Friday, 10 April 2015

Gaming: Some Thoughts on Space Opera


The Fat Goose splashed down into real space, screens going black; systems cutting out as the engine cut out, drained from traversing the Pleat. Journeying across the Other Space was always hard on the old girl, Kira reflected, scrabbling under the desk for her rebreather.

It’ll be fine, the atmo will kick in any second, it always does, she thought. But she found the kit anyway, clutching it tight, ready to lift it to her face if something went wrong.

A second later the engine sputtered back into life and the screen in front of her flickered. Lines of numbers appeared as the computer rebooted, sending a blast of bhangra across the cabin. Quisp straightened, rabbit ears twitching atop her head as she took in the changes. Her soap, a Puerto dubbed Martian thing that Kira didn’t understand flickered back onto one of her screens and the Moreau squealed with delight, leaning forward to watch.

Hey, big foot. Are you helping me work out where we are or what?” Kira demanded, punching a button on her console. “Come on you piece of junk, tell me where we are.” It burbled as she called up diagnostic system. The jump should have worked fine, but sometimes the vagaries of passing through the other space left ships light years off course. She flicked on the comms, “Finn, Echo, you got anything for me?”

There was a crackle and two voices chimed in simultaneously, “Nothing strange to report Kira.”

Oi, it's Captain remember?” She snapped. Finn had come aboard at Alpha Point, a human with a penchant for guns. Kira was happy to let him run security as long as he did what he was told. One of his toy drones whirred into the cabin, span, splaying a red light grid across the walls to check for anything out of place, before it carried on its search.

She keyed the comms back on, “I take it we have no squatters from the Pleat, Finn?” The chances of picking up other space ghosts was slim, but, again, it happened. Especially on ships as old and cranky as the Goose.

Nah, nothin’. Looks like ye got away with it again, Kira.” He paused, “So where are we? I think the constellation on the right looks familiar.”

Yeah but you think your butt does too, and you’re not a contortionist.” She checked the screen, “We’re still checking but it looks like we’re back in Chain space.”

The Chain was a narrow band of space that sat between the two great powers. On the one side there was the Terran Republic, on the other Anasasi Empire. They had fought over the Chain for a century at least. Only bankruptcy on the one hand and God knew what on the other had forced an end to hostilities. All anyone knew was the fighting had stopped, and somehow the contested planets' governments  had taken the step of telling both powers they were not wanted. 

Even more amazingly, the interdict seemed to have stuck.  

Thank Terra for that. The Republic’s getting’ too hot, no wonder everyone’s leavin’.” He sounded distracted. “I swear gettin’ out was the best thing I did.”

You and me both, mate. How's the cargo?” They had picked up a psychic on ARES 5, a young boy desperate to get out before the Terran Republic found him, forced him to join the military. Being in possession of talent had become another way of ending up a soldier, after the requisite brain washing had taken place of course. Most of them were trying to get out, which meant there was a chance to earn a few coins if you were in the right place at the right time. 

Of course, Chain Space was filling up with refugees, political idealists, artists, smugglers and people who just didn't fancy living under the shadow of the autocrat's execution blade. They ended up in habs, on moons as well as planetside. Nobody wanted them, but where else were they going to go. The Long War had crushed the government, people had begged the army to take control. It was only afterwards that they'd expressed regret, when the junta turned on them and started up their 'humans first' dogma.  

Finn coughed, there was a loud swallow as he drank something. “He's sleepin' like a baby. Not a peep out of him since we popped in the white noise booth.”

Good, last thing we need is a cranky psychic on board. They're enough trouble as it is.” Kira tapped a few keys, squinting at the screen. “Keep him sedated until we touch rock okay?”

Sure, he'll be no bother.” Finn sniffed a little, as if she'd said something mortally offensive. “I just hope those Third Eye freaks were serious about payin' for warm bodies, y'know?”

From your lips to God's ears, mate.” She flicked another switch, sending a set of diagnostic systems to work checking the ship’s hull. Another switch activated the scanners, looking to pick up radio traffic. Ordinarily she wouldn’t bother but today, it felt like the location software was taking its sweet time.

Captain,” Quisp said, straightening in her seat. “I gots something.” She swiped it over to Kira's screens, the image of a single cylindrical object floating in the vacuum. “Spindle,” Quisp intoned.

Sweet,” Kira said, smoothing her hair back. “That'll make things easier. The Spindle was one of the Chain's central points for trade, gossip, and crime. Much as she hated to admit it, it was perfect for people like them. A minute later a glut of data pinged off the station's sensors. The spindle's image on the screen sprouted adverts, coloured by category. Most were blue, vanilla and sensible, but a few were pink, suggesting intimate services. Kira tapped a few keys, knowing that if she sifted deep enough there would be some sort of job opportunity.

As she did so, she flicked the comms on again. “Echo, are we going anywhere?”

There was a crackle and then, “We should be setting off in a moment, the old girl's just getting warm again. We'll need some new parts though, it looks like the capacitors need replacing.” The words echoed slightly, as if two voices were speaking, one an instant later slower than the other. She had earned her name because of that. She said she was ‘Nexim’, whatever the hell that was.

We should be able to get some parts from the Elephant Boys,” Kira said. “Just make sure we get there in one piece.” She signed off, frowning as something flashed up on the screen. A high priority message, encrypted out the wazoo.

She opened it, read it through, paling as she did. Words like 'psychic', 'abducted' and 'legitimate concerns' and 'measured reprisals' were all too evident and though she had expected something like it, well she'd dared to hope that they would be something the crew could worry about in a few months time. Space was big, even with the ability to travel through the Pleat. Instead, it looked like they might be running. “Quisp, what do you think of this?”

The Moreau scooted over, peering over her shoulder. “Wows, serious?”

Serious, in over our heads serious” Kira confirmed. 

"Crazy Terrans?" 

"That's how it looks." Kira tapped the screen, a seal with a double headed eagle gripping a pair of swords sat at the top of the memo. "Looks like we pissed off the Republic."

"Again," Quisp chimed. 

"Yes, again." Kira pulled a face, "You don't have to bring the Midas incident up every time we see the Terrans, Quisp."

"But it was funnies."

"No, it wasn't. Nothing where I end up wearing a bucket of fish and the Commander of Fort Churchill is sending out attack wings is funny, okay?" 

Quisp twitched her nose, "If you says so, but I likes it." She mimed having a bucket on her head, ears twitching. 

Kira froze as she something shifted on a screen, a ripple in the void, creating a gate into the Pleat.  The prow of a ship began to nose its way into real space. Red lights flashed, illuminating the Terran crest. This was no Fat Goose, this was a war ship, with back up generators to keep the thing moving once it was back in real space. Kira knew that once it was clear wings of fighters would launch, aiming to incapacitate the smaller ship. They weren't meant to be here, weren't meant to enter Chain space. The war ship broke free of the Pleat as another gate began to open.

Lights flickered on the ship's prow, flashing a message; surrender your cargo or prepare to be boarded.

There was a whine from the body of the ship as Finn activated the gun turrets.

Kira slapped the comms, "Finn don't, they're looking for an excuse."

"But Kira," he protested.

"Captain," she snapped back. "And do as you're bloody told."

Before he could respond, she cut the channel, and toggled it again to Echo's frequency.“We have to move,” she barked. “Get this big bucket moving Echo, we have to skedaddle.”

Okay, okay... okay, okay,” the Nexim woman said. There was a roar as the Fat Goose's engines kicked into life. “Where are we going, Captain?”

They began to move, the war ships starting to move away, falling into their wake. Kira hoped that they would have to take a moment to recover. Surely, even though they were designed to travel the Pleat, they couldn't kick straight into high gear as soon as they'd left it. That was one reason for the fighters.

The Fat Goose could outrun fighters. 

But they still needed a place to go, and a plan. More than anything they needed to buy some time. Kira ran through the list of all the people who owed them a favour; it was too short and nobody on it could help against this kind of problem. She flipped over onto the other list, which was rather longer and detailed who the Fat Goose's crew owed favours to. Again, there was a sizable number of people who were no use at all, but some of them looked likely, and some of them had a stronger interest in keeping them alive, than letting them die.  

"Quisp, plot the likely locations of Van Hrees, Cortez, the Red Legion and Shamar," she said. grabbing the controls. 

The Moreau's fingers flashed over her keyboard, watching the data with half an eye as she absorbed more of her soap opera. A moment later she slid a list over, with the information.

Kira glanced at it, grimaced. She grabbed the radio, “The Spindle, Echo; we're going to have to see the Slug.”


In the wake of my posts about Fantasy and Horror gaming, and as I'm apparently on a bit of a kick where the subject's concerned, my thoughts turned to SF games with the view to doing a similar exercise with those. The problem here is that I haven't really played much SF, a little bit of Dark Heresy (which only really led me to conclude it's Call of Cthulhu in space and that I prefer good old fashioned Lovecraft), some SLA Industries, and a few sessions of Serenity but not very much else. I've owned a lot of Space Opera RPGs and the quest to find something that I really, and which a) clicks with me and b) works for the players I know, has become something of a holy grail. Of the games I own, Eclipse Phase and Ashen Stars get close to what I want... but somehow they still don't feel quite right, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, and I still dream about completing my 'perfect setting'.

I should probably note here that I have Rocket Age and Septimus to read in PDF but I’ve not really looked at them yet. Likewise I’m waiting to read Transhuman for Eclipse Phase before I make any decisions about it – 1000 character points are hard to assign, and is the main reason I haven't  run the game. I’m not going to comment on soft or hard SF, mostly because I don’t know enough science to comment on what is feasible and what should really be shuffled into the science fantasy camp (I usually know the latter when I see it, but there are places where the walls between genres grow thin).

I like Science Fiction a lot, despite my issues with finding an RPG to play it in. Some of my earliest memories are of shows like Ulysses 31, and Battle of the Planets, or a set of weird children’s novels about a society with lots of cloning (I think there was also a novel by the same author which featured a group of convicts who crash landed on a desolate planet on their way to a sort of space Alcatraz), and though I only remember the sketchiest of details I know I enjoyed them a lot. Heretically, Star Wars barely registered on my radar, I saw Return of the Jedi when it came out but the rest of the original trilogy passed me by: I saw A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back when I was at university, by which point I think I was too old to appreciate them fully. By that time I had lapped up Blade Runner, various incarnations of Star Trek, the original Battlestar Galactica, a lot of Babylon Five, the Pern novels, Dune, and a healthy chunk of Doctor Who, as well as a load of other things. These days I love books like Neptune's Brood or Mind Jammer, and I'm looking forward to Company Town when it comes out. I'm not so bothered by the likes of Star Trek these days, especially given the way that Paramount seem so intent on recreating the 1960s series on the big screen; it feels as if it's the SF of my parents' generation boiled down to a series of adventures largely run on handwaivium. It's the sort of thing Cyberpunk and the New Wave were reacting to, a sort of hang over from the Golden Age of SF with ripped space captains seducing buxom aliens. Even the updated series of Next Gen and Deep Space Nine have that classic feel to them, married to an allegiance that ‘science can fix everything’ that other series, more focused on human drama, eschewed. Gradually SF has slipped from military re-enactments to something on the greyer side of the tracks. Farscape, Firefly and Guardians of the Galaxy gave us crews of characters who were a bit dodgy to say the least, and which seem to have lasting appeal. Does that signify a sea change? I’m not sure.

Science Fiction is a weird genre at the moment, a bit of a hydra, as it tries to adapt to science that’s moving too fast to keep up with. For gaming it’s also difficult because where Fantasy and Horror have a shared lexicon SF doesn’t – concepts change their names as easily as the schematic here. There is no ‘elves, dwarves and dragons’ template to work to. As a result it’s hard to consider the genre has a whole. Transhumanism will have different tropes to space opera, which will have different signifiers to a ‘punk’ genre. Even in space opera there are differences. Is the game working to a Flash Gordon style or a Star Trek one, does it embrace the psychedelic madness of the 1970s or the black leather and blasters of the late 1990s? Most games seem to either default to space opera or to cyberpunk and to keep the tropes and tones of their work fairly vanilla. As is so common in games, the pursuit of profit is generally held to be the chief driver for adventure, giving an easy way to measure success, albeit a rather dull one.

I get the feeling that there’s not much else that can be done. In the real world, science and technology are moving too quickly to comprehend; science fiction writers are struggling to keep up with real world developments. let alone the rest of us. As a consequence novels are shifted either far into the future or back into the past. An example of this is Global Frequency, the Warren Ellis comic book series which featured futuristic phones that he’d researched with the help of the likes of Siemens and Nokia. Within five years of Global Frequency being published, the tech market had caught up, in fact by now they’ve surpassed the phones in the series by several iterations. Authors like Jaine Fenn have said they prefer to boot their work into the far future so they don’t have to deal with the upheaval of new technology, whilst others have said that they struggle to set anything after about 2050 because they assume humanity will have changed fundamentally, in the way that Eclipse Phase shows a diverse race that really doesn’t have a baseline anymore. This is something that affects all of us, at a time when most of us don’t really know how technology has transformed the likes of police work and can barely see how databases, MOOCs and the internet in general are changing other professions, most of us are trapped in the assumptions of the past. As a consequence we turn to the flesh, assuming people will endure when the machines have become dust. It’s less messy somehow to assume that your contact is human and you can see them face to face, rather than an AI half a light year away that operates remotely.

Bringing it back to gaming, I think a lot of the issues I have with these games mirror those that arise from the Fantasy for me. I suspect that there’s at least an element of ‘my loss’ and of overthinking on my part too. Races, society, technology and so on. That isn’t to say that they’re automatically the same, however. In places they’re almost identical but in others I think they’re quite different. I do think that a lot of alien races are ciphers, rendered down to one or two dimensions and cursed with monocultures, when humanity’s diversity is celebrated hugely. There’s also the ‘TV alien problem’, where extra-terrestrials come across as other nationalities with funny foreheads. Klingons started out as space communists who became space Vikings for TNG. Over in Babylon Five the Centauri were nearly painful caricatures of Europeans, albeit from the 18th Century, whilst the Minbari looked like cod Asians. Film isn’t exempt, the Empire in Star Wars was a version of the USSR as well as Lucas openly acknowledging the series’ pulp roots. The effect of this is to ground the aliens in stereotypes, that make them easy for player, readers and watchers to grasp, but also means they don’t really grow beyond that stereotype.

SF gaming, and particularly Space Opera gaming, has remained a weird thing that I've looked at and failed spectacularly to find a way into. I often don't find settings particularly inspiring, at a broad brush level, they are too perfect, and I enjoy reading about them only to find myself wondering where to slip in the pieces of plot. Aside from the fact Eve can't find a likable character race to play in Fading Suns, the only plot trigger I've ever thought of for the game has been the murder mystery in space, which is essentially Death on the Nile (in space). Whilst I had ideas for plots to spin off the initial plot, the rest of the setting seemed almost too perfect, even taking into account Symbiotes, political clashes between the various factions and the mysteries left behind by long dead races. Other SF games provoke similar feelings, I think that there are elements of the 'broad sweep' that the setting creators have to employ to get the atmosphere of their creation across being opposed by being able to zoom in and pick up on details. 

Similarly I feel that a lot of games don’t provide a clear purpose for players, relying on a sort of ‘oh um just do stuff’ premise, which is both charming and annoying. On the one hand it allows you to give the players their heads, so they can set the agenda, whilst on the other it’s bitty and makes it hard to know what to pitch. Again that lack of a baseline set of assumptions comes into play. Am I pitching a merchant marine game, or something more ambitious?

The shadow of anachronism seems to sneak over space opera too, acting as both an opportunity and as a crutch. A lot of games are obsessed with recreating the Medieval, Renaissance or Roman periods in space, falling back into that comfy quagmire of titles, fealty and divine right. I can see the appeal in some ways, you can interpret the dead of space as analogous to the wilderness, planets to points of light; even if it’s highly unlikely that human colonisation of space would resemble anything like it, even with the problems of communicating over vast distances. Sure, there’ll be some places where you get bolt holes of bandits, pirate ships, and illicit space stations, but the cost implications of running these things mean that in the end they’d either have to nest in among legitimate businesses or find a way to game the system subtly in order to keep the vacuum at bay (and if you can do that, why on earth would you turn to blaster and plasma blade piracy?) Like gangsters, crime would hide behind establishments, a moon with a casino city on its surface, just far enough out from the local populated planets to be considered ‘international waters’.

Feudalism is based on ‘some who fight, some who work, some who pray’; it's set up for a society of knights, labourers and priests. It is a system that depends on ignorance in order to prosper, so how far would we have to bump down the technological tree to make that vision of the universe work? I can buy planetary governors and the creep of military power, but that just makes an autocracy and conjures up images of El Presidente, not a medieval monarchy in space. Dictatorships are not necessarily feudal, after all. With computing and other advances in technology that is transforming our society, it suggests that a return to feudalism is unlikely and unnecessary unless you’re absolutely married to the idea. The only point at which it might be viable is if FTL or warp travel is cheap and readily available: you might get raiders dropping into real space and need some sort of rapid response force, but I’m not sure that really leans towards the institutions of feudalism as much as it does something like the Pony Express or a Gundam team.

There’s an oddness in regards to technology too, swinging from the highly complex to the brutally simple. Whilst there’s a sense that this can level the field, it also gets a bit strange; why would you carry a claymore into battle when your opponents are armed with lasers? Why charge in at all when you could sneak about in a chameleon suit? It is as if the way that technology will inevitably change the way we operate as a species is forgotten so that the satisfying thump of a melee weapon smacking against an opponent can be preserved. At the same time the extreme edges of tech are frequently dismissed unless they fall into the ‘they’re there and they get out of the way’ category. So things like robots remain either as slaves or would be conquerors, ideas like e-democracy languish in the dust, unused and unloved by the vast majority of gaming. Other areas of science are neglected completely or is considered impossible – where are the rooms of people who though suavely dressed are armed to the teeth because their weapons look like jewellery? Where are the local internets? Wouldn’t it be cool to arrive at a space station and have a load of data pinging on your holo display, to be able to sift through adverts until you find the rhino boys from Mama Go or the psychic ‘companion’ who’ll give you the experience of a life time… and that’s before you disembark? I have a sense sometimes that the hobby clings to simple things because you can only move as fast as your slowest player and that in SF terms that means a spaceship, some guns and a mystical quality like the Force. Basically Fantasy in the void…

There are always limits of course, depending on the flavour of the science fiction on offer. The Diaspora RPG openly states that the point at which AIs become functional, humans develop biomods and so on, is the point where the human race ceases to exist. Whilst I can see where the designers are coming from, is that really what we want? I can think of lots of interesting angles to explore in a world where you can swap your genes about at will or where the city has a computerised soul (for want of a better term). Transhuman games take the opposite view, allowing the human form to be malleable; memory to be moulded to the character’s design. They don’t reach the heights of Glass House or Iain M Banks’ work, there are not purple striped centaurs here, but they reject the primacy of baseline, unmodified, humanity.

Some games feature more than one type of trope of course, marrying bits of cyberpunk with transhumanism and low level space opera. Eclipse Phase, for instance, has elements of all three, and a healthy shot of horror to boot, even if travel about the solar system is slow, operating at only slightly faster rates than in real life (much faster to ‘far cast’ – beam yourself across the system to pick up a new body there). Ashen Stars includes cybernetics as a standard thing, even going so far as to have a cyborg ‘race’ that’s distinct from humans.

Again, I appreciate that this is about access; simplicity means people can get involved easily, take what they want and not have to worry about hard stuff. The fact that our concepts of science and technology have changed so much since the late 1970s when Traveller was first published is arguably no argument for people stopping enjoying the types of SF they do and there's a huge appeal to a lot of people in the basics, even if they don't work for me. What I'd like to see is the development of more daring settings though. 

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