Social Simulation Game Redshirt Is Everything Great About Space Operas, Everything Terrible About Facebook
by Becky Chambers | 12:30 pm, November 22nd, 2013
Before playing Redshirt, I spent a week and a half traveling. Visiting old friends, exploring new places, breathing in trees and sunshine. I had internet access for a portion of my trip, but barely utilized it aside from occasional emails and tweets letting people know I was alive. I spent three days without any internet or phone service at all. As my trip came to a close, I was reluctant to return to my previous state of connectivity. I preferred the quiet.
That’s not entirely fair. I love the internet, and even as I basked in the huggable company of in-person friends, I missed the presence of those I only interact with online. I missed reading articles and sharing ideas and considering what others had to say. But there was something I was glad to be rid of, something I couldn’t put my finger on until Redshirt beamed me into a future that felt a bit too familiar. Within a few hours of play, I was ready to run screaming back into the woods.
And that’s what’s kind of great about it.
Redshirt isn’t your average social sim. It’s a social media sim, presented with tongue firmly planted in cheek. You begin as a lowly transporter accident cleanup technician on space station Megalodon-9, where social interaction is conducted through the mandatory use of Spacebook (naturally). Your task is to climb the social ladder — liking statuses, making friends, and hosting events — before the station inevitably blows up. Without wealth, clout, or popularity, you won’t get a ticket to safety. At first glance Redshirt looks like something you might actually play on Facebook, a basic setup of maxing stats and buying gear. It’s much more complex than that. Spacebook actions are limited by day, forcing the player to strategize their social priorities. Do you neglect your girlfriend so that you can host a dinner party for an influential officer who doesn’t like her? Do you schmooze with your higher-ups at the cost of your friends’ jealousy? Do you opt for self-improvement over spending time with others? There are pros and cons to every choice, and with five possible paths to victory, socializing becomes a satisfyingly brainy affair. The stakes are further raised by randomly occurring away missions, in which the only object is to stay alive. Survival depends on whether you’ve kept your character in good health and high self-esteem. Not an easy task when immersed in the snarky, flashy, passive-aggressive world of Spacebook.
Setting-wise, I felt right at home in Redshirt. It’s a proper sci-fi satire, in a similar vein as Galaxy Quest. No trope is left unmocked, but it’s done purely out of love. Star Trek is heavily riffed upon (I can’t help but like a game with a “there are four lights” pun), and you’ll see numerous other classics skewered throughout. The developers’ fondness for the source material is evident, and the end result is hilarious. The character creation screen made me laugh aloud with the description of the Asrion race: “Often mistakenly perceived to be an empowered all-female society, but actually just horrendously objectified by everyone else.” I kept laughing when I saw that the only skin colors available for Asrions are green and blue. (In writing this, I’ve been hit with the obvious fact that “Asrion” is a portmanteau. Well played.) Oh, and did I mention — a non-binary gender slider, sexual orientation options like it ain’t no thing, and human beings of every color. I am down with all of that.
Social sims aren’t a genre I frequent, and I admit that I was skeptical about Redshirt’s premise. I mean, come on — it’s a Facebook simulator. It looks like Facebook. It operates like Facebook. It pressures you into buying status-boosting, money-sucking novelty items, like Facebook. The mimicry is so thorough that I didn’t realize how devilishly clever it was until I was well into the game. In order for Redshirt to demonstrate how bizarre social media is, it had to become social media itself.
Redshirt never tells you much about what you should be doing, but we’re all primates here. Make friends or die is our default programming. With only the slightest nudging, I was scrambling for favor. I blew my hard-earned credits on restaurant checks and bar tabs. I sent friend requests to people I barely knew. I liked statuses that I didn’t actually like — I just wanted their authors to like me. As I ascended the ranks, my motivations shifted. I ignored my lower-ranked friends, the ones who still posted updates about how cool I was. Instead I cozied up to HR managers and station officers. I bit my lip and pretended not to see their casual bigotry (come on, guys, obviously they’re not speciest if they have alien friends!), because I needed to stay on their good sides. My earlier friends seemed kinder, but they weren’t helping me get ahead. So I faked it. I leveled up interests I hadn’t had before in hopes of worming my way into a coworker’s inner circle (she rejected my friend request — no humans). I weathered come-ons from a manager I wasn’t interested in, because I wanted him to hire me. I became everything I loathed, all for the sake of superficial likes and an inventory full of stuff I didn’t need.
Redshirt is frighteningly addictive, so much so that I want to compare brain scans of someone playing the game and someone spam-refreshing actual social media. It felt uncannily akin to the real thing, but with comedic sci-fi flavor and imaginary friends. Imaginary friends. That’s what really scares me about this game, the fact that the little bursts of happy neurochemicals created by a fictional thumbs-up felt so familiar. I sat there smirking at the inanity of trying to get enough likes to unlock an achievement, as the game wanted me to do — but isn’t that essentially what we do in the real world, too? Don’t we all feel a few inches taller when we watch our digital counters fill up with likes and retweets? Don’t we wonder what we’re doing wrong when no one replies? Don’t we move quickly past our smaller successes, telling ourselves that if we just get this person to notice us, if we just get this job, if we just buy this thing, we’ll finally be content?
The thing I can’t stop thinking about is that the object of the game is not supreme popularity, but escape. I may be reading too much into that, as a result of my recent internet abstinence. Still, though, I’d be surprised if that wasn’t intentional. As I flew to safety in my shuttle, I wondered how my fellow survivors were reacting. Were they frantically uploading videos to the 24th-century equivalent of YouTube? Or were they grateful to see the whole soulless circus explode? Perhaps they chose a balanced path — letting their families know they’re okay, sharing their thoughts with others, then putting their PADDs away, taking a moment to be present within the comforting silence of space. I hoped that wherever I docked next, it would be a station where Spacebook was optional. I wanted to be somewhere where I could sit and stare at the stars without worrying about whether it was the cool thing to do. I might share the experience with my friends, later on. If I wanted to. If the time was right.
I applaud Redshirt for its many successful layers — a high quality sci-fi parody, a complicated strategy game, and a thought-provoking send-up of social media culture. I don’t believe I will play it again. I’ve got enough social media in my life as it is (and I mean that in a good way — mostly). But don’t mistake that for a mark against the game. If you’re into sims, Redshirt has a lot of replay value. I ended up opting for one of the more difficult victory paths, even though I had the option for an easier one several hours before. I was having too much fun scribbling strategy in my notebook to stop that early. The twenty dollar price tag may put some people off, but I think genre fans will be happy with what they find here. Personally, I felt an eight-hour single playthrough was a fair trade, and besides, I always feel good about supporting indies (there’s a grand total of ten folks in the credits, helmed by one-woman developer The Tiniest Shark). That said, I should mention that I encountered two significant bugs, one which prevented me from getting through the first day (this was solved by playing a human character instead of an Asrion), and one which kept me one click away from unlocking my Career victory. That latter one frustrated me. I mean, I won. Clearly. I had all the points. I’d climbed all the ranks. I’d done all the brainwork necessary to get there. But it didn’t feel like a win, because I didn’t get my Steam achievement.
And that’s why I’m running away to live in the woods forever.
Redshirt is available for Windows and Mac. Linux version to come. Visit the developer’s website for a whole mess of purchasing options.