The seasonal barn burner of video game sales, courtesy of Steam and Gog.com, allowed me to pick up a few games that have been on my “want to play” list for some time. One among them is Strike Suit Zero – Born Ready Games’ attempt to inject some much needed life into the space combat genre. While it’s not Wing Commander or Freespace – in fact, it is closer in style to the reprehensible Zone of the Enders – SSZ is a more than respectable title, which I will review in earnest at a later date. Today I’d like to talk about how SSZ’s story got me thinking about morality in space combat games.
Unlike Bioshock, The Witcher, and like titles, morality in space combat games is generally a straight forward affair. Take Wing Commander as an example. The conflict between the Terran Confederation and the Kilrathi Empire offers little in the way of moral complexity. The Kilrathi are brutal aliens bent upon the subjugation of the galaxy. Their political framing as an empire reminiscent of imperial Japan, compared to the democratic Terran Confederation (i.e. the Allies), also helps code their role as the game’s antagonist amid a conflict built on the back of World War Two’s carrier warfare in the Pacific.
Freespace and Freespace 2 took this dynamic a step further. The prototypical war between humanity and an alien Other (an Other whose culture is fleshed out through the use of ancient Egyptian and Indian religion and culture) is resolved at the end of Freespace’s first act. A military coalition between the Galactic Terran Alliance and the Vasudan Empire emerges as the morally just force in the face of a Shivan invasion. Any lingering doubts therein are quashed when the Shivans destroy the Vasudan home world, prompting a Vasudan Diaspora and the creation of the Galatic Terran Vasudan Alliance in Freespace 2.
I’ll save my discussion of a middle-eastern themed alien Other and Diaspora for another day.
Despite my affection for both franchises, it’s fair to say that they both lacked any sort of moral complexity in the narrative. They are great games, and exemplars of using game play as a narrative tool, but in terms of story they never do more than to beat on the drum of war is hell. In other words, there is never any doubt that the player, and their affiliated in game faction – is on the right side of history. Bearing this in mind, let us turn our attention to the Colony Wars franchise, a lesser known contemporary of Wing Commander and Freespace.
Colony Wars and its direct sequel, Colony Wars: Vengeance were released exclusively on the Playstation One in 1997 and 1998, respectively. In the shadow of Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom‘s port to the PSX in 1997, a game which was then the most expensive video game ever produced, and the release of Freespace in 1998, Colony Wars was a franchise that lived in the shadow of titans. Moreover, Liverpool-based Psygnosis Studio brought space combat to the Playstation at a time when serious gamers wanted their space combat on PC. Despite graphics that paled in comparison to WC4 and Freespace, Colony Wars boasted some innovations in space combat mechanics and a politically charged story – the latter being of particular concern to this essay. For your consideration and context, here are the opening cut scenes to Colony Wars and Colony Wars: Vengeance.
Colony Wars’ intro gives us all the language we need to code the Terran Empire as a straight forward antagonist: league versus empire, father versus Tsar, rebellion versus oppression. As the game progresses along a branching story arc based on player performance during the missions, it reveals that the father might not be the benevolent figure he seems. Perhaps, as the Colony Wars: Vengeance video suggests, the League are a rowdy bunch of terrorists. Surely the League must forfeit some moral high-ground in their war for independence when their solution to the empire’s hegemony is to seal billions of people within the resource starved Sol system, condemning them to a slow death.
This ambiguity, however, is not as overt as it might seem. Both games start from similar narrative places, mobilizing the sort of language that helps a player insert themselves as the hero of the story. Then both games proceed to gradually break down that initial coding until players are left to wonder if their side is indeed the righteous one. In CW the father escalates the war to include League strikes against civilian targets. In CW:V Kron, the leader of the Earth Navy, executes his fellow soldiers for dissent and questioning the righteousness of their cause. While both games stop short of letting players take an active role in challenging their political order (i.e. lud narrative agency), they none the less subvert the narrative of assumed player righteousness that permeates this genre.
This brings me back to Strike Suit Zero. SSZ’s opening cut scene spells out a fairly archetypal imperial conflict between the United Nations of Earth and its colonies. The colonies want independence, and the Earth isn’t having it. It’s the British Empire/American Revolution in space trope. Naturally, I presumed that I would be playing as the colonials, who in true Zone of the Enders fashion secure the strike suit and use it to toss off the shackles of oppression. Quoting Dan Harmon, “The audience follows their sympathy,” and my sympathy is rarely with the forces of oppression in these sorts of stories. Instead, I found myself playing for the Earth. Furthermore, I was playing for an Earth that is on the losing side of the war and the wrong side of history.
But the losers have to be the good guys. That’s what George Lucas encoded in all of us as kid. That’s how this genre of story telling always works. The good guys can’t be agents of oppression. Right?
Even though the Colonials are hell bent for leather on using alien technology to destroy mother Terra, the UNE brought this doom upon themselves through greed, stupidity, and mass murder. Similar to Colony Wars, Strike Suit Zero doesn’t offer any ludonarrative freedom to challenge the UNE. Instead, it peels back the layers on the Terran empire, exploring them as the best of two bad options. Fighting for the UNE means defending a state that oppressed and murdered the Colonials; to sympathize with the Colonials is to give tacit approval to a polity that mobilizes genocide and planetary destruction as a tool to affect geopolitical change. As is so often the case, nobody’s hands are clean in this war.
This sort of moral ambiguity is the antithesis of the space combat sim’s origins. The essential experience of the space combat game is to make a person feel like Luke Skywalker. X-Wing Alliance’s final mission goes so far as to retcon Return of the Jedi such that the player character, Ace Azzameen, is in the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon during the Battle of Endor.
Even a classic like Tie Fighter does everything it can to remind a player that the Empire is the protagonist of the galaxy far, far away. Imperial pilots don’t carpet bomb planets or murder civilians – so the mission briefings remind us – they defend the good people of the empire against left-wing militants intent on destabilizing the galaxy.
When Wing Commander 3 lumbered into the realm of morally dubious things, it always framed them as necessary actions for the greater good. Again, there’s no ludonarrative freedom to make Colonel Blair turn back from his mission to drop the Temblor Bomb on Kilrah, thus annihilating the Kilarthi home world (nuclear allegory, ladies and gentlemen). Where one might expect Blair to quote Oppenheimer and put a gun in his mouth, WC3’s epilogue offers little in the way of guilt on the part of the Heart of the Tiger.
The Kilrathi, despite having a genocide visited upon them, all but excuse Blair of any guilt for his actions. The final narrative of the Kiilrathi is to witness Melek, chief retainer of the Kilrathi Crown Prince, say that his people brought their destruction upon themselves through corruption and decadence. How nice of them to absolve Blair, Paladin, Admiral Tolwyn, and the entire Terran Confederation of any guilt for the war. This leaves precious little room for inner turmoil or conflict on the part of the player for their hand in the destruction of Kilrah, especially when the game mobilizes the visual symbolism of the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Blair, and the player by proxy, is left to believe that he has done good work, and is now free to go on about banging a porn star turned video game actor.
Strike Suit Zero leaves players with no such easy out. Players know that each Colonial ship they shoot down is a link in the chain of Earth’s oppression. Every colonial capital ship the player torpedoes is a further reinforcement of this shameful domestic policy. Adams, the pilot of eponymous Strike Suit, is on the wrong side of history in a war that might not have any clear path of virtue. It is a remarkable divergence from the gold standard of the space combat game.
In a genre where critical discussions tend to get hung up on Newtonian physics and the beams versus bullets, Strike Suit Zero reminds us that the space combat sim is to video games what the war epic is to film. The most interesting, though not necessarily the best or most recognized, entries among both genres are the stories that abandon the binaries of war and instead study how these grand conflicts drag everybody into the mud.