Wot I Think: Redshirt

By Graham Smith on November 28th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

This is going to end badly for almost everyone.

Redshirt‘s Spacebook sounds like the perfect idea: it’s a life sim which uses a social network as a metaphor through which to convey each character’s personal data and stats. The jokes write themselves. Add a Star Trek-like space station as the setting and you can almost see each element of the game’s design spooling out in front of you.

It’s a shame that the concept is the only thing I like.

My first minutes with Redshirt were spent checking my relationship via the Spacebook friends list and looking through a feed of status updates that filled me in on life aboard the station. The metaphor works.

You’re then presented with a limited number of actions you can perform each day. When someone I didn’t know wrote a compliment on my wall, I had to decide: do I use an action point to Like it and foster that relationship, or do I create a Spacebook event for dinner with my boss and help myself on the road towards career success?

Within an hour I knew that neither option mattered as much as I wanted it to. I love life simulations because they allow you to craft broad, dramatic sweeps of a character’s life in quick bursts. In the excellent albeit creepy Princess Maker 2, that means shaping your daughter into a fearless adventurer, a powerful fighter, or a good cleaner and cook.

Redshirt never feels so responsive. Partly that’s deliberate. In interviews and previews, the game has been described by its developer as a “disempowerment fantasy”. The highest role you can hold within the ship isn’t captain but captain’s assistant. The jobs you’ll grind your way through are marked by menial labour, such as “Hazardous Alien Waste Management Supervisor” or “Alert Systems Lightbulb Coordination Supervisor”.

The lightbulb job is maybe a reference to one of my favourite Red Dwarf jokes. Yep.

It’s meant as a satire on the shallow relationships and sense of progress provided by social networks, but its commentary doesn’t reveal itself to you through play. You’ve already gleaned everything you’re going to get from it by reading a description of it.

Disempowerment would be fine as a theme and as a source of humour, but when it also limits the impact of my actions, the lack of meaningful consequences left me questioning why I was there. The game’s plot-driven motivation – that something terrible is going to happen in 159 days and that the only way to survive is to climb social or career ladders – does little to redeem the emptiness of your actions.

The act of progressing through those ladders happens via a grind of Likes and space station-themed events, such as “Play a Game of Zero-G Tennis” or “Design a Virtuo-Augmento-Deck Program”. Your stats tick up bit by bit, you change social circles as you neglect old co-workers or lovers, but your basic activities remain the same. Nothing particularly interesting happens in response to your decisions. You’re never forced to change your strategy, or even really have one.

When my first romance went south, it was because I had already been neglecting my partner for a while and when she saw me flirt with someone else, she dumped me. My partner had also been flirting with other people, but there was no meaningful way for me confront her about that. Later, after repeatedly sending me angry messages, she unfriended me completely. It didn’t matter, because the relationship had never existed in any meaningful sense in the first place.

There's no in-game drunkeness, so do it in real life and send friend requests to in-game strangers.

Other systems are piled on top, each one of equally questionable value. There’s a shop, in which you spend KarmaCreds on items which give you temporary boosts to certain stats or your character’s mood. You also have to eat occasionally to keep your health up. Neither seemed to matter.

Of course, that’s the joke – social networks are echo-chambers, Likes are currency, and online relationships can be fickle. I get it. But the game is trapped between satirising its shallow subject matter and needing to meet you halfway in the creation of its fantasy.

In practice a lifelike Facebook requires a far more adept AI than any game can provide. Redshirt’s cast of characters constantly post updates about their day, but you’ll start to see repeated messages within twenty minutes of playing.

That wouldn’t be so bad – I wasn’t expecting lifelike perfection – but many of the messages are awful puns. “You’re the hottest supergiant star in my galaxy.” “Hey baby, how about you and me? And some Earl Grey? Hot”. These are jokes that made me cringe or at best gently smile on the first read. By the time I had seen some of them half a dozen times in a single hour, I wanted to unfriend everyone on Spacebook, delete my account, and join Spacegoogle+ so I could be alone.

Worse still is that characters contradict themselves, sending you a hurt or angry private message before following it up on the same day with a friendly message about how much they’d like to see you. I had one boyfriend who sent me daily messages about wanting to see more of me while failing to turn up half the events I invited him to. Maybe that’s part of the joke too, but I don’t think so.

More games should allow you to send passive aggressive messages.

Redshirt is a fine idea, but it delivers disempowerment in the wrong ways by mixing its commentary with its mechanics. The lack of power means the most dramatic events in the game happen outside of your control. That includes randomly triggered away missions, in which you’re only ever able to make a single decision over which of your fellow crew members will die. In most games of this sort, away missions would be an event you’d trigger, a way of testing your mettle and being forced to live with the consequences. Redshirt makes it just another item on a todo list.

That lack of meaningful choice or consequence, coupled with a fantasy which is constantly being undercut by its limited execution, makes Redshirt a disappointment. I liked the idea. I wanted to like the game. Instead I’ll treat it as I do most of my annoying friends on Facebook, and press Ignore.

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44 Comments »

  1. wodin says:

    Seems recently we are getting shitty game after shitty game released…a shame. I really route for Indy Developers and want them all to succeed and make great games..sad when the game doesn’t end up being good. I expect even the developers aren’t happy with it either. I just hope those developers who have released something not upto par learn from what went wrong and carry on and make something right the next time.

    I think at times Indy developers ideas out weigh their ability to do it well. Though even the bigger names appear to be having a bad year.

    The only game recently I’ve really enjoyed, infact it’s prob going down on my fav games of all time list, is Flashpoint Campaigns Red Storm. Apart from that it;s been mediocre to damn right awful.

    • Grygus says:

      If it were easy to create something good, the good things wouldn’t have value.

    • bigjig says:

      I think it’s been a really shitty year for PC games in general this year. With Rome 2 and COH 2 being let downs, the only things I’ve actually enjoyed on PC have been expansion packs like Brave New World and Enemy Within (massive props go out to Firaxis I guess). I hear Gunpoint is pretty good so I might check that out.

      Shame this ended up being crap. Ah well, back to Persona 4 Golden for my social relationship gameplay I guess :P

      • socrate says:

        so basically what you consider good game = game which have no AI and can be beaten with the same crappy tactic over and over again with enemy that are telepathic or that spawn out of nowhere…got it

        • mouton says:

          Yes, I liked UFO Enemy Unknown quite a lot back in 1994.

          • socrate says:

            the original x-com was actually a good one and i meant telepathic in term of they know what you have and what you are building or where you are in the case of x-com by firaxis who i think is an horrible game.

          • mouton says:

            It had no AI and could have been beaten with the same crappy tactic over and over again.

            Just saying.

          • WrenBoy says:

            @socrate

            While I love games which have a good AI and agree that the AI in XCOM EU is not very good, I think it is really rare to see good AI and also think that a well designed game can be good even with middling AI.

            I think XCOM EU is an imperfect but very good game with middling AI. It would obviously have been a better game had the AI been better of course.

      • Poklamez says:

        Are you kidding? For me this has been one of the best PC gaming year in a while.
        (While not all these games are PC exclusive, the PC version is the better version for all of them)
        - Antichamber
        - The Stanley Parable
        - Kerbal Space Program
        - Prison Architect (technically released in 2012, but the game has really expanded over the last year)
        - Spelunky HD
        - Nuclear Throne
        - Surgeon Simulator
        - Monaco
        - Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs
        - Skullgirls
        - PayDay 2
        - CIV5: Brave New World
        - Starseed Pilgrim
        - Sang-Froid -Tales of Werewolves
        - Path of Exile

        This is just after skimming through the Steam store for 5 minutes, only picking games I’ve played myself.
        I’m sure there have been a lot more great games released this year.

        • WrenBoy says:

          Ignoring the non 2013 games and the expansion which was even given as an example a lot of those games are mediocre to good with just a couple of really solid games, hardly a bumper year.

          Try doing the same for 2012. That was the best year in a long time in my opinion.

          • Poklamez says:

            All the games from 2012 on that list are either work in progress (with the most work done in 2013) or officially released for PC this year.
            What I’m really puzzled about is how you say those games are mediocre to good, while still maintaining it’s a shitty year for PC gaming. The scope of those games maybe isn’t comparable to big AAA titles, but they are certainly solid games worth your time and money.
            I agree that 2012 was probably a better year overall, and I guess not all of the games I listed are for everyone, but there have been enough fun games released this year to upgrade from shitty to pretty ok in my opinion.
            Like I said, this was just a quick pick from a few of the games I enjoyed this year, I’m sure there are more out there.
            (I’m honestly pumped for next year, 2014 is going to be a great year for PC gaming :D)

          • WrenBoy says:

            What I meant was that if the best games you can think of include a lot of mediocre to good games that doesn’t say much about the rest.

            I dont mean every 2013 game was shitty. Rogue Legacy, Papers Please, Gunpoint and Paper Sorcerer are other decent games I’ve played this year not in your list and I’m sure I’m also forgetting others but while they are all good they were more pleasant surprises than games I was really looking forward to and which lived up to the hype.

            I was looking forward to X Rebirth recently for example. Fuck 2013.

          • socrate says:

            some in this are in beta and not even officially released yet btw

          • Poklamez says:

            @Socrate: Yeah, they aren’t released yet. That doesn’t mean they weren’t a lot of fun to play this year.
            @Wrenboy: Fair enough, still not enough of a reason to call it a shitty year, but aside from Scrolls there hasn’t been a lot that I was really hyped for (and delivered).
            All of the games I really wanted to play this year got pushed to 2014 ;_;

          • mouton says:

            @Poklamez

            Some of them are good and you did miss some gems – like Papers: Please – but I must agree this year was not spectacular. Not bad, just not as good.

            Anyway, it does not matter. PC gaming is not confined to seasons. Our backlogs stretch over decades.

          • Poklamez says:

            I’ll probably pick up Papers Please in today’s steam sale :D

          • Bitter says:

            I dunno, this year I’ve rather enjoyed a number of games. Not listed yet:

            - Bioshock Infinite
            - Assassin’s Creed 4
            - Europa Universalis 4
            - Gone Home
            - Saint’s Row 4

            There are other games I enjoyed this year too, but those left the strongest impressions on me and would be the easiest to recommend (I also confess I liked the Final Fantasy XIV reboot, though it needs more work to inspire real evangelism). I don’t remember 2012 having a much more impressive list. Definitely great games last year, mind (Crusader Kings 2, Dishonored, Borderlands 2, etc.), but this wasn’t that dry a year by comparison. Not for PC games in general, anyway. For specific genres your mileage may vary.

            But yeah, damned shame about X: Rebirth. Hope it will be stronger after some patches and mods, but but I was still hoping to be more engaged by it at release.

        • wodin says:

          I admit to not playing these games..but none of them appeal to me.

          There have been some decent games but recently seems to be alot of rubbish..maybe it’s Greenlight? Maybe games are being passed that really aren’t upto scratch.

          • Kitsunin says:

            The problem I see with Greenlight is that people want to release their game on Steam when it releases and not afterward. It means that people who probably don’t even have any idea if the game is good, having only heard the concept behind it, deciding whether it makes it onto Steam. Rather than people actually playing the game and deciding it’s sufficiently not broken.

            In my opinion, Greenlight as a system would make sense for whether a game can get into a “most popular games” list after release, not whether the game can make it onto Steam before release, before anyone even know if it isn’t completely broken and/or horrible.

          • The Random One says:

            I will never understand people like you, who want Steam to do their filtering for them. I buy games on GamersGate. It’s full of crap. I just try not to buy any of it.

      • Vexing Vision says:

        Well, Dominions 4 is out, so that’s definitely one majorly redeeming feature for PC gaming.

      • SephiRok says:

        Judging from the games you name you might be interested in this ground 4X: http://pandora.proxy-studios.com/

    • mouton says:

      Indie games were always tricky, it’s just that they were low profile. Obviously most will fail.

      For predictable outcome, we have AAA.

    • Tom De Roeck says:

      Saints Row 4 is the reason 2013 is awesome.

  2. LionsPhil says:

    I was going to make an “Ah. A Red Dwarf reference. Ok.” comment, and then I read the image tooltip for the screenshot below it.

    Is there a “Cake Ficticiousness Evaluator” position as well?

  3. strangeloup says:

    With all the best will in the world toward the developers, I was really having a hard time seeing how this was going to be fun. And I guess it turns out it isn’t.

  4. fabulousfurrygingerfreakbrothers says:

    Papers, Please! has been my favourite disempowerment game this year. It gave me a sort of micro-empowerment letting through estranged wives and potential fighters for my freedom, but then there was always the macro-punch as I’d return to my apartment to find my uncle dead and my family punished by the State for my humanity (Papers’ real triumph). Which do you want, family: food, heating or medicine?

  5. sinister agent says:

    I’m stuck with limited internet so haven’t kept up with any games for a while, but this one kept getting namedropped by people I spy on from a network of carefully placed trees. This post is the first I’ve read about it in any detail.

    Imagine my disappointment to learn that it’s pretty much Kudos IN SPAAAACE.

  6. Silverchain says:

    It is Kudos in space, yeah. And I like it; my gripe is the bugs, not the gameplay.

  7. Stellar Duck says:

    “In most games of this sort, away missions would be an event you’d trigger, a way of testing your mettle and being forced to live with the consequences.”

    This rings a bit false to me. If the premise is that you’re a red shirt in the classic Star Trek sense you don’t get to decide when to go on an away mission. Kirk decides that for you. That’s rather the point of the terrible fate of being a red shirt. You die whenever Kirk needs you to.

    • Graham Smith says:

      That’s true for Star Trek, but it doesn’t mean that it’s fun, and that’s not how “most games like these” work. There’s normally either a core challenge you choose to attempt (‘I feel I’m ready! Oh wait, I wasn’t'), or they come at predictable, explicitly stated intervals (i.e. Football Manager).

      Having it be random (or at least having the periods of time in between be obscured) means that they feel arbitrary, random, unsatisfying. Is that fitting, given the Redshirt/Star Trek theme? Yes. But that’s what I’m arguing; that the disempowerment of the theme impacts the mechanics in a way that’s unenjoyable to play.

  8. bit_crusherrr says:

    I tried this and it is fucking terrible. The whole thing feels like a shitty 99p Android/iOS only it doesn’t have microtransactions. Instead it has the gall to charge you £15 for the whole package. The art is bloody awful too it’s like an amateur flash game.

  9. LogicalDash says:

    Redshirt gives you an objective, yeah, but it isn’t really the point. Getting off the station is actually easy–you just need cash, and even then, you can find characters who will scalp you shuttle tickets for cheap before you get to day 100. Thereafter you can abandon ship when you like, and the game will congratulate you on leaving everyone behind. Yay?

    Like Kudos before it, most of the fun to be had comes from the bits that you don’t have to do. I notice the review didn’t mention the game’s aspirations system. It grants you some bonuses for specific accomplishments, friend this person, get this job–and at that point the game’s simulationist strengths come into focus, because of all the complications to the common “kindness coins” model of NPC friendship and romance. Liking statuses and leaving comments will only grow your friendship very slowly. Taking them to events they like will help too, but if your interests don’t match, or they’re racist against your gelatinous form or something, you also have to work to buff up your level in that interest, and hang out with the species they approve of.

    If you never play games twice, or you are philosophically opposed to Achievements, don’t play Redshirt. The game is basically about those. I guess my taste for illusory accomplishment just happens to run this way.

  10. fartshitguy says:

    The worst thing I can say about Redshirt isn’t that it’s hideous and unintuitive, agonizingly dull and full of ideas that don’t go anywhere, but that it’s totally charmless. Sure, it’s chock-full of references to and jokes about sci-fi tropes but it all comes across like some goon was looming over the developer with an improvised flail screaming at them to “write funny things about Star Trek.” I imagine the poor developer slapping their digits across the keyboard in terror: “um, uh, the bald man Earl Grey uh red shirts UH GREEN ALIEN WOMEN facebooooook!!” I’m totally the target demographic for this game’s brand of whimsy but it’s just uninspired and ¼-hearted at best, disingenuous at worst.

  11. lowprices says:

    Hmm. I’ve bought this and have been enjoying it, so far. That said, I’ve only played it for about two hours, so I can’t say whether it holds up in the long term. It has left me with an anecdote about my girlfriend leaving me for a gay (male) alien though. So that’s fun.

  12. qrter says:

    There’s some suspision under Metacritic users that Cliff Harris has been posting some very positive user reviews on Metacritic to his company’s games (under a fake name):

    http://www.metacritic.com/user/patrick_hamblet

    From what I’ve read there was a similar review for Redshirt, but it has been deleted.

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