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Subspace Communication: Redshirt Interview

Set Phasers To Pun

Redshirt is a game about being the person who is doomed from the very moment they put their uniform on. Taking place on a space station with a crew who spend a great deal of their lives on the social network, Spacebook, it asks the player to navigate a possible quagmire of relationships and workload while trying to earn the promotions that might keep them alive. Earlier this week, I spoke to the game's lone developer, Mitu Khandaker, and discussed dynamic personality generation, incorporating social issues into games and ranting at GDC.

Then I threatened to burn games to the ground.

RPS: Can you hear me? I accidentally sat on my head... [silence]

Khandaker: I heard you up until you sat on your head?

RPS: Headset, thankfully. I think everything is working now. Now that I’m functional, let’s talk about Redshirt! We haven’t said a great deal about the game on the site yet.

Khandaker: I’ve been unintentionally secretive about it since it was announced. When I started working on it, I thought I’d be the kind of dev who blogged everything and does all these videos, and shares everything. And then I got gripped by a sense of self-consciousness about everything that I put out there. This is such a weird game as well. If I was making a 2d platformer or something like that, I’d be a lot more confident just saying ‘here’s my game’! It’s quite a weird concept.

RPS: For those who don’t know, could you could give a quick overview of what that weird concept is?

Khandaker: Basically it’s a social simulation game, or effectively a social network simulation game. You’re a brand new arrival on a massive space station in the future, where everybody is obsessed with Spacebook. That’s how people interact on the most part and as you’re a nobody, you’re trying to make friends and climb your way up the career ladder. So you want to be friends with your boss and get on their good side. It’s all about parodying social networking culture.

RPS: Based on what I’ve seen, and it’s not a huge amount, is it a spoof full of silliness or are you making a more serious point as well?

Khandaker: I like to think that I’m being lovingly cynical about the whole thing. I’m on social networks, I use them all the time and I can’t imagine life without them. That’s kind of the point, I suppose. The other thing is that it’s a spoof of social networking but also of our sci-fi vision of our future. The usual sci-fi vision, a utopia where everything is great, but people will still be people. Self-obsessed and that kind of thing. It’s a subversion of the kind of future we see in things like Star Trek.

RPS: I’ve never been a Trekkie and I’ve never seen that much of the show, but I am geek enough to get the Redshirt reference. I’m guessing you’re reeling in sci-fi in general, not just Trek?

Khandaker: Definitely. There’s a lot of nods towards all kinds of other series. Even though the title is a reference to Trek, it’s an amalgamation of sci-fi in general.

RPS: I was a Babylon 5 person.

Khandaker: Oh, where you?

RPS: Well, I don’t know if I was a ‘Babylon 5 person’, but I did watch it.

Khandaker: I never got into it myself. It’s the one thing I didn’t get in to.

RPS: It’s a vision of the future that looks about four hundred years old now. But it did what I think DS9 did later on, with the big overarching plot that runs from beginning to end. Massive arcs. Back to the game though. Your space stations contain lots of different alien races, don’t they?

Khandaker: Yeah, that’s right. You create a character when you start a new game and there are six alien races to choose from. Each game is dynamically generated a whole station full of NPCs, each with their own personality and behaviour. The interactions that happen between you and the NPC s and the NPCs and themselves are all dynamic. Every ‘like’ that you click really matters.

RPS: That’s one of the things I was going to ask about, whether the NPCs get on with their lives in the background. A lot of games revolve so completely around the player that nothing happens without their involvement. The player is the only actor. But you have NPCs forming relationships?

Khandaker: Oh, absolutely. That was one of the things that I wanted to do from the very beginning, to look at what happens on a social network. It’s very much AI driven. That’s why developing it doesn’t get that boring, because even when I’m playing a build and developing, I get to see what happens. I’ve made this sci-fi character name generator which parodies the names from all these different series, so I like to imagine what’s actually happening between all these characters. That’s the beauty of emergent gameplay.

RPS: Emergent gameplay fits comedy very well. Humour is often found in the unexpected.

Khandaker: Definitely.

RPS: I find it fascinating when a game can simulate a world and I can sit back and watch it, without necessarily being heavily involved. I like to be on the fringes sometimes.

Khandaker: Yeah. Things happen in the game that are unexpected. One thing that I enjoyed recently…which sounds weird, to say I was enjoying my own game.

RPS: It’s probably a good sign!

Khandaker: It’s not me, it’s the code doing its own thing. My boss kept trying to subtly ask me on these holo-dates, repeatedly, and all the co-workers started hating that I was getting the attention.

RPS: That’s what it’s like working with Jim. I assume that the fact it’s done through social networking puts the player at a disadvantage in a clever sort of way, because you react to what people say publicly, on the network, rather than how they actually feel.

Khandaker: Right. You do actually arrange events and have in-person interactions, which you can see the outcome of. But for the most part, peoples’ feelings are seen through Spacebook.

RPS: Does that let you play with the hypocrisy of social networks? You go out, have a great time, get along with everyone, come home and see them tearing into you online. Status updates that do not fit with your experience of the event.

Khandaker: Yeah.

RPS: Does the game create a new crew each time, or are there built-in characters?

Khandaker: It’s a new crew each time, so all their faces and profile pictures are dynamically generated, and so are their personalities. That was one of the key things I wanted to do with the game.

RPS: Does the game do any sort of balancing or can you end up on a station completely full of bastards?

Khandaker: At this point, yes. That can happen. You just have to deal with it.

RPS: The goal of the game is to make people like you, I guess? Or is there no goal apart from playing?

Khandaker: There is an underlying narrative to the game. You have a timeframe within which you are trying, through various means, to climb your way up the career ladder, and whether you do that by working hard or not, you’re basically trying to stop being a redshirt. Obviously, being one has certain connotations. There are lots of different ways to get there – maybe save a bunch of money and buy peoples’ affections.

RPS: Can you actually train to be better at the job?

Khandaker: Oh, definitely. There are certain skills in the game that level up whenever you go to work, so you can rise through job tiers. The ultimate job in the game is to be the commander’s assistant. Not the commander, because it’s not that kind of game.

RPS: Can you die?

Khandaker: You can. The joke of the game is that if you don’t progress within the allotted time limit, that’s what happens to you. You get sent on a mission, as a redshirt.

RPS: I like the idea that actually going and doing cool space missions is just death.

Khandaker: (laughs) That’s the way it is.

RPS: It’s obvious to see the sci-fi inspirations but have you been influenced by any media about social networks?

Khandaker: I wouldn’t say I’ve been influenced by references to social networks in pop culture or anything. When I started working on the game I was reading all these articles about the way that different groups of people interact in social networks, to define how the NPCs would operate and how certain mechanics in the game would work. I’m aware that I’m giving my version of events concerning what happens in social networks otherwise. So I did my research.

You have these articles about different personality types in social networks, so I’ve endeavoured to incorporate that a little bit. It sounds awful, but I’ve been so occupied with making the game that I’ve been cut off from looking at other media. The initial point of the game, when I first pitched it to Positech, was just to have a social networking sim, without the sci-fi skin on top of it. It was Cliff Harris of Positech who suggested the sci-fi aspect, so that it’s more a commentary on our future rather than just on the way things are now. But from the get-go, the point was to try and make a game about how social networks work.

RPS: Do you think the sci-fi aspect has added much, or is it essentially a visual theme?

Khandaker: Oh, it definitely has. Before I started working on it, I had lots of these ideas in mind and it has evolved. I’m a massive sci-fi fan as well so it felt natural.

RPS: It strikes me that this kind of storytelling is something that games are ideal for. Taking a bigger story, like a space opera or a fantasy epic, and saying ‘fuck the big story, let’s look at the little guys’. In this medium, I think that works so well because the most mundane things become interesting when a player is directly involved in them. We are those little guys. Is that something you’ve thought about at all?

Khandaker: Yeah, definitely. From the start, I didn’t want to make the kind of game where you play the hero and are involved in a big, epic storyline. There is an epic storyline in the main narrative arc that I mentioned, but that’s of no consequence for you, because you’re too absorbed in gaining ‘likes’. Most games are an empowerment fantasy, right? I like to think of this as a disempowerment fantasy.

RPS: When I play something like Skyrim or the new Fallouts, I don’t save the world or anything predictable like that, I just collect things. Not ‘likes’, but herbs and stuff.

Khandaker: Exactly. I think most games try to thrust the role of hero on you whether you want it or not, but Redshirt won’t let that happen. Even if that’s what you want (laughs).

RPS: Do you have a release date?

Khandaker: I’m hoping it’ll be done in the next couple of months. I’m at the refining and polishing stage right now. For the most part it’s feature complete, but it’s definitely come along a lot and I’m looking forward to finishing!

RPS: In one of the early blogs, you talked about it being a real-time game originally. I find that hard to get my head around.

Khandaker: For about half of the development process it was real-time, so people would be updating their statuses in real-time and you’d have to react to things that happened. But it became too twitchy. People would invite you to an event, and if you missed the invite your relationship could be ruined forever.

I think, ultimately, it works better as a turn-based game. You have a certain amount of ‘actions’ to use and that adds this aspect of commentary on the way Facebook games work, you know the ones – where you have to buy actions. That’s kind of in there as a joke now. You have a certain amount of actions per day and you can buy more using the in-game currency. That’s one of the challenges – trying to comment on how social networks operate and how annoying they are, without annoying the player. I don’t know – maybe the game is really annoying (laughs)!

RPS: Did you play Little Inferno?

Khandaker: I didn’t, no.

RPS: That was a comment on those kind of issues, which some people no doubt found annoying because it actually had in-game currency tied to progression. I thought it was great.

Khandaker: I’ll look that up.

RPS: Moving away from the game for a moment – I read your GDC ‘rant’. I call it that because it was in the rants section, or something, but I’ve only read a transcript and it seemed like a well-constructed observation rather than a rant. Perhaps you were screaming and raving at the time?

Khandaker: It’s a shame you didn’t see it. I had a bunch of humorously pithy slides to go along with it. It was something that I was reluctant to rant about, which I mentioned, making it a sort of meta-rant. I didn’t think very deeply about it until a couple of years ago, when I guess I grew up and became more socially aware. I think it’s an important thing. I ultimately did it in the end because I realised it WAS important and GDC this year was fantastic for being a place in which people felt they could talk about social issues.

Gender issues were definitely at the fore at this GDC, and not just in the advocacy track, which was an amazing idea, but it felt like a theme that permeated the whole conference, which was very cool. But I wanted to say, at the same time as we need to think about these gender issues, we need to think about other aspects of identity as well.

RPS: I had somebody tell me that they were pleased we talk about those issues on RPS, but that the term ‘feminism’ can be exclusive, that we should be talking more broadly about ‘humanism’.

Khandaker: I think that’s a misunderstanding of feminism. It’s a common thing and it’s really unfortunate. The common picture of feminism in most peoples’ heads is the one perpetuated by the media and culture, of this sort of man-hating woman.

RPS: I’ve never met a feminist like that but I grew up with some lingering sense of a negative connotation to the word. Bearing in mind that my mother believed in and struggled for many of the things that I now associate with feminism, the term had taken on a strange and not entirely positive sense for her as well.

Khandaker: People don’t tend to realise that feminism is about deconstructing gender roles for men and women, because those things are harmful to all of us. Feminism works for men as much as it does for women. There was a post being shared around Facebook recently which was a wonderful list of all the things that feminism is doing that men’s rights groups try to rally for. Feminism has already been working on those things for years and years. Like not giving preference to mothers over fathers, and things like that. The public image of feminism is unfortunate but I hope there’s a growing awareness.

RPS: People talking about these things more is the first step, even if discussing it is, laughably, sometimes seen as being militant. I’d rather be labelled ‘militant’ than ‘apathetic’.

Khandaker: That’s one of the things I talked about. Everything is political, so if you want to shove things under the rug, you’re still implicitly engaged in the social constructions that exist just by nature of being in the world. The attitude of ‘not wanting to talk about it’ doesn’t help anybody. It’s going on with the status quo. It’s really important for people to question things and to actively fight against things.

RPS: There’s a danger that when things aren’t spoken about often enough, when they are brought up, people feel attacked simply because they haven’t been engaged in the conversation before. The more we talk about things, the more easily we find a ground where people become aware that they can be involved quite easily.

Khandaker: Can I plug a website I’ve been working on?

RPS: Absolutely.

Khandaker: It’s called dearada.com and it’s a website I set up with Emily Flynn-Jones, which was funded by the feminists in games initiative. It’s a place where anybody can talk about feminism and gender issues in the industry. It’s designed to be an inclusive place. We definitely want voices of all genders contributing their thoughts.

RPS: You said that there was a post doing the rounds on Facebook recently. That neatly brings us back to your game.

Khandaker: Expertly done.

RPS: Not when I spell it out like that. It’s more like a botched three-point turn now. Do you touch on any of these social issues in the game? It seems quite light-hearted but that doesn’t mean there’s no space for that.

Khandaker: When you work on a game, particularly when you’re the solo designer, your own biases definitely permeate the game and how it works. I have no doubt that my way of looking at the world is in there. So in the character creator, there’s a gender slider rather than a binary male/female option. I don’t necessarily think that slider is the be all and end all answer as to how gender works, but I think it’s a better step than you’re male or female and that’s it. Also, the default option for your ‘interested in’ is ‘all genders’. You can tick ‘male’ or ‘female’ if you want. Little things like that show my way of looking at how the world works.

There’s also commentary in that one of the alien races is basically the green-skinned ladies of sci-fi. So there’s an entire race of green/blue skinned ladies who are only allowed to wear dresses, and they’re commonly perceived as this empowered all-female race, but they’re actually just horrendously objectified by everybody else. Star Trek itself often paved the way with tackling social issues. The original series had an ethnically diverse crew, and there was the famous first televised interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura, of course! TNG also had that episode which dealt with gender and sexuality issues, where Riker fell in love with a member of an androgynous species. So I suppose Redshirt carries on that influence in some way!

RPS: Quite a lot of social commentary then.

Khandaker: When you’re interested in social issues you can’t leave them out! (laughs)

RPS: It’s funny how that’s not just social commentary, it’s also commentary on the genre. Those tropes are so common and hard to avoid in sci-fi. It’s difficult to throw a stone and not hit some of these issues in any game. And that doesn’t mean we have to burn all those games to the ground, but we should look at it and think about it.

Khandaker: Exactly.

RPS: We should burn some games to the ground.

Khandaker: (laughs) Yes.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Redshirt will make an appearance at Rezzed and I'll be looking at an early build in the next couple of weeks.

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About the Author

Adam Smith


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