The Geryk Analysis
Reach for the Stars

By Bruce Geryk

The other day on “As It Happens,” I heard the head of some Canadian historical society complain about the latest outrage in Canada, which is apparently the impending desecration of some Canadian pioneer cemetery. But here’s the thing: the cemetery in question is already under a parking lot. Regardless, this guy kept going on and on in the same way that one of your D&D friends probably told you it was unfair that you killed his 15th-level fighter with poison because even though he was armor class negative a lot, he wasn’t good at not being killed by poison. This got me to thinking about space strategy games.

Actually, that’s not true, although the guy with the 15th-level fighter did get me wondering: if a cemetery that essentially isn’t there is still a cemetery, what about a game that was missing a bunch of features? Maybe there is no way to get to them while in the game, because all the bits and bytes and computer whatever things were trapped under the giant parking lot of the game interface. For all I know, Panzer General had a bunch of secret vampire units, but only some Canadian historians knew about it.

During the David Stockman administration, SSG released a game called Reach for the Stars. Much like its contemporaries (none) it didn’t really have any plot or story to it, because by law only Zork and Ultima could have those. Even its name – Reach for the Stars – was generic. Master of Orion evokes images of a skilled hunter among the constellations tracking down giant ants who are good at making things, but when you reach for “the stars,” you could be reaching for any star – at least any star that isn’t part of a complex backstory.

About one million years later in computer game time, SSG released a sequel to Reach for the Stars, called Reach for the Stars. There are lots of laws that are only known to people like me who think about computer games far too much. One of these laws is that games from the olden days cannot be as good now as they were back then. There are a lot of complicated reasons for this, one of which is that asterisks are far less representative of stars now than they were when Carl Sagan was alive. At that time, the asterisk was the best possible way you could portray a star system on a computer (narrowly edging out the not-quite-as-starlike letter “X”). Appropriate ways for denoting advances in technology involved Roman numerals, since back then it wasn’t so long ago that we were in Roman times. Thus, the tech known as Missile I was followed by Missile II. There were probably only three Missile techs, total, because by the time you counted the asterisks, the techs, and the screen with the credits on it, you had pretty much filled up your 16K of memory. Needless to say, a backstory was an unimaginable luxury that probably got printed as an afterthought in an issue of Vanity Fair, to which you could subscribe if you called the number on the screen when you beat the game on the hardest level. Since you had to finish the game to find this out, the backstory really didn’t have much to do with playing.

That all changed when computers got CD-ROM drives and full-motion video. All of a sudden, backstories became indispensable. Some even developed lives of their own and became full-fledged games, or even short novels and the resulting TV series. But behind all the inflated egos and contract disputes and writers’ strikes, these stories were serving an important purpose: they were allowing games to become more complex.

Lots of gamers completely missed this point, choosing instead to take the stories at face value as art, and to favorably compare the story in one role-playing game about being dead to the one in another role-playing game about killing orcs. You know what? You or I or anyone reading this could walk to his bookshelf right now, pick up anything by Flannery O’Connor, and immediately have a story that is more than one billion times better than the best computer game story times one zillion other stories. So obviously the stories themselves aren’t what’s important – it’s what they do. Or what they don’t do, if – like the designers of Reach for the Stars – you forget to put one in that makes any sense.

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