Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What I learned studying up on Captain-and-Crew Space Opera

After Combat Medic had his fightin' thread about why the Federation of Star Trek is a terrible place, I was inspired to watch DS9 again (which actually addresses many of the issues raised), which led to me exploring other, similar series, like Farscape, Blake's 7 and so on.  Not just [I]watching[/I] them, but tearing them apart, reading the director's notes, playing games related to them, studying up on the lore behind them, trying to understand what makes them tick.

It's just a thing I do.  I have ADHD, I get obsessed with things.

Here are some things that popped out.

1. Star Trek spaceship design actually makes sense

The idea behind the goofy pod-and-saucer design actually makes a sort of sense.  The idea is that your radioactive drives are connected to the saucer, in which your crew resides so that it can provide power and thrust, but it remains far enough away that it doesn't irradiate them.

Of course, Star Trek ruins this by having its engineers just hanging out not 10 feet from the warp core, but hey, what's a realistic depiction of radiation against the chance to see a totally cool warp drive in the background.

(Similarly, the DS9 wheel makes sense if you want to generate artificial gravity.  Just spin-up the station.  But, of course, they have artificial gravity and it's pointed in the wrong direction, because... I don't know why).

2. The scale of the ships makes sense too

These ships are HUGE.  The Galaxy class ships of Star Trek would be SM+15 or so, and Romulan Warbirds are even bigger.  Moira from Farscape is similarly gigantic, despite the fact that they only ever show like 10 people as the crew.

Of course, a simple thought experiment shows why.  The ships are often described containing simply titanic amounts of energy and slinging them back and forth.  The sort of masses and energies required to actually create something like an Alcubierre drive, assuming its even possible, are pretty big.  And having the kind of energies in your shields necessary to stop antimatter missiles from simply vaporizing you instantly are likewise pretty titanic.  Furthermore, most of these civilization seems to have advanced manufacturing means [I]and[/I] have a vast scale.  They have access to the resources of asteroids, massive populations on a variety of worlds.  They are many magnitudes of order more productive than our civilization is.  If they put a fraction of that into military production, the result is going to be fleets far larger than we can currently deploy, with ships far larger than we'd even think about.

3. The writers don't really understand any of this

As I've already pointed out, it's like the writers glimpsed better sci-fi over the horizon, and ran around recreating a soap-opera set in a world that looks vaguely like the better sci-fi, and then added bits that they thought were fun, like wooshing ships and lasers that can disintegrate people, but never seem to disintegrate bulkheads.

4. Or maybe they do, but they don't think the audience will

The more I watch these, the more I see that they're about a few consistent themes.  The first is a sense of wonder.  We watch them to see the terrible, super-woofer trembling majesty of a black hole, or the awe-inspiring wonder of the rings of an alien world glittering through the rising sun.  We watch them to interact with strange aliens and stand in the cavernous maw of the ruins of a long-dead race.

At the same time, the second theme is humanity.  This allows us to relate to events going on.  The being that stands gaping up at those ancient ruins is a fellow much like you and me, not some robot, not some engineered being with an incomprehensible intellect, not some mobile sapient fungus.  But someone like you or me. Similarly, the aliens he meets look remarkably human not just because of a limited budget, but so we can fall in love with their men or their women, so we can punch their warlord in the jaw, so we can relate to their politics.  The point is to make a story that a 20th century (Captain-and-crew stuff seems very grounded in the 20th, rather than 21st century) person (especially an American.  Even Farscape, despite being Australian, seems primarily aimed at Americans) can easily relate to.  This goes further: Most of the drama of the story, when it isn't being driven by the Science Mystery Of The Week, is mostly a human drama.  It's people falling in love or falling in hate, or circling around one another in rivalry or misplaced distrust or what have you.

There's substantial tension between these two points.  The more realistically you depict the wonder, the more wondrous you make it, but the harder it is for the average person to understand that wonder.  But the more understandable you make it, the more mundane it becomes.  Balancing on this knife's edge is one of the things that creates many of the peculiarities of the genre, and when you slip off to one side or the other, that's where you lose audience members.  Seems an unforgiving genre.

4. It doesn't seem to have made a lasting cultural impact

If I dig through sci-fi art on Deviat Art or elsewhere, what I mostly find are lots of battlesuits, lots of power armor, lots of robots, lots of cyborgs, lots of skimpily dressed alien-chicks [I]or[/I] creepy bug-aliens.  I see lots of Star Wars, lots of 40k, lots of generic cyberpunk or military sci-fi.  I see lots of long, "rod"-style spaceships.  I see very little that seems inspired by Star Trek or other Captain-and-crew sci-fi. When people create something similar, it seems more retro "This is what I imagine sci-fi looked like in the 50s" rather than some re-imagined version of a captain-and-crew genre.

To be clear, for me, the defining tropes are: relatively mundane humans wearing jumpsuits with funny/simplistic designs, wielding rayguns, who explore worlds populated by humans-in-rubber-suit aliens, while their primary focus of tension is usually on controlling the ship itself.  That is, it would play like the Artemis Bridge Simulator or FTL, rather than like Mass Effect or Halo.

I can find some artwork inspired directly by star trek, but rarely do they depict new characters (unless, weirdly, they are furries). I almost never see "I'm trying to do something like star trek, only different," though I see tons of Deus Ex knock-offs, or Shadowrun knock-offs, or Starship Trooper knock-offs, or Aliens knock-offs.

It didn't used to be that way, I think.  Perhaps Captain-and-Crews cultural cachet has faded and we're drifting more towards planetary romance and space spy-and-mercenary action.  Star Trek is increasingly depicted in a "retro" fashion.  It's out of date.  Old fashioned.

5. Finding that balance and that cultural interest makes Captain-and-crew gaming hard

Players have a mind of their own.  They won't conveniently forget the Solution Of The Week when you have your back turned.  If you let them phaser through a solid wall one session, they'll demand to know why they can't phaser through all walls.

The solution seems to either run it as a genre-based game, or to get onto that knife's edge the same way the original writers did.  In the first case, you run it like a Supers game, or use a system like Marvel Heroic or Fate or Drama System, and the reason you can't use the Science Solution Of the Weak is that it's not an Aspect this week, or you don't have the drama points, or it's bad form.  This is about emulating the genre, then, about creating an accurate depiction of what writers do.

The other would be to find some way to allow enough wonder and consistency into the game without it destroying the player's ability to relate.  You still have to introduce some arbitrary elements (what Ultra-tech calls "Safe tech,") like, "We have robots, but they're dumb, and you don't have Power Armor" and "Only the cyborg race has cybernetics.  Nobody else does because reasons" and so on.  If can't really play down the destructiveness of the weaponry without giving the heroes a consistent reason they're not being instantly blown away (like "You all have modulate force fields, here's how they work).

Fortunately, these arbitrary decisions do allow for the building of some interesting gameplay.  Players need to be willing to buy into space elves and bumpy-forehead aliens who all, amazingly, speak English (and laugh at jokes in English because, apparently, translator microbes are [I]that good[/I]) and ships that swoosh through space rather than float silently through an endless void.  But I expect anyone who gets into such a game knows what they're getting into.  Decrying the inaccuracy of the xenobiology while x-beams are scattering off your conformal force screen and you're using a dermal regenerator on your fallen buddy seems... misplaced.
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