We got to the end of Starship Week but still had a day left, which I’ll chalk up to the weird time disconnect that happens during faster-than-light travel. Kind of like when you travel through space for six millenia and when you get back you find out they’re still not out of Final Fantasy sequels. In any case, it leaves me a free day to explain that the moral of Starship Week can be found entirely in one story I could have told you at the beginning and saved you a whole bunch of time and screenshots.
Of all the starships in history, the Enterprise is the only one I can think of which has had such a long, consistent, and well-documented life. It started out in the 1960s as a toy suspended on wires and progressed through the 1980s and 90s as a more elaborate toy, to reach its present existence as a computer’s realization of its artists’ imaginations. Along the way, it died, and was reborn, and the emotions provoked by those events and its subsequent spawn form an almost family history that is shared by a fan base that has established its own lineages. Its captaincy is almost a royal succession, and the different courtiers all have their allegiances, but throughout it all, the throne itself is never in doubt. Because the entire timeline has taken place aboard one form or another of that talismanic ship.
It’s pretty easy to be dismissive of Zen Studio’s latest pinball tables. Check it out:
Zen Pinball continues their tradition of milking franchises with three more Star Wars tables. These include a Darth Vader table with traditional ramp-based gameplay. It opens with the infamous “noooooo” scene and continues with the Sith Lord commending your performance with basso profundo observations such as “fantastic”, “awesome”, and “absolutely marvelous”. Okay, maybe not that last one, but that’s probably because I haven’t gotten enough points yet. It’s a very open table, a very red table, and a very “Uh, really? Why?” table. You also get a Return of the Jedi table that iterates on the excellent Empire Strikes Back table in the last Star Wars pack. But just as Return of the Jedi is a pale shadow of Empire Strikes Back, the Return of the Jedi table is a pale shadow of the Empire Strike Back table, featuring Ewok collection, a terrible Princess Leia impersonator, and a mission in which R2-D2 and C-3PO have to walk to the door of Jabba’s palace. George Lucas and maybe even Richard Marquand would be proud. 2 stars.
I was talking with a colleague about spaceship games, and told him I was particularly interested in games where you had to do things aboard a starship. He came up with a nice list for me that I’ve added at the end of this post. All of these involve being aboard a starship in some way.
But there’s one game that no one remembers anymore, and that you haven’t heard of either, and that’s reason enough to wrap up the week talking about it.
Because, after the jump, it tells a story that gets to the very heart of Starship Week.Continue reading →
The Epilogue to my game of Awful Green Things from Outer Space is a series of completely random encounters driven by the ancient method of rolling a six-sided die and referring to a choose-your-own adventure book.*
The camera just happens to be floating in space, pointing in a fixed direction that will coincide with the route of a Corellian corvette fleeing from an Imperial Star Destroyer. If that camera had been positioned a few feet higher, the corvette would have banged right into it, ruining the shot and depriving us all of an iconic moment. Instead, it glides smoothly past, close enough that we could almost reach up our hand and feel its belly, like a diver touching a whale. We can admire the detail and — more importantly — the size of the Tantive IV. Look at how long it’s taking to pass overhead.
After the jump, did you know that Leia’s blockade runner was called the Tantive IV? Continue reading →
That’s the opening setup, I mean that’s how things looked on the actual Znutar when the crew discovered the Awful Green Things. The monsters started out in the Cockboat Bay (ha!) and spread out one per unoccupied space: 6 eggs, 4 babies, 2 adults. This was determined by the stars, or by 2d6. In the end, does it matter?
Before Boba Fett became a New Zealand Order of Merit member, he was a growly badass bounty hunter with a penchant for standing in the shadows with his rifle on the crook of his arm. He may have started out as an animated character in the Star Wars Christmas Special, but he became one of the most popular villains in the franchise thanks mostly to little boys’ imaginations. In his signature Mandalorian armor, Fett chased bounties, fought Jedi, and flew one of the most awesome ships to ever grace the silver screen: The Slave I. As any little boy knows, the cooler your ride, the cooler you are.
I tend not to be jealous of people who are good at things that I’m not. I figure that’s just the way it goes. I mean, I’m good at some things, too. However, I make a special exception for artists. I have a great aptitude for thinking of things with none whatsoever for drawing them, so I can only imagine what it would be like to be able to illustrate my own ideas. If I had this and also had game design skills, then I’d be Tom Wham.
John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) not only featured the best spaceship ever, it was also the most influential science fiction movie from the ’70’s with “star” in the title. Its design not only prefigured George Lucas’ sordid triangle fetish explored to unsavory detail in his subsequent trilogy about argumentative robots, but also SpaceshipTwo for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. The movie was also co-written by and stars Dan O’Bannon, who would return to the theme of carnivorous beachballs in “Alien” and “The Thing,” though handled here with considerably more plausibility and menace. Dark Star was also the first film to use prohibitively expensive CG and stuntwork to convincingly depict vertical action sequences in low-grav environments and the first sf film to evoke zero comment from NASA. Its psychotic onboard computer stuff also predated Kubrick’s 1968 landmark 2001 by -6 years.
But more even than most films, Dark Star is about a spaceship. As every child-sized fan of blue-collar fictionalization now knows, its crew’s mission was to roam around the universe blowing up unstable planets unfit for colonists like the ones in WALL-E if they’d had a destination. We’re given to understand that Dark Star’s crew is, like the society of when it was made, near insane with boredom and mutual loathing. What little we’re shown of the ship’s schematics underscores these impressions: a shared barracks whose principal recreational component is a rubber chicken; a dark closet; a turret; a captain made of ice; and a workspace even human centipede segments might have found a little close for comfort. Talk about wormholes! Even the Antarctic researchers in the Thing at least had Lets Make A deal reruns and their bourbon-flavored chess.
But back in 1974 this seemed the best way for our species to experience the majestic infinity of the universe. Forty years later, we now know that the reality will be much smaller, and ultimately cost almost as much as John Carpenter’s 1974 Dark Star.
I start the game by distributing the crew around the ship. Captain Neema Strof starts on “C” Deck in Pod 3 near the risor. Science Officer L.J. Gepidus is on “B” Deck, as is Maintenance Officer Najeb Kelly, although he’s all the way down the hall at the other end. Ground Survey Officer Blnt Skraaling and Biology Officer Hesiod Charybdis (I am not making any of these names up) start together up on “A” Deck, in the same pod no less.
If God hadn’t created Christopher Walken, we would have to invent him. And did no one tell David Warner how awful the dialogue is? Because not only is he trying to sell it, he’s actually selling it. That’s an English actor for you: so much better than the material deserves!
When I was in college, I lived in a fraternity house and one of the rules for living in the house was that you had to have your class schedule posted on your door should an emergency arise. This was before the time of cell phones and social networks. No there were not dinosaurs roaming the Earth at the time, as difficult as that may be to believe.
The first semester of my senior year I was student teaching, so my schedule had large blocks of open time in the evenings, time that was usually spent on my friend Ron’s computer playing games. I played so many games that someone in the house took to writing “DOOM” in every block of free time on my schedule. I would have been pissed if it weren’t so accurate. However, had they really wanted to nail down my activities, every block would have been filled with “Wing Commander: Privateer”.
Privateer was the first space sim I ever played. Hell, it was the first real space game I played, period. When I was a kid, I played my fair share of Defender, Star Wars and Space Invaders in the arcade as well as hours and hours of Space Quest. But Privateer was a whole new world. For a kid raised on Star Wars in the theater and Buck Rogers on TV, being able to pilot my own ship and look out of the cockpit, juking and diving as I tried to keep a pirate in my sights and blow him to space dust was like nothing I had ever played. Unfortunately, my inexperience with the genre translated into some dicey situations, namely when the alien probe chased me through multiple meteoroid laden systems after I stole their cool ass green gun. I’m not proud of this fact, but when I fled the aliens, I had to enlist the aid of a fraternity brother to toggle the afterburner as I worked on not smashing into asteroids. Thanks Micah, you were a real life saver.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Privateer let me get a taste of the Han Solo life. Winging into a space station, picking up materials, both legal and illegal, and making my way to another system to unload my wares was just as exciting to me as fighting off pirates or shooting Kilrathi. I may not have understood how the game tied into the Wing Commander universe and it would be a few more years before I played another space sim (Wing Commander IV, for the record) but Privateer got its hooks into me good, making me a bona fide fan of the genre.
The history of gaming is distinct, I think, from the history of gaming ideas. Gaming has been such a fragmented hobby that very often people weren’t aware of their peers’ ideas, leading to a lot of reinventing of the wheel. This struck me the other day when I was reading an excerpt from “Designing Modern Strategy Games” by George Phillies and Tom Vasel. Phillies is an old hand from the days of 1960s boardgaming, but what grabbed my attention was not about him, but about someone else. A guy named Sid Sackson. The excerpt below comes from that book. The “I” in the excerpt is Phillies.
Once upon a time, [I] had the good fortune to visit the greatest American board game designer, Sid Sackson, at his New York home. Sackson had by far the largest collection of traditional board games in the world. (He did not collect board wargames.) He estimated to me that he had 20,000 distinct titles. I can confirm that almost every room of his house was filled from floor to ceiling with games, including shelves in the middle of every room except the kitchen. He also had various game fragments, such as the cover of Race to the North Pole, a nineteenth-century game about a race to the North Pole via Montgolfier balloon. The collection was carefully organized, so that he could find whichever game he wanted almost immediately. Sackson’s game library was backed by a set of notebooks, so that when I described design elements of games from my board wargame collection, he rapidly inserted those details into a notebook and indexed them.
I have never heard of Sid Sackson, even though he wrote a column in the 1970s in Strategy & Tactics magazine, and has a Wikipedia page. That is almost certainly my loss. But if someone like me who plays (or at least knows about) a fair number of boardgames has never heard of the greatest American designer of such games, you can at least make an argument that someone should be doing a better job of spreading this information around. Oh, for those notebooks! So many designers were working in a vacuum, oblivious to all the game mechanics Sackson catalogued, reinventing wheels and warp drives.
But games do carry a flavor of their time, and picking up a box from thirty years ago can either dissuade you with the musty smell of outdated implementation, or entice you with the allure of imagination. There is a lot of imagination in games about spaceships. One particular one — The Wreck of the BSM Pandora by Jim Dunnigan and Redmond Simonsen — has about equal parts imagination and frustration. For the time, that was probably a big win. If only they’d had Sackson’s notebooks.