet another soul-crushingly dark game where there are no victories, except for maybe Pyrrhic ones, reap praise. I think I’m just tired of games making me depressed. So, let’s talk about what a Star Trek game could be.

Star Trek‘s cultural footprint is undeniable, massive and impossible for me to truly comprehend and appreciate. But I do recognize certain  games as clear byproducts of Gene Roddenberry’s seminal shows.

Mass Effect and FTL: Faster than Light both capture different specific aspects of Star Trek. Mass Effect captures the space-faring, intergalactic political strife while FTL captures the moment-to-moment battlestation duties of an Enterprise Captain. Both of these in isolation make for fantastic games on their own, but combining them would be about half of the overall Star Trek formula. However, both of those games lack the fundamental spirit of the show.

In FTL, you are a Federation Captain on the run from the “Rebels” for some unknown reason. Your goal is to rendezvous with the remnants of the Federation. This means that you are not doing what the crew of the Enterprise was; you are not exploring, seeking out new life, or boldly going where no one has gone before. Instead, you’re blowing everything in your path up, bargaining with slavers and constantly running with your tail between your legs.

Now, I do remember an episode of TNG (Parallels) where a Grizzly Adams-looking Capt. Riker refused to go back to a universe where the Borg had taken over. This makes me think a Star Trek game like FTL or Mass Effect 3 could work under that context, but let’s establish the Trek that is, instead of the alternate-universe Trek that could be, first.

Speaking of Mass Effect, it also captures Star Trek in some striking ways while still making a distinctly-individualized universe. The political machinations and diplomatic struggles are there with the Turian/Krogan/Salarian conflict. The other races of the galaxy don’t trust the new kids on the block, the humans.

And of course other races and worlds having their own hangups, like the Quarians manufacturing artificial intelligence that almost wipes them out. Bummer. These conflicts don’t mimic Trek so much as they capture the essence of that part of Trek. mass effect 3

However, Star Trek does not have piles of dead bodies lining a corridor leading you to the conclusion that yes, resistance is futile, which is essentially what Mass Effect 3 wants you to believe.

This doesn’t need to be a bad thing, but, as I’ve said before, I’m tired of it. Seemingly every game tells me that everything is going to end poorly no matter what I do and I should just kill myself (also, this sentiment was not well-explored). I want some games to provide me with a vision of the future I can look forward to, even if I won’t see it.

That said, optimism, awe, wonder and hope are the foundations that Roddenberry built Star Trek on. The aesthetics, allegories, and battle mechanics have been replicated before, but not these core themes. And I applaud Bioware and Subset Games and other studios for taking inspiration and forging their own works, but those works contribute to my malaise of gritty, serious, cynical art that permeates American culture and my generation, in particular, right now.

So, how does one make a Star Trek game feel like Star Trek? First, make characters that embody the best aspects of humanity. Intelligence, altruism, empathy, and respect for others are the important ones. These characters need to be good at their jobs as well as be caring and respectful of others and other cultures, even the cultures with whose morals they don’t agree with.

Picard and Riker don’t exactly agree with one alien culture’s idea that everyone should die at 60, but they understand that cultural norms, morals, and vices are all relative. Ethnocentrism has no place on a Federation starship.

Therefore, relationships among these characters can’t play out the way they would among real 21st century people. Moving through dialogue Mass Effect-style would have to lead the player to try to reach situations best for everybody involved, or to make a moral judgment and aid the greater good, whichever that may be.

Crafting dialogue that gives meaningful choice and conveys a specific, defined character is tough. But these tough choices don’t have to conflict with the ethos of Star Trek, which acknowledges that our pasts and cultures make us unique from one another, and it could still lead to externalized conflict.

It could also provide an outlet for the player to discuss these issues in-depth with his or her crew. Next-generation technology’s allowance for more memory space could conceivably allow for more dynamic conversations, reactions, and arguments. Maybe a discussion of a certain issue with your crew could be as scintillating as a battle with a Klingon warbird, as is the case in Trek.

Even if humans are benevolent explorers, there are plenty of jerks out there, and a good Star Trek game needs some good space battles. Those could and should absolutely take inspiration from FTLThat game provides a tentative blueprint for Star Trek to follow in the interactive realm.

Many of TNG’s best set pieces involved crew members diverting power, raising shields and solving problems on the fly in the middle of a crisis. But what of dealing with intruders onboard the ship and on land? Well, how about we take a look at Grand Theft Auto V?

GTA V’s best feature was switching between protagonists at will. Envision the following scenario: the captain sends an away team down to a nearby planet to investigate something. His/her first officer reports that negotiations haven’t ended well, the transporters don’t work, and now they’re about to be murdered.

Then, an enemy ship appears. The player switches between FTL-captain’s eye space battle to third-person shooting as the first officer on the planet. Not only are the developers giving the player a choice in how he or she plays, but they are highlighting the different tactical approaches and skills of different crew personnel while also highlighting the fact they share a common goal. And it’s all done through the mechanics.

Speaking of these crew members, I think they need to be, to some extent, their own personalities. After all, a 21st century man or woman would not be as, well, morally upright as these characters. We’re jerks, to be blunt.

But you have to take in mind that player agency transcends pushing the action forward. It also means changing the course of the action. This means that choice has to walk a fine line between player-interaction and character-appropriate. And it might be the toughest line to walk. It’s something that very few, including Casey Hudson, Jake Rodkin, and Sean Vanaman, have been able to nail.

But beneath all of those mechanics lies the most important aspect of Trek. Star Trek game should be about all these things, as well as wonder, awe, exploration and optimism for the future.

Nailing that vibe will be a tough challenge, but after my recent exploration into the TNG, I genuinely think gaming can benefit from a title that tells us not every future has to be a dystopia, that we don’t have to be cynical, and that humanity can move forward if we just try. That’s what Star Trek could be.