Another review of games from Spring Thing 2007, looking at the last one I haven’t tried: The Starship Volant. What follows is not terribly spoilery but should still be avoided by anyone wanting to experience the game entirely fresh.
“Starship Volant” starts, ambitiously, by allowing the player to choose any one of five characters to play. It’s not easy writing a multiple-viewpoint game, so I suspected what followed would either be daringly cool or a failed mess. I didn’t anticipate that I’d get bored and stop playing after twenty minutes, coming away with an entirely lukewarm opinion of the game; and yet that is what happened.
Why? Two reasons, one to do with design and the other to do with writing.
The design reason is that “Starship Volant” doesn’t give the player a sufficiently clear goal at the outset. Well — that’s not quite true. The prologue hints at the danger and drama that might be in wait for our main characters. But once I’ve moved into my choice of bodies (the captain, as it happens), it’s completely unclear how to make the plot advance. There are no imminent threats. There are no puzzles. There isn’t even that much to manipulate: here I am in a starship, but my character is too bored by any of the controls to play with them or to even to give much description of what they do. It’s possible to explore and hold short chatty conversations with people, but that’s about it. I wandered around for quite a while trying to find the trigger that would make things more exciting, but I never did.
The writing reason… well, “Starship Volant” feels like a lobotomized version of the “Next Generation” Starship Enterprise, if it’s possible to imagine this. Gadgets and locations are all very familiar — food replicators, transporters, a bridge with a familiar sort of layout, briefing rooms and lift tubes, brig and engineering deck, just as on the show, and all described, amazingly, with the perspective of an amateur interior decorator. The captain seems more interested in the color scheme used to decorate the bridge than in the tools and computers that pertain to her work. I went back and replayed a bit in the vain hope that the security officer would focus on different things in his room descriptions, and ran into this, which is just a slight variation on the what the captain has to say:
The command centre of the ship, the colour scheme of the Bridge, like the rest of the ship, is pale grey and navy blue, comfortable, but not luxurious.
This description reminded me quite a bit of amateur hotel reviews on travelocity: slightly misworded, centered on points that aren’t really that interesting, and maximally vague. Now, to be fair, there are some better bits in the game as well, but at no point did I feel the kind of wonder at a new place that I might feel on a real starship; nor did I see the ship convincingly through the eyes of a character who lives and works there, with all the attendant associations and knowledge.
The world-building isn’t much either; where they deviate from Star Trek norms, the details of the invented world seem arbitrary and inconsistent. (Not that Star Trek was any good at this either. Don’t get me started.)
And personal relationships? Okay: the crew on ST:TNG were not exactly the most sprightly and developed set of characters, but imagine that they got beamed out of there and replaced by, oh, the characters of Avonlea. The communications officer is a jolly, sweetly maternal lady. The systems monitor is a shy young thing struggling with a girlish crush on the captain — all right, I don’t know that Avonlea ever explored lesbian themes as such, but still. The most interesting bit of interaction I managed to accomplish was advising one of my subordinates on his lovelife, which belonged squarely in the Avonlea-verse.
So here’s the problem. The character interaction and setting present no conflict. The game design presents no conflict. There’s nothing for me to do as a player, and there’s nothing to hook into in the story. Generally speaking, this did seem competently put together, and I ran into only one bug that revealed the seams of having a multiple-viewpoint game. (If you walk into the security officer’s quarters as the captain, the quarters are described as though they belong to you.) But I just couldn’t find the motivation to keep playing.