Star Trek Online, The Tomorrow Children, and Collectivism in Games

I want to tell you all about The Tomorrow Children, a strange online survival/exploration/building game from Q-Games (of PixelJunk fame) but I don’t know where to start with it. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll start with another game that came out of PS4 on the same day, Star Trek Online.

If Star Trek Online sounds familiar and old to you, that’s because it is. STO originally released in 2010. It came out in the same month as Heavy Rain, Deadly Premonition, and Bioshock 2. Like most video game properties, no one really knows how much money the initial launch of STO made, but it probably wasn’t enough. Less than two years later, it was re-released as a free-to-play title. To give an idea of how long ago that was, the STO re-launch happened a few weeks before the initial release of Crusader Kings II. That’s an eternity for games.

I have no idea why Star Trek Online suddenly came to PS4/Xbox One in TYOOL 2016. Maybe it was phenomenally successful as a free-to-play title, and finally decided to follow Neverwinter, DC Universe Online, and Warframe several years late. I have no idea! It’s quite frankly bizarre, and that’s part of the reason I downloaded it. For some reason, an MMO from 2010 was on consoles and I had to see what it was like.

I'm on the bridge of my own ship! This is awesome! And also looks like an early 360 game

I’m on the bridge of my own ship! This is awesome! And also looks like an early 360 game

Well I mostly have my answer. Star Trek Online is exactly what I should have expected. It is an MMO from 2010. Granted, there is a ton of content. This thing has been running for over half a decade. Just looking at the Starfleet “episodes”, there’s probably a hundred hours of single-player missions in this damn game. And there are two other factions you can choose to join (Klingon and Romulan which I guess are the best choices for a three-faction ST game). The only problem is that it is all MMO content. As far as I can tell, every mission is just a couple space battles and a couple away team missions (that always involve combat) stitched together in a different order.

Don’t get me wrong, Star Trek Online has its moments.   At its best, it replicates certain moments from the series and lets you be a part of them, which is about the best thing you can hope for from a licensed game. When a half-dozen Federation ships warp in to help you take down a Borg cube early on, I got hyped. But these moments are few and far between, the occasional punchy punctuation in a dull paragraph full of shooting the same Klingons over and over again.

More than that, the Star Trek universe doesn’t make a good MMO setting. Sure, it’s a well-known franchise with limitless planets and dozens of set-pieces to revisit from multiple television shows. But the more you know about  Star Trek, the worse it feels when its married to a traditional MMO.

Star Trek Online_20160921163912

Space looks way better than the bridge and the ground…but still looks hella early 2010s

The world of Star Trek–or the world of the Federation/Starfleet in Star Trek at least–is a world of near-post-scarcity. I won’t call Star Trek a true post-scarcity universe, because there are clear mentions of supply and trade constraints throughout the series. But I think it’s safe enough to say that in general individuals in the Federation are taken care of well enough that there is no need or desire to accumulate wealth. In fact, money doesn’t exist. Who is taking care of everyone? The series is fairly ambiguous on this matter and for my point, it really doesn’t matter whether the Federation is a heavily-regulated, centrally-planned communist state or an anything-goes hippie collective empowered by replicators. In Star Trek, there’s no money, people work for pride and to take care of each other, and humans are better off for it no matter how it happened.

This doesn’t work in an MMO. MMOs are a constant grind for more money, more experience, better equipment, and (in STO) better starships. MMOs combine both wage slavery and entrepreneurship in a way that can only be described as Capitalist As Fuck. And all that seems bizarre in the world of Star Trek, which has either rejected capitalism or reformed it beyond 21st century comprehension. Why the hell is a Starfleet officer grinding for better equipment? Why am I getting rewards from an Admiral for doing my duty as an officer? Couldn’t I have used this uncommon phaser pistol against the Klingons I’ve been fighting for the last couple hours? And isn’t it weird, in the world of Star Trek, that Starfleet withheld that laser pistol until I completed enough labor for them?

The Federation–or at least human society–in Star Trek, is explicitly collectivist. No matter what arguments you want to make about how they got there, everyone is working for the common good rather than the desire to accumulate capital. Well, if you want to be cynical about the politics of Star Trek, some people are probably working to accumulate power, but that’s been true of any remotely collectivist society in human history so it doesn’t disprove my point. A game built around making your individual character’s numbers (exp, dps, credits, w/e) go up simply doesn’t jive with a collectivist world.

Maybe this is a problem with video games in general. Most games that aren’t strictly narrative-focused rely either on your numbers going up or head-to-head competition, both of which cut against collectivism. Hell, Making The Numbers Go Up is such a strong part of games that there are now games explicitly about doing that and nothing else (cite: every single time the Giant Bombcast talks about the clicker genre).

So, how do you build collectivist gameplay? Now I’m going to talk about The Tomorrow Children.

The Tomorrow Children™_20160918021801

A couple years ago, when I started to get into thinking about game design, I came up with a question that I couldn’t even begin to answer: What would a Soviet video game look like?

I mean, other than Tetris. But Tetris came out in the mid-80s, developed only a year before the beginning of perestroika and glasnost. What I wanted to know is how the socialist realism that defined (and was forced upon) art in the USSR for decades in the 20th century could be reflected in a game. How could a rejection of formalism and the embrace of heroic collective labor be portrayed? Early Soviet film was so different and strange from its Western counterpart. Painting and sculpting evolved in a completely different direction because of socialist realism.

Now, it’s way too facile to say that The Tomorrow Children answers my question. For one thing, it explicitly doesn’t reject formalism and instead latches onto the aesthetics of Soviet art like a frenzied lamprey. It’s shameless about it, and I’d know shameless appropriation of communist art better than almost anyone. The Tomorrow Children desperately wants to be a Soviet game and that makes me reluctant to say that it succeeds.

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I’m late for the bus! I’m late for the bus!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What the hell is The Tomorrow Children? Put simply, it is an online survival/town building game. The world has fallen into ruin. Most of the land has been swallowed up by The Void, a milky-white anti-existence populated by shimmering Kaiju monsters. The last bastion of humanity are the small towns scattered across The Void. These towns are staffed by projection clones, an army of holographic little girls. You play as one of these clones, venturing out into the void to collect resources, building structures in towns, powering the towns by running on a treadmill,and defending them against monster attacks. You also find matryoshka dolls, which can be somehow reconstituted into humans to populate the town and rebuild humanity.

It’s all really bizarre.

This doll is actually a person. Somehow. I don't even know.

This doll is actually a person. Somehow. I don’t even know.

On top of everything else, The Tomorrow Children is an online game. One projection clone isn’t enough to maintain and protect a town. Wherever you go, you will see other players running around, depositing materials, building equipment, and firing the town’s weapons at distant (or, if you’re unlucky, not-so-distant) monsters. There is no voice chat or text chat, so you are limited to whistles (similar to Journey).

What’s the goal of all of this? Well, as far as I can tell, the goal is to barely eke out an existence. You can’t build your town up to mount an attack on the monster’s homeworld, or even start to fix what’s wrong with the Earth. You can only help your town survive another day.

Monster on the horizon

Monster on the horizon

The most fascinating part of the core gameplay loop is that, outside of anything you are specifically holding in your hands or in your backpack, nothing belongs to you. It belongs to the world or your current town. Drop your lantern to light a dark tunnel? Another player can come along and pick it up and take it. Drop off resources at the bus stop you spent 10 minutes mining? It’s returned to the town by the bus, where other players can deposit it and claim the reward. Build a car to travel outside of town without using the bus? There’s nothing stopping another player from taking that car and using it themselves.

This expands to housing. Once you have a residency permit, you can build a house of your own in a town that has the free space. But your house looks like all the others and it functions exactly like all the others, which is to say you can change your clothes by going inside. You can change at your house or at another player’s house. It literally doesn’t matter.

The communal resources lead to some very strange gameplay quirks. For example, it’s entirely possible to build up “toil”, which is the equivalent of experience points, entirely by free riding on the effort of other. Stake out the place where the bus drops materials, and you can “contribute” to the town entirely by moving logs, stones, and dolls a few feet to the storage bins. And crafting materials don’t come out of your inventory (which is incredibly limited) but the town pool. Someone else can go to all the work of bringing in logs and you can go up to the crafting bench to use them however you wish.

The treadmill that powers the town through a minigame

The treadmill that powers the town through a minigame

In most games, this would be frustrating. And in most games that don’t bind inventories, it’s absolutely meant to be frustrating. The recent multiplayer survival game boom is full of titles where stealing from other players to enrich yourself is a mechanic, as well as a victory or failure state (depending on which side of the theft you’re on). But here’s the thing about The Tomorrow Children: the only things you can do (aside from be purely wasteful, like throw resources and items into the void) all benefit the town, and eventually, all resources return to the town.

Waiting for the bus

Waiting for the bus

So there’s nothing really lost by a free rider or truly stolen by a thief, as long as they are attempting to play the game in a meaningful way. And everything you can do–even crafting, which requires completion of a sigh number sliding puzzle–is work of some sort. If there’s a dude who just wants to sit by the bench and solve those stupid puzzles all day while he’s making pick axes and shotguns, that’s fine by me.

(As an aside, I’m pretty sure that someone did that in my town because one day I logged in to find a giant fucking pile of pickaxes and shotguns lying by the crafting bench).

Individual rewards in The Tomorrow Children are few and far between. You can visit the ministry of labor in your town to receive coupons for the work you’ve done. Fortunately, the ministry of labor knows that you dug a hole even if someone else stole the resources you mined, so that credit does go to you. But the only things you can buy with coupons are items that help you do more work for the town (or another town, if you move on).

And unfortunately, there’s no real customizing your town. Sure, you can place items as you please. But all towns are aesthetically mostly identical. Early on, I saved a town from abandonment. It was on the abandoned list, and I was curious if it was beyond help. This town had no resources and had run out of power. I ran on the treadmill a few times, did a couple runs to the islands to get food/wood/metal, and installed a gun to fight the monsters. When I returned, it was alive again. People visited it. I kinda felt proud. But, ultimately, it had turned into just another place like all the others.

My clone has some self esteem issues

My clone has some self esteem issues

In many ways, The Tomorrow Children provides an example of collectivist gameplay. Everything is done for the benefit of the playerbase as a whole. All resources are shared, all effort is put towards the furtherance of the town rather than the player (there are attribute points you can distribute to your individual character when you level up, but they never felt like they did anything). The only problem? There’s no forward progress. Not really. Better tools just mean you do the same work slightly faster. Same with the attribute points. There’s no end goal. You’re no hero or changer of the world, but a simple laborer in a world that desperately needs labor to survive.

I want to like this about The Tomorrow Children, largely for the same reasons I want Star Trek Online to manage progression in a new way and not ape other MMOs. But from a design standpoint, I see how hard that can be. For a short time, there’s something interesting about being one of hundreds of workers, all desperately trying to preserve what’s left of humanity in a strange world. But unless I can carve out a real, meaningful place in that world, I don’t know how long I want to continue. One house, like all the other houses, isn’t enough. One town, like all the other towns, also falls short.

Listen, I’m a huge fan of uncomfortable game mechanics. I will go to bat for Final Fantasy VIII’s intentionally deceptive/subversive XP levelling system. I played through literally all of the original Drakengard. I made this goddamn thing. And there are moments where The Tomorrow Children excels. Taking down a flying monster over a town with three other people, or exploring an island that looks like a man waiting for death while being struck with bombs, or finding someone building a bridge into nowhere were all amazing, even if they were brief interludes in intentionally tedious labor.

Literally a face being bombed for some reason

Literally a face being bombed for some reason

Just as I didn’t know where to begin, I struggle to come to a conclusion with The Tomorrow Children. Somehow it manages to capture the glorification of common labor of Soviet art (while completely whiffing on abandoning form and portraying realism) which is quite remarkable. I wasn’t sure how you could even manage that, though now I realize why. In the end, maybe I want a game with individual progress. Maybe I want the silly MMO economy. Maybe I want to buy a better starship from Starfleet, even if that doesn’t make any goddamn in-world sense.

Though, please, enough with the “kill 10 klingons then beam up and destroy 2 klingon ships” mission structure.

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