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Hands On: Redshirt

As You Like It

Redshirt is the upcoming sci-fi, social network satire, in which the only way to avoid a bitter end is to earn promotion, either through talent or tact. Following an enlightening conversation with designer Mitu Khandaker, I was keen to try the game. And now I have. I've spent a few days attempting to survive in the world of friend requests, status 'likes' and careful time management. I've made friends, I've romanced lovers and I've met my maker. Several times.

After a few days, desperation consumed me. It begins with the promise of adventure, a dream harboured since childhood – epic occurrences of galactic scale require the attention of a Federation of cultures and you, YES YOU, are preparing to start a new job on board a super-advanced space station. Thrilling adventures surely await? Well, yes, sort of. Mostly you’ll be glued to your Spacebook account, attempting to win friends and promotions, so as to AVOID thrilling adventures. For a redshirt, the lowest of the low, fodder for flesh-eating beast, thrilling adventures are almost certain to end in the gut of a monster, or swirling between the stars, a handful of space-dust.

Socialise to survive. The game’s interface is the Spacebook interface – as with Uplink, the player and character have the same fundamental means of interacting with their world. At first, I was overwhelmed. Turns out I can deal with managing a nation’s destiny or the fate of multiple world, but I buckle as soon as I’m required to juggle my workload and social time while handling conflicting relationships. If I go to the bar with my good chum Merlin Esperon, Shrilenth Th’Dila, on whom I have romantic designs, may be miffed that I didn’t spend the evening in a Jane Austen simulation with her.

On that note, let us hope that future-people do not base their hologram interpretation of Mr Darcy on this unfortunate creation. Adventures in Austen would be more frightening than the astonishing success of Pride and Prejudice With Zombies.

I used the phrase ‘romantic designs’ in regards to Shrilenth. It’s always sounded a bit creepy to me. ‘Designs’ suggests some sort of plot, bringing forth images of a man in a basement, long-lens photographs tacked to the wall, connected by string to menus from optimal date venues, like a police investigation into a murder in reverse. It’s the right word to describe interactions in Redshirt though. It’s a game full of pleasant, light-hearted and amusing text, from ship names to status updates, but the core of the experience is a finely poised and unexpectedly intense resource management experience.

The resources are time and money. Credits are earned by working and are used to buy various items that enhance interests/skills/happiness. The also pay for food. That’s right – you’re stuck in space, tasked with cleaning up the remnants of crewmates whenever there’s a transporter accident, and the powers that be expect you to buy your own meals. On the lowest wage, that grisly starting job, there’s barely enough in the pay packet to purchase a healthy diet, let alone life’s luxuries. Money is tight and time, it transpires, is similarly rationed.

Activities are severely restricted due to a law that only allows a certain number of social network interactions per day. The law was passed to prevent procrastination. Good call, Confederate Starlords, but procrastination is a minnow compared to the thrashing great tuna that is anonymous unpleasantries – fry that sucker first. As a game mechanic, the restriction divides each day into discrete actions. Larger social activities consume several action points, while liking somebody’s status or sending a friend request will only cost one.

Time constraints create pressure. It’s hard to enjoy even the finest Geldar gateau when the chronometer is ticking like a Doomsday Clock. “I’ve got to get to my next appointment”, I found myself thinking more often than not. “I have designs on my own survival. A romantic attachment to my own continued existence.” The panic begins when a friend in a higher place snubs an invite to the burger bar – the social structure of the station is a complex web of friendships, flings and interest groups, but it’s possible to simplify the whole mess into a ladder. Suck up to the right people and promotions will follow, allowing even the most cack-handed of gut-moppers to rise through the ranks and avoid a potentially fatal reassignment.

Redshirt’s take on science fiction clichés is amusing, telling short stories in the form of status updates and messages, but the activity of playing the game is rather intense, even though it’s a turn-based life management sim. As if accidentally snubbing friends and causing heartbreak wasn’t enough, a short while into your misadventure, a disturbing message arrives. A calamity is coming. The station is doomed. People will die.

The pressure rises. Schmooze or lose (your life). A countdown clock appears on the display and cryptic messages occasionally interrupt day-to-day activities, threatening calamity and a grim end. Redshirt increasingly comes across as a cunning and cruel metaphor, about manipulation and the management of people as well as time. I found myself browsing my friend list, checking on mutual acquaintances and strangers, working out optimal groups for each activity that I enjoyed. It’s cold, like a Sim who talks to a life partner to top up a ‘social’ bar after work, but goes to bed as soon as the need is fulfilled. Social interaction as masturbation. An itch to scratch.

There’s an interesting dilemma beating beneath Redshirt’s shirt, at the heart of the matter. The tactical management aspect, which has short- and long-term effects on the survival of the player character, is complex and involving. This does mean that the inhabitants of the ship can start to feel like tools for us rather than distinct personalities, even though the different races and their quirks are well-presented.

Redshirt does play like Kudos, Positech’s modern day life management game, although the developer is new and only the publisher is shared. Its great advantage is that the science fiction theme and threat of impending doom add an urgency to proceedings. The setting justifies, at least to an extent, the intellectual, devious approach to relationship and time management. It’s a game to be approached tactically rather than as a player of roles, although that’s not to say I didn’t become attached to heroic Terrence Chin.

I spent the first half hour meandering around the interface but it makes sense to me now. I do wish there were browser-like back and forward buttons, making exploring friends of friends less of a dead-end, but otherwise interaction is impressively slick. And I fell in love with a gelatinous cube. In fact, I might head back to the ship now and try to smooth things over.

Redshirt will be available very soon.

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About the Author

Adam Smith

Former Deputy Editor

Adam wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun between 2011-2018, rising through the ranks to become its Deputy Editor. He now works at Larian Studios on Baldur's Gate 3.