who wants to rule the galaxy?

April 2, 2010

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been playing some Neptune’s Pride, a free browser-based 4X game. It basically strips the 4X game model down to the basics – stars to conquer differentiated only by a single resource value, four technology tracks, one kind of unit, and three improvements that can be built on each of your stars (giving bonuses for economy, industry and science). There’s no attempt at setting up a fiction or creating atmosphere – this is pure mechanics, numbers and vectors plotted over a functional graphical display. You could call this focus, and it’s a necessary choice given the way the game system is revealed as no more than the foundation for the game’s real point of interest: the complicated web of diplomacy, fragile alliances, secret dealings and betrayals into which inter-player relations inevitably devolve.

A game of Neptune’s Pride plays out over several weeks, though you don’t need to play for more than a few minutes each day (it does, admittedly, become more time-consuming as the game nears its end). You issue your construction orders, set your fleet’s paths, message other players, and then go off and leave the orders to be executed over the following hours. This long-form system does, of course, mean there is plenty of time to mull over strategies, rethink courses of action and consider your allegiances. It makes for a more considered, meditative approach than the standard multiplayer game, and the result is that each player’s action feels deliberate and calculated: betrayals aren’t spur-of-the-moment, kill-or-be-killed impulses. They are premeditated: that green player’s probably been planning his surprise attack on you, while feigning friendship, for five days.

As much as it is about the inherent moral bankruptcy of the average player, however, Neptune’s Pride is also about something else: the tyranny of mathematics. I’ve played two games so far, one in which I was the first to be eliminated – three players ganging up on me while I was still learning the ropes – and one in which I won by a huge margin, finishing with more than double the number of stars of the second-place player. I’d like to think this was due to my awesome skills, but it had a lot to do with the fact that three players surrounding me went completely inactive, leaving me with vast areas to expand into to the west and south while the other players fought over limited territories. This gave me an insurmountable advantage: it was evident I was going to win halfway through the game, making the last week or so an oddly joyless process of sending the vast, mass-produced space armadas my extensive resources allowed me to field to crush the players I had been feigning allegiance to for several days. Perhaps I don’t have enough of a predatory disposition, but I couldn’t really get much pride or satisfaction out of betraying these allegiances and crushing their inferior empires underfoot.  I was the bad guy – they got screwed through sheer luck, and I was only the agent by which the game system plotted out their arbitrary demise.

This isn’t a criticism of Neptune’s Pride, really – perhaps, in paring down the 4X model to the basics, it allows an essentially distasteful property of the form to come to light. In the end, I came back home yesterday evening, not having accessed the game all day, to find that it had basically won itself: following the lines of attack I had set down some days previously, my fleets had made enough conquests to push me over the 89 stars required for victory. The game was over. I had won. Yay.

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