Redshirt is centred around a fairly novel idea. You know Star Trek, and Babylon 5, and, ooh, probably Battlestar Galactica and just about every lengthy series set in space? Well, there are plenty of games that cast you in the more important roles depicted in those shows. You can command starships in plenty of games, and you can build space stations in others. You can run entire space empires or dogfight against both aliens and evil empires in the cold of space.
But what about the little guys? The guys who have to paint the hull, or mop the floors, or take out the trash, or repair the chicken soup machines? In short – what if you were Dave Lister from Red Dwarf before everyone else died? And what if there was a serious implication that something horribly, horribly wrong was going to happen to the space station you’re on within the next 180 days, and all leave was denied to everyone of the lower ranks?
This is the premise of Redshirt. Armed only with a social networking tool called Spacebook, you’ve got 180 days to find your way off the station, either by getting promoted to the higher ranks or simply by amassing enough money to buy a ticket off the thing from the black market. And naturally, as higher-ranked jobs earn you money, you’re going to have to work at your promotions no matter which option you choose.
This, in turn, gives you more options. You can earn your promotions like a good little space boy or girl, by working hard and training at the required skills, but this takes time and will often result in causing more problems – you have to keep an eye on your health and happiness, after all, and spending an evening studying station schematics is unbelievably boring. Alternatively, you can play it socially… but dating your direct superior so that they’ll give you a promotion for which you’re horribly unqualified might backfire, if you then break up with them so you can schmooze with your new superior.
And that, in a nutshell, is the game. Use your “actions” to make posts on Spacebook, “Like” the updates of others, invite workmates and superiors to events, or do some studying on your own. Stalk people on Spacebook to find out where they’re likely to be and then arrange things so that you can “accidentally” bump into them there, become beloved and popular, and schmooze your way to the top… or focus on earning cash, training your skills, and buying items to give you little boosts along the way. Or do both.
There are also random events, generally in the form of Away Missions, which will randomly kill off a bunch of people because you’re all redshirts. On the one hand, watching your girlfriend and two of your friends get vaporised in front of you does not do much to make you happy, and being unhappy means you perform poorly at work and are no fun to hang around with, and this means you’ll make less money and have less friends. On the other hand, if your direct superior gets murdered by an alien energy beam, then hey: chance at a free promotion!
Helping you out, you also have Aspirations that give you an idea of what your character “wants” to do at the time. They may want to befriend someone on Spacebook (because, as with real life, nothing’s official until it’s on Spacebook), or get romantically involved with someone, or whatever.
It’s a fantastic idea, but it’s a fantastic idea that’s really hard to even try to judge, right now. The version I’m playing has “BETA v0.1” emblazoned across the title screen, which I think is development shorthand for “lots of stuff is a bit broken and the game isn’t close to being done yet,” so I can’t exactly say I FOUND A BUG AND THEREFORE AM DISAPPOINTED. Because right now, it is rather buggy, but I’d be gobsmacked if it wasn’t. It’s a beta. That’s… that’s kind of the point.
That said: the one key area I really, really hope gets improved is the interface, because when a game is based almost entirely around menus, it’s problematic when those menus are a bit of a chore to navigate. They’re not appalling, and they get the information you need across, but I genuinely wish there were more shortcuts.
Let’s say, for instance, that I want to improve my relationship with the person hiring for the job I want by inviting him to an event that he’ll enjoy. First I need to open up the career tree to find out who he is. Then I click on his picture there to move to his Spacebook page, which is a nice touch. Then I look at his interests, and have to remember that he’s into Fitness Lifestyle, Xenogastronomy, and Self-Indulgence.
Okay, so now I need to invite him to one of those. I can’t just click on them, though – I have to either go into the Events tab and cycle through literally everything to find out which events support at least two people, are good for those traits, and I can afford (and have the skills for), or I have to go into the Skills & Interests tab, click on each of those interests in turn to see which events work for them, and then click on each event individually to work out (again) which ones support at least two people and are actually affordable. It’s slightly more problematic with things like Happiness, which don’t even have a list of activities that help it out; if I’m chronically depressed, then scrolling through every activity I can find to work out which one will give me the biggest boost to Happiness isn’t really going to cheer me up.
I’m not quite sure how this could be improved – having the interests on the profile pages link to the those events and shop items, maybe? Colour-code the event headers based on which ones you’re eligible for, and add some sort of mouse-over text or a little indicator that gives information as to how well they work for that stat and whether they’re for one person or more? Have a search and filter for events?
Still: this is a very early beta, so I fully expect improvements to be made to everything by the time the game reaches V1.0. I don’t know whether I’d say I’m enjoying Redshirt right now, because there’s still a load of work that needs to be done to streamline and fix things, but it’s definitely got a huge amount of potential and there’s already something rather compelling about it. There are enough knowing winks at sci-fi tropes, references to all veins of pop culture, and tongue-in-cheek humour to buoy up what’s currently there, and playing around with a fictional Facebook in a fictional-but-familiar setting is a wonderful idea that even I – as someone who thinks Facebook is an internet-based misery machine – can approve of. Whether it’ll live up to its potential remains to be seen, but if nothing else, developer The Tiniest Shark seems to be on the right track.