Daily Archives: May 28, 2009

Developerial Intentionality

I’ve never been the biggest Star Trek fan; I’d enjoy the odd episode of the original series or The Next Generation on BBC2 but didn’t religiously watch full series, and hardly caught any of Deep Space 9, Voyager or Enterprise. The new JJ Abrams-helmed film looked quite fun from the trailers, though, and sure enough turned out to be a rather splendid romp, which in turn has fuelled my previously low-key interest in Star Trek Online. Checking on their forums, though, it appears the game won’t tie in to the new film, being set after the end of the “old” timeline (at least according to Wikipedia, Star Trek Online being set 30 years after Nemesis). Understandable, given it’s been in development for a while and would presumably take a fair amount of effort to update, and setting the game slightly outside established events gives them a lot more freedom (Star Wars: The Old Republic takes a similar tack, of course, only setting itself well before the established timelines rather than afterwards; Lord of the Rings Online cunningly interleaves its story with the events of the books, but does need a certain amount of handwaving to explain away the hordes of Elven adventurers trooping around the Shire and endless stream of people standing next to Strider for photo ops). The new Star Trek film rather shakes things up, however, so in the best comic tradition “nothing will ever be the same again”…

(Warning: if you want to know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the new Star Trek film, look away now. I’m pretty sure the following includes no major spoilers, and unless you’ve been living with the the Toast King or Moon Nazis of Iron Sky you’ll probably have picked up more details in reviews, trailers and the like, but just to be safe…)

Star Trek (2009 film), as Wikipedia would title it, changes the (Star Trek) past slightly, unravelling the big ball of wibbley wobbley time-y wimey stuff such that the events of the original series didn’t really happen, a rather cunning mechanism that allows them to effectively reboot the franchise and start afresh, but without having to shout “LA LA LA LA LA the previous series don’t exist LA LA LA”. It’s no surprise, then, what one of the main talking points around the geekier forums is: the number of chairs on the bridge of the Enterprise in its various incarnations. It’s simply ludicrous that any starship would expect a crew member to perform their duties while standing, it just wouldn’t be efficient, especially for long periods, and spoils the whole film. (The Liberator of Blake’s 7 is much better seat-wise; Doctor Who’s TARDIS, total disaster.)

Actually that might just be the more ergonomically focussed forums. No, one of the main talking points is: timelines. What happened to the previous Star Trek series and films (apart from Enterprise)? There are two general schools of thought: firstly that the events of the new film caused a branch in time, and the new film runs in an alternative timeline parallel to the previous series, which still happen as portrayed. The second is that there is only a single timeline, and the changes wrought in the new film mean none of the previous series happened at all, disappearing in a puff of reboot. I say “two general schools of thought”, naturally there are several others including the ever-popular “what the hell are you talking about?”, the slightly missing the point on a sci-fi forum “you know it’s all fictional and none of it *actually* happened, right?”, and the more unusual “what does it matter, only The Cage is true Star Trek, everything else is non-canon apart from my own twenty seven volume fanfic epic Captain Pike and the Ocelots of Uncertainty”, but most of the debate is around single vs multiple timelines. In a wildly surprising turn of events, what may seem to the casual observer to be a largely esoteric matter is a fierce point of contention, both sides deploying a terrifying array of precedent from previous episodes, films, authorised novels, unauthorised novels, slightly authorised novels, interviews, commentaries and other references, not to mention light sprinklings of astrophysics, lashings of quantum mechanics, and, when all else fails, pictures of cats accompanied by grammatically suspect captions.

A key weapon in the multi-timeline armoury is an interview with Bob Orci, co-writer of the film, which states:

Anthony: So what happens (…) is the creation of an alternative timeline, but what happens to the prime timeline after (a character) leaves it? Does it continue or does it wink out of existence once he goes back and creates this new timeline.

Bob: It continues. According to the most successful, most tested scientific theory ever, quantum mechanics, it continues.

Anthony: So everyone in the prime timeline, like Picard and Riker, are still off doing there [sic] thing, it is just that (a character) is gone.

Bob: Yes, and you will notice that whenever the movie comes out, that whatever DVDs you have purchased, will continue to exist.

So Cryptic’s Star Trek Online can boldly go where no online game has gone before back in the “prime” timeline, and still be consistent with the “official” rebooted franchise (as far as anything in a long running sci-fi franchise can be consistent). I’m not sure if there are going to be any time travel elements in the game; I did have a brilliant (if I say so myself) idea to explain character respecs: you pop back in time, have a little chat with yourself, and suggest that you specialise in Engineering instead of Medicine at the Starfleet academy, and Bob’s your proverbial Uncle (who may also be your Nephew in another timeline). Course you’d have to avoid giving yourself a sporting almanac, or the secret of the Tension Sheet, but those are minor details.

Anyway, back to the sci-fi forums, and Orci’s quotes have resolved the debate, the new film is in a different timeline, everyone’s happy, right? Right. No, wait, not “right”, the other one… No; Orci’s quotes merely escalated the conflict into the new and yet more terrifying realm of authorial intentionality. In a nutshell: is the author’s intent important, or even relevant, compared to a reader’s/viewer’s interpretation of the work? Once a thread reaches the point where it’s simultaneously debating wavefunction collapse in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the deconstructionalist approach to internal, external and contextual evidence in a medium in which the notion of the “author” is highly fluid, I figure it’s time to run up the white flag, but the question of the importance of authorial intentionality struck me as Quite Interesting in relation to games, particularly in light of the recent happenings in City of Heroes regarding the Mission Architect.

So to translate the idea a bit to “developerial intentionality”: does it matter how the developers intend a game to be played, or is it entirely down to the player to decide how they should experience the game? It’s terribly easy to say “I’m the player, I know what ‘fun’ is, I should be allowed to play this game however I like to have the most fun, and anything the developers put in my way is a Bad Thing(tm)”, but I’m not sure the player is *always* the best arbiter; obviously they need to provide the bulk of the input (Developer: “this game is a plain black screen and consists entirely of pressing the ‘f’ key, which does absolutely nothing” Player: “erm… that’s no fun.” Developer: “YES IT IS!”), but a bit of developerial nudging can sometimes be useful. Difficulty is an obvious one; as players, we often tend towards a path of least resistance (well, I know I do). A while back, when playing the old superhero game Freedom Force vs the Third Reich, I hit quite a tricky mission, and after failing it a couple of times I thought I’d reinforce my team a bit by building my own hero with the editor it provided. I can’t remember if the game naturally allowed you to make stupidly powerful characters, or I just min-maxed seven shades of arse out of the system, but either way I ended up with someone who smote fascists with the greatest of ease, allowing me to easily finish the difficult mission. And the next one. And the next. All the way to the end of the game, in fact. In doing so, I didn’t get a great sense of accomplishment, it was all somewhat anticlimactic, but I also felt like I’d finished the game and didn’t have a strong desire to re-play it “properly”. My own fault entirely, but on the “fun” scale having amazing power and smashing through everything seemed like “a lot” of fun, but turned out to be “probably not as much fun as playing it ‘properly'”. Though perhaps the original mission was just too tough and I’d never have been able to get past it, which would have been “still less fun that that”. Tough business, this “fun” scale. And that’s just in single player games; any sort of multiplayer, especially massively multiplayer or player vs player content, dramatically increases the complexity as your “fun” interacts with that of other people. At which point I think it’s time to run up the white flag again before quantum physics comes into it.

In conclusion, then: the new Star Trek film is fun; I cannot prove this, but it *is*, in the same way that Mount Everest *is*, and Alma Cogan *isn’t*.