[20 January 2014]
Cynicism as an underlying theme rarely renders a positive outlook on a work of fiction. Instead, it is a theme that creates a sentiment of detachment in its audience. Unfortunately, in trying to create a statement about cynicism and the current mindset behind social networks, Redshirts falls prey to many of the same problems that it sets out to resolve.
First things first. Redshirts is essentially a story telling engine in the same vein as Paradox’s Crusader Kings II, but instead of telling stories of courtly politics it concerns itself with a social setting more analogous to the average person’s day-to-day existence, though it does take place aboard a space station. You are a new recruit, and if it were Star Trek, you’d be one of those people in the background working at a computer or on some other machinery barely in the frame of the camera. The entire game is rendered through a Facebook style interface known as Spacebook, and its satire is thinly veiled throughout. If you are familiar with one, you will be more than adequately ready for the other.
The game concerns involves altering your displayed interests in Spacebook by participating in activities that advance those interests. You will gain skills both through work and these activities, further advancing your stats and making you eligible for promotions. You will send friend requests and possibly even end up in a relationship for a time. Thanks to Spacebook’s popularity, the higher ups limit how many times per day you can use it. Each interaction or activity has its own energy cost, though you can buy more energy if you wish to do more in a given day.
The end goal is to make your way to the top of the underling hierarchy by hook or by crook or find some other way off the station. Something is going to happen on a certain day in the future, and you don’t want to be around when it does. And, of course, what would a Star Trek-alike be without compulsory away missions where things go horribly wrong and many a redshirt does not come back alive.
Put all this together and what you end up with is a highly polished, more complex than usual Facebook game. It is a game that tries to expose the narcissistic nature of social networks and near sociopathic behavior that such systems can compulsively create. But in trying to get the player to become an actor in a fictional online space, the game reveals itself as rather equally shallow. The game only really works if you wholly give in to the cynical belief of social networking being all about self-centered entitlement. It suggests ideas like that sleeping your way to the top is a matter of course rather than the failing of a specific individual and that the feelings of those below you in the hierarchy is less important than your own opportunities. It’s a strong statement, but the underlying cynicism that the whole system relies on wears thin very fast.
Ignoring the fact that not everyone uses social networking as a source of self-promotion and flattery, by focusing almost wholly on that brand of social interaction I found the story telling engine limited. The purpose of nearly everything that the player can do is about getting ahead. People are meant to be disposable. Any long-term engagement with them quickly reveals the hollowness of the numbers that we are meant to ascribe meaning to and exposes their carbon copy nature. One person might as well be the same as another, and because of that, the same stories repeat themselves over and over without any nuance or new procedurally generated narratives.
For instance, I got into a relationship with a woman called Qoke Roy. I was content, but she dumped me for our creep of a manager. Soon I was getting promotions, and I entered another relationship. Then I entered another, but Roy and I repaired our relationship after she dumped the creep. It was a nice little narrative leaving me in a relationship that I was okay with, but I would have rather been with my original partner. You can see that looking at the Spacebook timeline. But that lovely story emerged about a fourth of the way through the game. That narrative arc reached its bittersweet conclusion, and yet, there was still a huge section of game to go. In fact, the story stalled, leaving me trapped making the same choices until the deadline that ended the game came or if I started the entire cycle over again. The system wants you to leave behind your old friends and connections and focus only on those equal to your current level and above.
It also seems like you are the only person on the station capable of getting a promotion. The game doesn’t allow for kindness or helpfulness. I couldn’t help Roy out and get a promotion so she could keep pace with me and so that we could get away alive together. There aren’t actions that allow you to behave like anything other than a greedy self-centered jackass. Even romantic dates end up being about which ones give experience points to certain skills and getting your partner to stop sending pre-written needy messages. It’s everybody for themselves out here. Stick to the script.
Redshirts is a limited work that drives its point about the cynical interactions of social networks and relationships hard, but it can’t seem to overcome its own cynicism. Such a state of mind isn’t just off putting, in the long term it is boring. The system is incapable of allowing for functional meaning to come out of non-prescribed paths and loses the greatest advantage such a system could offer. All its story-telling possibilities are hampered in favor of a statement that quickly becomes tired. In the end, it presents a strong argument about the hollowness of such interactions. However, because they are so hollow, I simply stopped listening.