Gratuitous Space Battles

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Cliff Harris (Positech)
    "In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles,. [...] The spectacle presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned. Its sole message is: 'What appears is good; what is good appears.' The passive acceptance it demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply."

-Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

Gratuitous Space Battles (GSB) is hardly the top-down big-corporate mass-media product that Guy Debord denounced in his in/famous 1967 Society of the Spectacle, but neither is it the pointed procedural commentary of, say Molleindustria's Kosmosis. It's not a RTS, though it looks like one, and it's not a tower defense game, though the game's own advertising copy comperes it to one. It is a limited-resources design game, a little like Spore was supposed to be; a quirky, original little strategy game; and a procedurally-generated spectator sport. The game is a bit of a paradox, being a “casual” game for grognards and/or a RTS for turn-based strategy gamers. GSB is playable in small chunks, simple in interface, complex in statistical model, and hands-down the prettiest 2d game to hit the market since Peggle. It is also, intentionally or not, a commentary on the state of the gaming industry and the evolution of “the society of the spectacle” in the digital age.

GSB is simultaneously classic in its influences (the imagery and technology of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Babylon 5 as well as more recent SF universes are present here), retro in style (feeling like a true heir to the ship design and combat engines of Master of Orion 2), and a thoroughly postmodern game -- its very title proclaims that the titanic battles it features will not be part of an epic struggle between good and evil, but take place so we can watch them take place (“what appears is good, what is good appears,” as Debord put it). At the same time, this isn't the NFL –- GSB has a self-aware, sarcastic sense of humor reminiscent of Harry Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero.

In terms of gameplay, GSB is novel in that the battles take place in “real time” but that the player has no input during battle. You design ships, lay out your armada, and customize rules of engagement for each ship and fighter squadron, but then you have to leave the rest to the AI. LSN and Asp have similar control schema, where orders are given without time pressure and then executed in real time, but those games allow much more micromanagement than GSB does. The closest thing I've seen to GSB's combat system is that of Dominions 3, but GSB puts on a show in a way that none of these other games do. Again, Peggle's pachinko-inspired lightshow is a surprisingly relevant comparison.

GSB's battles are as riveting as those of sci-fi TV and movies. I've shown the game, mid-battle, to non-gamer sci-fi geeks, who commented on just how watchable the game was. There is even a newsfeed of comic one-liners from the captains of your ships that stands in for the lack of sports commentators. The only thing lacking is that you have to pan about the battle yourself: a “smart cam” mode that automatically went to wherever the fighting was thickest would be a great addition. Instead, you have to scroll the window around, zoom in and out, and change the speed of the action (with a VCR-like interface, similar to that of LSN) for yourself. This is an unfortunate distraction from the show, especially on lower-resolution screens: battles look best in full HD, if your monitor supports it, but the elements of the design and deployment screen interfaces are irritatingly small at this resolution.

In some ways, GSB does the opposite of Introversion's Defcon, which uses Wargames-style retro graphics and a command-level remove from individual lives and deaths to make a point about the persistent threat posed by the existence of nuclear weapons and how WMDs make killing easy and impersonal. In GSB, the violence is just as impersonal, but it's beautiful: the explosion of a capital ship is neither bland nor gory -– it's a fireworks display. The game's mechanics rewards calculating play: the less you spend on your fleet, the larger your reward –- if you win. There's no reward for minimizing your casualties, just sarcastic flavor text about their disposability: “Your crew are your most valuable resource, or so you tell them.” At the same time, the violence in GSB meets the “G.I. Joe parachute test:” when ships blow up, escape pods show up as well as debris.

On the other hand, one of the graphical options you can toggle off are those self-same escape pods -– so, if you can't afford the GPU cycles for survivors, you can turn them off. It would have been appropriate if escape pods cost extra resources as well as processor power, but the analogy still works.

There's no campaign and no overarching plot in GSB -- you can play any of the single-player scenarios at any difficulty in any order, and no context given except titles like “Battle of Mexallon II” (reference to the 2nd planet from the sun in the Mexallon system? Sequel to the battle of Mexallon I? Or is Mexallon II the king of something? keep wondering). That's part of the point –- they're gratuitous. Those desiring context can turn to the brief, sardonic descriptions of the different factions. My favorite description is of the Spiderii Alliance (the game's “bug-eyed monsters”) whose genocidal motto is “six legs good, 2 legs bad.” There's also the profit-driven Federation (the player's starting faction), the blindly expansionist Empire, and the Darwin Award-worthy Rebels who “decided that the only way to be free of a lifetime of fighting for the glory of the Empire was to dedicate their lives to fighting against them. As a result, today's modern Rebel alliance consists of a majority of irony-resistant species in the galaxy.”

A battle between median-size fleets runs about 15 minutes at 1x speed, and you can set the pace of the action to anything 0.2x to 4x speed. The game runs well on my Atom-powered netbook as long as I keep the game's speed at 1x (and turn most of the extra graphical effects, such as escape pods, off). GSB's hermetically-sealed battles and asynchronous play make for one of the quirkiest PVP modes I've ever seen. Players design and upload challenges -– complete fleets and starfields, ready for battle –- and other players download and try to beat them with fleets of their own creation (and the same strength). The game server keeps track of how many times a given challenge has been attempted, how many times it has been beaten, and how the challengers rate the challenge for difficulty and originality afterward.

There's something strangely collaborative about this kind of competition, in which battles are measured not by who wins but by how many people have tried a challenge, and the real competition is for ratings, from 1 to 5 stars each in terms of Enjoyment and Difficulty. Putting on a good show is (potentially) as or more important than crafting an unbeatable challenge. GSB's challenge mode becomes a plebiscite, an aggregate “vote” in the vein of e-commerce product and seller ratings or call-in talent shows like Britain's Got Talent and American Idol. “Human devastation as mass entertainment” or a transcendence of user-created content? A little of both, maybe, and a reminder of how much time we spend watching “gratuitous” visual effects in games where we think we're actively “playing” the whole time.

There's something fascinating about watching a chain reaction develop out of a triggering event, like a row of dominoes or a Rube Goldberg. Watching battles in GSB play out reminds me of the old Interactive Physics (still around, apparently) and The Incredible Machine. It also reminds me of how gaming can become a kind of a passive absorption into the spectacle and rhythm of play. Games are not defined by freedom, but by constraint, by rules. In dividing planning and execution so sharply, and placing so much emphasis on passive watching (spectatorship) GSB draws our attention to where our interaction actually takes place, thwarting passive absorption. The game's sense of humor emphasizes this, as when a crushing defeat produces the message “Yes, your fleet was pulverized, but the good news is we made a killing on the TV rights to the battle.” For a game with no overt pretensions to social commentary, it winds up making a point about just how much we like our bread and circuses, and how little we care who is served by our entertainment.

There's already an expansion out for GSB, continuing the game's blend of statistical detail and cynical humor. It adds a faction called “the Tribe,” whose member species are devoted to bringing peace and love to the universe – by destroying every other power in it. Satire of ecoterrorist extremists, or of right-wing paranoia? Well, mainly they have really strong ship hulls and really good repair systems. For my part, I'm still rooting for the Spiderii – their ships are pretty.


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That PvP/Challenge mode sounds like it recapitulates Time Fcuk, Armadillo Run and even Dwarf Fortress in a way. But with a smoother interface, which is always good. Maybe we're moving toward a time of "What do you MEAN your game DOESN'T have community-rated user-created content? lrn2design noob". I think that'd be cool, actually.

The demo alone

The demo alone kept me entertained for the majority of my week-long Xmas holiday, which was no surprise, given my previous experiences of Positech's games. Unfortunately I stopped just short of buying GSB due to an insufficient understanding of how the orders work, especially how they work in combination with each other; I am sure the information is available somewhere, but I did not find it. That is certainly not a criticism of the orders system - I think it is brilliant as it is - just criticism of the lack of clarity on exactly how the system and the individual orders work.

Personally I do not mind the non-interactive play-out - indeed, I think I may even prefer it, but perhaps that's just the programmer and planner in me. I had noticed a number of such games before hearing of GSB, but most were minor flash affairs - it is nice to see the concept used so heavily in a commercial-quality game. I hope we are seeing the dawn of a new genre. I call such games "programming games".

Ironically, Cliff seems to have chosen the setting least likely to require pre-planned strategies (at least, TV would have us believe that in battle ships can communicate freely, rather than attempting to jam each others' communications to put the enemy at a disadvantage). A much more obvious setting would be pre-radio warfare, where communication would be limited to simple signals (flags, bugles, etc.) and time-lagged methods such as messengers. Pre-planned and/or strategically inflexible battles is exactly how I've always felt the Total War games should be played...