The battle for galactic domination has been reduced to just a handful of titanic empires. Victory, however, hangs in the balance. Will exhaustion finally exact its toll on the generals of this epic war? If you're enjoying these reports then EXCITINGLY SLOW SPACE WAR AWAITS YOU in Neptune's Pride. You can also read a version of this diary over on PC Gamer.
Quinns didn't. His response told me that I "wasn't in any position to set terms," but that if I helped him destroy Kieron, I could have second place. I begrudgingly accepted, allowing Quinns to move his fleets unchallenged into my territory. He positioned them just beyond Kieron's scan range, and waited.
I hated this. I was being told to accept my lot or die, and by the player I'd most wanted to destroy the entire game. For weeks I had been playing to win, but now I was being told to accept 2nd place. I couldn't tell what was worse. That Quinns was in a perfect position to betray me, by moving his fleets into my space and then turning them against me. Or that if we worked together to destroy Kieron, I'd be forced to settle for second.
After a day or so of preparation, Quinns set a time for the attack in an in-game mail: 6:40pm. He signed off with, "This is going to be fun." Not for me, it wasn't.
Jim and I were still too far away from one another to fight, so I turned to him to discuss what was happening. I couldn't decide what to do, and Jim wasn't sure what to suggest. "I don't think you or I are going to win this now," he said. "Me neither." But still, I couldn't decide. Do I trust Quinns and fight for second place, or do what I always do: go for glory and betray yet another ally? I didn't expect to win, but isn't that the aim of the game? If you're not playing to win, you're not playing at all, right? I... just...
I opened up another chat window and told Kieron everything. The ships beyond his scan range, the planned attack, the time. Everything. I instantly regretted it. And then, well, I didn't. I couldn't tell if it was a good idea or not, but what the hell. There was an hour to go before Quinns assault, and Kieron and I chatted amiably about our next move. I provided a screenshot as evidence of the impending attack and it was agreed. Kieron and I would work together to take Quinns down - only this time, for realsies.
At 6:40pm, exactly as planned, Quinns' ships began to move towards Kieron's territory. What he didn't know was that Kieron's own fleets were already moving positions, bracing themselves for impact. For my part, the second Quinns left my stars, I moved to reclaim them and to close off the backdoor Quintin had come through. I didin't know how long it would be before Quinns saw my betrayal, but I knew he wouldn't be happy when he did.
This feels like the end of a World War. Everyone is exhausted. It's gone on forever. There is no end in sight. In fact, I can see a way that this will go on indefinitely. The three of us, with the two lesser of us teaming to fight the stronger, bringing them down until the temptation for the stab grows too great again. You have to get 93 planets to win. The ability to rush from that 70 to the 93 has proved beyond all our abilities right now. The only way for this game to end is that we find a way to make an alliance work.
I make all this reasoning very clear to Graham. I decide that, after all this back-stabbing, absolute and total honesty is the only way for this to fly. I say that I don't care who wins any more. We just need to march off and finish this and resist the urge to plunge that dagger backwards. And I try and put some weight behind those words, thinking that actions is the absolute point. Following from the moral murk of last time, I figured that it was worth trying to climb into the light. It has to be more than words.
So I give him about 8 planets along our border, the worlds we were contesting. The action brings my empire down to a comparable size to his. The time for bullying macho nonsense was over as far as I was concerned. This isn't just words. I'm willing to hurt my empire to make this work. I also make it clear that I don't care who wins, really. At that exact moment, I don't - I suspect with basic expansion I'll hit 93 before Graham will, but this is kind of beyond gaining a simple victory.
I was aware relying on someone's better nature was going to be risky - but I was also aware that by putting faith in someone else in such a real way, it puts a different sort of pressure on them.
And I'm thinking of continuity plans too. Mainly, what to do if Graham was lying about switching sides and I woke up to find Quinns and him marching into my empire. Well, I'd have turned to my aforementioned Doomsday plan.
I'd have just retreated. My entire armies would have marched south, away from the encroaching fleets, gathering at the border between Jim and I.... and then I'd have taken Jim's empire in one enormous attack.
As I said, the problem with Jim wasn't military might. I had twice as many ships as him, after all. The problem was bringing the military might to bear. By abandoning my empire to the piranha I would have taken his, and sat out the rest of the game in the south east corner of the map, coming the safe-third.
It wasn't going to be like that, which annoyed me slightly. Our attacks push west into Quinns and only secondarily south into Jim. I'd rather hurt Jim more than Quinns, as Quinns deserves third in a way Jim doesn't. And the way our attacks are going, there's a chance that Quinns will end up coming fourth, or even being wiped out, especially if he decides to just fold...
Quinns Alright! Hoo-ah! Rock and roll! By now, Graham and my fleets will have won their first victories against crowd favourite Kieron. Time to log on and co-ordinate the second strikes of the inva... of the... oh.
My heart begins rotating and boiling like food in a microwave as I'm faced with a very familiar sight. Kieron and Graham jointly invading my territory with the irresistible force of a steam roller, just like they did a week ago.
The difference between now and then is that back then I had the will to fight them. I fawned, laughed, patted Kieron on the back. Turned my invaders against one another. Turned the war around. Ignored the thousand ships I'd lost, and gave up a thousand more in a counteroffensive against Graham. Bent him double until he was just about to snap, then stopped. Saw a light. Gave Graham a way out.
Understand how crushing it is to spend weeks building an empire only to see it taken from you in 36 hours, and then the consequence of your not giving up, of fighting onwards for another week is to suffer that same unstoppable force one more time. Worse than any of this was that Graham and Kieron were teaming up to destroy me again despite the fact that last time they tried Kieron fucked Graham over so hard that it was only me that kept him alive. How did they envision this alliance of theirs was going to end? No, wait, I take that back. Worse even than this was that it was all my fault. I should have seen this coming. I was going through this hurt again because of me.
I appreciate that the defining characteristic of Neptune's Pride is that everyone becomes an unforgivably merciless two-faced cunt, but I was a spent cunt. So I threw in the towel. Unwilling to give my aggressors the dignity of a decent fight, I stopped moving my ships and began giving every scrap of cash, every secure fleet, every valuable system and every technology to Jim. Maybe he had some cunt left in him, so to speak.
Jim: I was beaten a long time ago, but I had kept going. Quinns' bizarre decision to gift me a huge swathe of his empire would only ensure that I wouldn't be completely wiped out by the end of the game. Like everyone else in this I am exhausted. I really had reached the point of logging into Neptune's Pride as soon as I woke up, and then every couple of hours thereafter, just to monitor this closing week of game time. I'd fought incredibly hard to hold Kieron off, but the game demanded growth, and I couldn't supply it. Increasing development costs of my worlds and an already weak economy meant there had not really been a chance for me to push for more power since the mid game. My mistake was not pushing hard enough to take more of Sponge's territory as soon as that war came to an end. I'd started out slowly, and everything now dominoed in the wake of that poor start. As Quinn's worlds dwindled, and Kieron's fleets rushed to hammer my home systems, I knew there wasn't much more in this game. It was between Kieron and Graham. I logged off for the final time and waited for the email that would tell me it was all over.
I've been obsessed with Neptune's Pride for weeks now: babbling about it to my girlfriend; speed-talking about it in the office; writing about it wherever possible; logging in every few hours to stare at the board and rub my temples.
"Attack! Attack!" is the most common advice I hear when showing people the game. People from PC Gamer and other magazines come over and ask how it's going, see the position of me and Kieron, and berate me. I explain that I'm attacking Quintin, and that Kieron and I are making a proper go at an alliance this time. I feel a sense of pride over Kieron's and my agreement; it's nice to trust someone, to work together as a team, after so much betrayal.
But at the same time, the game is getting a little... boring. Quinns has given up, refused to fight back, and given a large group of his planets to Jim. Jim, for his part, is by now acting mostly as a spectator. I've invested so much time and energy - so much of myself - into this game, and the ending is proving to be an anti-climax.
On the final day, as I walk to the PC Gamer Podcast, Tom says something that sticks with me. "You can't be friends with the last player in the game." That sort of rings true. The aim of the game is constantly in the lower right corner of Neptune's Pride: 93 stars, and here's the guy that's closest. I've been thinking these last few days that I'd be glad to place second to Kieron, but now I'm beginning to change my mind. In a simple game about reaching 93 stars, the only thing there is to do is to strategise, and act, to attain that goal.
At this point our opponents are all but defeated, Kieron is rapidly approaching that 93 stars, and I'm not doing anything to stop him. I may as well not even log in anymore, but I still am. I still want to play this game. Kieron has said he'd be happy with second place, but that doesn't really sink in with me. He's going to win, after all.
Am I really happy with second place? It bugs me that Quinns abandoned the game, and now it feels like I'm abandoning it, too, by willingly losing. By not taking the only action left available to me.
During that same PC Gamer Podcast, as I explain my numerous backstabs and betrayals, Craig jokingly says something I should have paid more attention to: "How do you sleep at night?".
I've been sort of expecting this. While I was going to win if everything continued as it was going, it was also clearer I was vulnerable. Graham had concentrated forces. Mine are spread all across the universe. My borders with his are virtually undefended - which was both a deliberate choice to show that I totally trusted him and so I could actually maximise the fleets expanding outwards. In other words, it would be very easy for him to just take the planets from me rather than the others. I'd still come second, but he'd ensure he came first.
An important part of local colour: It wasn't just a normal sort of drinks. I was actually at the Phonogram Wake. My indie comic series of the last five years was coming to the end - and coming to an end messily due to boring old money. Graham had stabbed me during that. I was surprisingly fatalistic, and in a mood odd enough to do something rather strange. I mean, despite everything it's just about possible I could have fought and extended the game by another couple of days.
Or I could do something else.
I drum my fingers, and decide to do it. I make my final gambit.