Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Dream Game: Star Citizen

Today's post has been a long time in coming. Like 22 years in coming. Accordingly, it's super long.

A little while ago, I got to cross a big entry off my personal, nerdy bucket list. I got some actual stick time in a Mechwarrior Tesla Pod. Now it may be hard to appreciate why that was such a big life moment for me, so let me rewind things a bit. Say about, oh...two decades ago, more or less. When I was a lowly little five year-old with a whole nerdy life ahead of me.

My mother wanted to move down to Houston, Texas, where my grandfather was "living" at the time. I say "living" because after spending a summer and a half in Houston, I've determined that no one actually lives in Houston. At least not in the summer. Instead, they melt and dip in and out of a constant state of humid, clammy heat stroke while shuffling from one climate-controlled environment to another. Living in Houston in the summer is kind of like living in a state of reverse cryogenic freezing: you're only alive and active when in confined, artificially cooled spaces; the rest of the time you're in a state of quasi-death. And that's forgetting the insane proliferation of cockroaches in the area--huge, impossibly numerous, and insidious. Houston cockroaches are like R-rated versions of the Rad Roaches from Fallout. In any case, my family decided to move down to Houston. Out of ignorance. And my mother and I moved down there in May 1990 to start looking for houses while my brother and father tried to wrap things up in Illinois.

So the two of us moved into a small Houston apartment, and with no friends and only a handful of toys to play with, I immediately fell back on my favored tools of entertainment: pencil and paper. I up-ended a moving box and slid it against a wall in the corner, and then I began plastering images on my large, double-wide pad of drawing paper. The first drawing was a space battle, with X-wings detonating Tie fighters while Star Destroyers looked on helplessly. I taped that to the wall just above the cardboard box. I then sketched out the cockpit controls for an X-wing fighter, which I knew by memory (I vividly recall as a five-year-old considering every visit to the video store a tacit pledge to rent one of the Star Wars trilogy). The controls I taped down to the top of the moving box. Then, sitting in front of the wall, I piloted my hastily improvised space fighter into harrowing dogfights and epic space battles, hands holding an invisible control stick and pounding the scrawled out buttons in quick succession to realign my deflector screens and adjust my targeting computer. I'm pretty sure if someone would've walked into our apartment then, it would've looked like I was being punished--sitting in the corner, muttering to myself, and rocking back and forth--but I was having a blast. I grew up on Star Wars and old scratchy VHS recordings of Battlestar Galactica, and space battles have always kept me up at night.

"Houston cockroaches are like R-rated versions of the Rad Roaches from Fallout."

Another life support function in Houston was the arcade. In a region where the summer is full of weekly reports of heat stroke deaths, parents are rather less eager to pack their kids into plastic tubes in outdoor playgrounds, apparently. So everywhere we went in Houston we tripped over the most God-blessed bounty of video arcades I have ever known. Places like McDonald's substituted their playgrounds with attached arcades, and shopping malls had elaborate, sprawling video game arenas that compared to nothing else I've seen in my life except the ill-fated Disney Quest ten years later. Yes, Houston may have been the worst region to settle, in my opinion, but once there those Texans accidentally made themselves a nerd haven where you couldn't swing a stick without hitting a video game cabinet.

At the shopping mall my family went to, they had a massive arcade that featured a bank of eight Mechwarrior simulator cockpits that were the precursor to the Tesla Pods I've raved about in the past. They had surround sound, multiple monitors, and banks of sexy working buttons and control surfaces. I was in love. But my ten year-old brother, in a pique of superiority, informed me that it was way too expensive: a five minute match in the simulators would blow half of my arcade allowance. "And besides," he'd tell me in that big brother way, "you wouldn't know what to do with all those buttons and controls. It'd be a waste of money." But for my brother, apparently, it was right up the future pilot's alley, and the fifth-grade schmuck would proceed to hop into matches and whoop and holler and throw his Mad Cat mech into the thick of missile-firing fights and laser-burning bust-ups. He'd even had the audacity to occasionally pull some of my share of the arcade allowance to get in extra matches, and I was stupidly ensorcelled enough by the explosions and sci-fi gratification of watching from afar that I would usually let him.

"I'm pretty sure if someone would've walked into our apartment then, it would've looked like I was being punished--sitting in the corner, muttering to myself, and rocking back and forth--but I was having a blast."

We didn't move to Houston. My family collectively bailed out on the humidity capital of the country after less than six months. But the glories of the Houston arcade scene and the dream of the simulator cockpit (also known as a simpit) have stuck with me ever since.

Which I'm sure you've guessed by now.

That was also the year that a certain game called Wing Commander came out. A space sim in which the player got to slip into the cockpit of a fighter and partake in interstellar wars, it was the ultimate boon to my fevered brain, letting me fire blasters and pull extravagant maneuvers to shake enemies off my six. The following year, Wing Commander II came out, and we played that one to death, too. And when I say we, I mean I would harangue my brother into booting up the game on our cyclopean* DOS machine and then I'd bumper-car my way through space until he'd get fed up and take over. Which was often necessary, because I could get Angel killed in the easiest of fur-balls. Not to mention I had a knack for blasting through missions by the skin of my teeth and missing all chances for extra objectives and commendations. It was great. And it lasted for just one more year before we converted to a Mac family and my gaming life shifted to real-time strategy games like Warcraft and, eventually, Myth. Even when Wing Commander got ported to Mac, I didn't get as into it. Maybe it was no longer being threatened by my brother for every botched Immelmann turn, or maybe it was that the game lost its mystique when it wasn't hidden behind an inscrutable DOS command line, but I didn't keep up with the rest of the series.

Years passed and I always looked back on Wing Commander fondly. My brother and I got into Mechwarrior 2 and tossed around simpit ideas until he got fed up with my "strategy" of attacking his Atlas-class mechs with gnat-sized Elementals, which often resulted in five to ten minutes of me hovering around him, unable to cause any damage but impossible to hit with the mechanical titan. My brother joined the Air Force and relegated all our nerdy past-times to me while he went off and, y'know, flew actual planes. The Wing Commander movie came out, and I stubbornly still enjoy it no matter what the rest of the world says. Heck, I'm listening to its soundtrack right now. But there's been nothing like those years in the early 90s, when the Mechwarrior simpits and original Wing Commander games were freshly ingrained in my fantasies. Both genres declined--the first reduced itself to more and more shallow action games, and the latter faded away in the midst of game developer takeovers. Playing a worthy simpit game remained fixed on my bucket list, but it was such a dim hope I was barely conscious of it most of the time.

Then I got to play in the Tesla Pods last year, and reality didn't even remotely quench the nerd-fire that burned for simpits. It heightened its roar, and within days of that experience, I started in on ludicrous plans of building my own sci-fi simpit. I could start with a cockpit, and then maybe build off of that into having a simulated bridge for a capital ship--that'd be the ultimate family gaming experience, me barking out orders while managing damage control and ordering my son to launch a fighter and keep the bombers off us. Oh yes, that'd be sweet. I researched games that might fit these lofty ambitions, looking especially for ones that had good mod support so I could conceivably rework everything to fit my vision of space. There were a few that looked promising, but I passed on all of them for one reason or another. And then, most ridiculous of all, I began researching the idea of making my own game. Sure, it would be clunky and ugly as sin, but I could always make it look like a stylized icon system, right? It'd be just like the Command School from Ender's Game.

Not even my boundless enthusiasm could BS me for long, though. That was an insane idea that would never happen. I'd never make my own game, and no one was making the sort of game I wanted. Nothing was going to come along and justify the huge effort of building a simpit, and nothing would be worthy of it if I ever made one anyways. The space simulator genre was dead.

Then last fall brought with it a new dawn. A project popped up on Kickstarter called Star Citizen. It was the first game in ten years that Chris Roberts would be making.

Chris Roberts.

His name had tickled my ears the first time I saw the Star Citizen campaign page, but I didn't realize what I was in for until I watched the KS video and virtually soiled my actual chair:

"They said I was dead. They said console was the future. Now they say mobile and tablets are the future. I say to you, the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. I am a PC game."

Waaah! Glory shot of the Bengal carrier.

"And I am a space sim."

Oh, those first 30 seconds of that video grabbed me by my childhood fantasies and has not let go of me since. I can't watch it without getting excited. Chris Roberts was the creator of the Wing Commander franchise, and he was coming back to the game industry to make something gloriously ambitious. I pledged to the campaign immediately and followed the updates doggedly, as every new addition to the project's goals brought it closer to everything I've wanted from sci-fi gaming:

Sprawling, fully-realized ship interiors. Star Citizen is going to allow the player to explore larger ships, walking down the corridors and into the bridge of carriers and other capital ships. What's more, since the game is going to feature seamless transitions (ie, no load screens) from in-cockpit action to walking around your mother ship, the interiors of the ships are actually going to be consistent with the physical shape of the ship. Unlike the Normandy from Mass Effect, which is depicted as physically smaller and the wrong shape to accommodate the interior spaces you explore in the course of the game.

Out-of-cockpit gameplay. In addition to being able to simply walk around and idly explore in the innards of your big ships, Star Citizen is going to include a shooter-like experience for boarding actions. This integration and mingling of the two genres is going to be inspired, as you know I kept wishing for some space-combat crossover in the Mass Effect series and never got it. Now Star Citizen promises to give capital ship action, fighter brawls, and man-to-man gunfights in tight-packed ship corridors. It's like Chris Roberts has a checklist of my favorite recurring dreams. If there are cute redheaded witches, bottomless tubs full of spiders, and machine zombie hordes, it'll be official--he's ripping off my REM cycle.

A vast forking campaign based on performance and decisions. Long before Bioware ever gave you a non-choice at the end of an epic game, the Wing Commander series had them licked with a campaign that featured meaningfully divergent endings. Endings were based on direct plot choices and mission performance, so just barely clearing your mission objectives as opposed to wiping the board completely might change what your resolution was. They're going to be bringing that legacy back for Star Citizen, and since they've announced 50 missions for the main campaign of Star Citizen (called Squadron 42), I wouldn't be surprised if some of those missions were mutually exclusive based on what path you take your pilot through the plot. Tasty.

Persistent universe. The most exciting and lauded aspect of the game is Star Citizen's ongoing online experience. A variation of an MMO, Star Citizen proposes to let players shape a dynamic economy and play the game the way they want to play it. If that involves mining, trading, and exploring more than direct combat, that's cool with them. And that's very cool with me. I'm always a fan of games that let you go off the rails, even if I find myself not wanting to do so.

Playable capital ships. This was a later stretch goal met in the incredibly successful pledge campaign, and it promises to allow players to potentially gain control of ships as large as their mile-long carrier ships in the final version of the game. This goes hand in hand with cooperative and social play, as even some of their smaller ships are said to be nerfed if you don't have meat in all the crew seats. The 4-man Constellation ship, for instance, will feature two manned turrets and a detachable short-range fighter (a la the Serenity's two shuttles) in addition to the ship's pilot. Beyond that, you'd be looking at dedicated guilds needed just to get the most out of destroyer, cruiser, or carrier-class ship.

Mod support. With how great the core game is shaping up to be, and how visceral and engaging, I feel like this feature is almost perfunctory. But then I think about trying to model a full-scale battlestar in Star Citizen and scramble out in a viper (mk II, of course) to scrap a toaster onslaught. Ooookay...maybe I do still want mod support. And since they're talking about using that as a way to test the feasibility of fan-created additions to the game, I can definitely see me spending a lot of time turning some of my rough designs into something fully realized for this game.

Support for multiple monitors and multi-function displays (MFDs), TrackIR, and advanced controllers. And there it is. Star Citizen is going to support the ultimate simpit gaming rig with this simple promise. You want a three monitor display wrapping in front of you? Okay. How about a dedicated screen for your sensors? Sure. Joysticks, throttles, keyboards, and gamepads? Whoa whoa whoa now--you're a little nuts, aren't ya? That my friends, is a game that isn't simply worthy of the simpit I've been dreaming of these past 22 years--it demands one. Never mind that I'm a more artistic, fine detail sort of builder with minimal wood-working experience. Never mind that I've never wired anything like this before. Never mind that I will building the first PC of my very own from scratch to form the heart of the ultimate gaming rig (that I can afford). It is going to happen. It must happen. So let it be written; so let it be done.

Cloud Imperium Games is collectively working on realizing my dream game and the dream of tens of thousands of gamers all over the world. It's safe to say I'm going to be blogging more about the different aspects of this game in the future. I've already posted at least one article's worth on the subject of space mining in Star Citizen on the website's forums. I'll also be chronicling my progress as I work on my simpit and related projects for this game, so don't worry: I didn't run out of words with this article.

More's the pity, right?

*Seriously, Google spellcheck? You don't know the word 'cyclopean'?!?

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