Now that the summer’s triple A releases have come and gone, it is a good time to reflect on the last few months of big budget games. While Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, Remember Me, and The Last of Us have all hogged just about every homepage for the last four months — PopMatters’s Moving Pixels page included. They’ve offered considerable introspection regarding how games communicate their stories (Nick Dinicola, “The Problem with Emergent Stories in Video Games”, PopMatters, 31 July 2013). They have also led to reflection on whether some of these games would have been better if they weren’t games at all (Maddy Myers, “Hyper Mode: Videogame The Movie”, Paste Magazine, 2 July 2013.). While critics have been talking about how these larger games succeed and fail as narratives, Sparkplug Games quietly announced a mobile game set in the Firefly universe at Comic Con. Though the cult series began on television, Firefly seems nearly perfect as property to base a video game on.
Joss Whedon’s science-fiction western series follows nine crew members of a patchwork spacecraft called Serenity. The disappointment in the series’s cancellation just as it hit its stride its unlikely resurrection on the silver screen are well enough documented. But in spite of the ongoing thirst for more Firefly content and ongoing rumours of a game adaptation, nothing has come to fruition, which makes the announcement of an official game exciting because the series fits so nicely into a video game template.
For one, the nine memorable crewmembers — each with an extravagant personality — are largely defined by their roles in the ship and on assignment. A part of the appeal of the show is that every character has a purpose for being on the crew. Everyone brings something irreplaceable to the group and nobody is superfluous. Everyone — even the perpetually “otherized” River — eventually has a job on the boat that everybody else counts on them for. As memorable as Kaylee, Jayne, and Wash are as characters, they’re introduced and grow based on their respective roles as mechanic, muscle, and pilot. One can practically roll out the individual combat and exploration stats and abilities based on the pilot episode. In fact, there’s a Kickstarter effort to bring a card game called Firefly: Out to the Black to fans of the show.
Moreover, the series is steeped in “rules” and most of the series’s drama comes from how the crew struggles with gaming those rules. There are numerous resources and items that Serenity needs to run, and one of the show’s most respected episodes, “Out of Gas” (1.8), deals with the crew’s loss of a critical resource. In every episode the crew struggle with acquiring money, safe haven, fuel, safe haven, food, and medicine that they must acquire through completing a job. The entire premise of the show is that the crew must continue taking side quests for the money and resources to survive in deep space and escape one of a growing list of competing or rival groups.
Beyond the constant resource management that serves as the show’s premise, the Serenity is persistently on the run from the autocratic Alliance government and the barbaric Reavers lurking on the edge of space. Both antagonistic groups dwarf the tiny crew and their broken down ship in terms of manpower and resources and more importantly establish different rules of engagement and avoidance for the crew. The characters in Serenity must live by the laws of the highly orchestrated Alliance and must therefore avoid garnering too much ill repute. Additionally, they’re equally wary of the lawless Reavers who attack indiscriminately and viciously. Finally, rival criminals interact with the crew violently as often as they do cordially. The show props up an implicit system of rules to deal with each group that the crew is in conflict with. Negotiation, subterfuge, stealth, and direct combat always change in strategic value from one episode to the next, and often the crew’s options become more or less viable even from one scene to the next.
Lastly, in the commentaries of the show’s pilot and first-aired episode, as well as in that of the film, Serenity, Whedon talks about how important physical space is in the series. Specifically, Whedon talks about how there was an emphasis on shooting long takes in scenes that occurred on board the Serenity in order to have the time to show off the ship’s layout to the audience. It’s important for the audience to know the area of Serenity because it’s the crew’s home. It’s what separates them from the harsh outer planets, the oppressive inner planets, and the hostile space between. I’ve written in the past that the important function that a video game home serves in many games (“Where the Heart is: The Use of Home in Video Games”, PopMatters, 12 March 2013), and Firefly’s Serenity does just that. It’s a base measure of what normal means to contrast the crew’s adventures with. It’s also the hub for the crew to prepare for their jobs and grow together as a team.
All that said, a mobile MMO will probably not follow the show’s crew through a planned adventure. However, the structure established by the TV series lends itself to a video game well even if the player has to manage a team of randomly generated characters. Much of the show’s appeal comes in watching strong personalities clash and in having to coordinate a clearly defined mission. A named cluster of stats could easily recreate the drama in the emergent stories that tend to come with online games. It might not be the full series that some browncoats are still holding out for — a wish that seems increasingly unlikely to ever happen — but a game adaptation might be the best new home for the luckless Firefly universe.