Friday, May 31, 2013

Crew of the Starship

So, I've been thinking a little about space ship games. Generative roguelikeish space ship games like FTL or any of the bajillion space cargo games, for example.

The gap between these and TV shows is pretty big. Compare the Star Trek TV show with the games that are supposed to be "Star Trek like". They're basically combat simulators.

But the combat was never really the focus in Star Trek. Every combat played a role in the overall plot of the episode, but it was just a small cog among politics, characterization, mystery, relationships, science...

Every game just simulates combat. Characterization and politics and mystery, if there are any, are relegated to scripted sequences.

Is there any way to create a game where these matter? Where they are the play and evolve as you dictate?


The beating heart of the game is the crew (main characters). Even if your ship has 3000 crew, only ~6 of those are going to start off as named characters with screen time. Just assign each of them a personality/alignment. We'll pretend we have the rights to a real Star Trek series - say, Star Trek TNG - and use them as an example.

Data is logical, post-beard Riker is confident and relaxed, Picard is an honest negotiator, Worf is the honorable warrior, etc. Sure, this isn't universally true and it varies depending on episode and season, but let's go ahead and assume those are how the characters are defined in our engine.

Now, just having a personality isn't really enough. They have to make those personalities matter, which means encountering things they can judge. Here is the first little trick: deciding who has what roles is important not necessarily because of skills, but of because how that person will react to the things they will encounter. The other half of this is that the first person who encounters and judges something will frame it for the rest of the crew.

In an ordinary game, you'd just send Data everywhere on his own, because he speaks every language, hacks every computer, is pretty much immune to damage, and could probably take on an entire wall of armed Klingons. But in our game, Data's personality is a serious limitation.

For example, if he beams over to a damaged ship and finds that there is only one survivor and it's a suspicious new alien, his reaction would be to consider it logically. The alien probably trashed the ship and killed everyone. The logical thing to do is to play it very safe, not go anywhere near the alien, maybe see if you can stun it or talk in semaphore or something.

On the other hand, if you send Riker over, he'll see the alien and be all "Data, cover me, I'll go and see if I can talk to it" and actually get stuff done.

If you send Worf over, he'd say "It doesn't seem hostile..." (IE 'doesn't set off my warrior-sense') and then Data would be convinced and go over to talk.

This really begins to shine when the situation grows more complex and more things are being thrown at the crew.

For example, let's say the crew goes down to talk to an isolated culture that's interested in negotiating with the Federation. There's a secret here - there's always some sci-fi conceit in every episode, and in this one it's that they're all clones and are suffering "genetic fatigue". There are a lot of pieces in motion - some locals want to steal genetic information from the crew, others want to hide the situation, others want to explore options to cure the fatigue, others are worried about the destabilization that new people bring to their dozen-people-over-and-over society... and, of course, there's also the question of whether they are at war, have unusual technologies they want to use or trade with, and so on.

So Picard is doing most of the talking to the officials, Riker is chatting with the locals unofficially, Worf is getting hit on, and they are all reacting and acting according to their personalities. If they were in a different roles, they would be encountering the same things but have different reactions. Worf chatting with the locals and Riker getting hit on have a completely different feel and resulting vector.

For example, Riker chatting with the locals means he discovers the complex social norms that threaten to be destroyed by their intervention, which would plunge the world into chaos. Worf chatting with the locals means he awkwardly ends up talking to the resistance movement and discovers the plans to destroy the capital while the captain is in negotiation with all the world leaders. In both cases, these threats exist whether or not they are discovered. Although, for fairness' sake, there's no threat of actually losing crew to a blast you didn't know would happen.

Now let's say you throw a doctor into the mix. The doctor's skills discover that they are all clones. How does she react to this info?

Beverly was a pretty typical Star Trek doctor, representing "standard human impulse". I would maybe classify her personality as "conservative and discreet". So she would react in a specific way: she would whisper to the captain about it, and then her judgment would filter the captain's opinion. Her judgment is probably "this seems like a bad way to build a society".

But let's say that Data played that role instead. His reaction would be logical: "this seems like a reliable way to build a lasting society" - all the same parts working in the same way. Like a machine. Seems good!

So depending on who brings Picard the news, he'll either get the impression that the society is wonky and fragile, or that the society is smooth and functioning well. This, in turn, will change his opinion on what the negotiations need to accomplish.

If Picard thinks the society is about to collapse, he'll negotiate aggressively to bring in social assistance, even at the price of damaging the local culture. On the other hand, if he thinks the society is solid and not in any trouble, he's going to take a more relaxed stance and generally try to work out simple foothold treaties like nonaggression pacts and a cultural exchange.

So, basically, we've broken everything that happens into two groups. Things you can judge, and things you can influence. Every plot arc is a scientific conceit wrapped up in a scenario. You affect it using the things you can influence, and how you influence those things depends on the judgments your crew makes and tells you about.

Discovering that the aliens are clones is something you judge, not something you influence. So you just tell the captain your judgment.

Negotiating with the politicians isn't something you judge, but instead is something you influence. It has a bunch of different vectors depending on your personality. On his own, Picard's "honest negotiator" personality will result in a simple, slow unfolding of the relationship between that planet and the Federation. However, news that the society is very interesting and stable might change his personality to "friendly negotiator", while news that it's unstable and weird might change his personality to "aggressive negotiator" or "nanny".

Then the player's duties are changed from shooting at people and optimizing skills. Their new duties are to send out feelers and collect judgments. Then they decide how to propagate those judgments.

For example, Beverly discovers that the locals are clones and passes a skeptical judgment. You, as the player, get to decide. Does she tell the captain? Does she tell Riker? Maybe she even just tells Worf. Maybe she dithers around for a while without telling anyone. Each of these has different results, because it changes (or doesn't change) the personalities of the other crew members and exactly what they are trying to do in their situation.

Maybe you tell Riker, who is currently talking to some cultural leaders. This changes his personality from "relaxed and confident" to "dismissive and confident", and he goes from talking to them in a reassuring manner to telling them that their culture cannot survive, and they need to start laying the foundation for a new culture this second.

Later on, Riker's cultural leaders and Picard's politicians are going to play a big role in resolving the situation. If Riker was reassuring to the cultural leaders while Picard pushed to get cultural advisers assigned, the two factions are going to be at loggerheads and perhaps unify against the Federation. On the other hand, if Riker convinced the cultural leaders to pioneer a new culture and Picard simply opened basic negotiations, the two factions aren't going to be at loggerheads. One is vaguely pro-Federation, the other is very pro-Federation.

So... yeah. That's the kind of structure I've been thinking about.

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