Jean-Paul Sartre famously opined, "Hell is other people." Actually he opined "L'enfer, c'est les autres" but I don't understand a word of that.
This is the story of four weeks spent in a Sartrean hell known as Neptune's Pride.
Neptune's Pride is a multiplayer game of galactic conquest played in a browser, typically over several weeks. The rules of the game are not complex: capture stars to grab more resources; broaden your economy; build industry to make ships; develop science to accelerate technological upgrades; move fleets to wage war or shore up defence. The game plays out in real time, real time slow motion. Whilst you sleep, fleets travel to assigned destinations like paper aeroplanes gliding through the thick mud of space.
No alien horror is an island and each empire can share technology and collude... or deceive and betray. The real core of Neptune's Pride is finding ways to collaborate with others in an environment where back-stabbing is not just possible but encouraged.
It's this special blend of paranoia and real-time activity that gives Neptune's Pride its reputation for riding roughshod over players' lives. The constant, hounding fear that any time you are offline, something bad can happen to you. This pressure is what drives some players to throw in the towel well before the game reaches its conclusion.
In June 2010, Kent Sutherland of Second Person Shooter had an idée dangereuse as Sartre might have put it. While others followed the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Kent pulled together a band of misfits to play a game of Neptune's Pride.
I was fortunate to be invited. I said no. I'd heard enough about the game to know that it had deleterious effects on both life and the relationships between players. It was a no-brainer.
Kent didn't give up. A few weeks later, he told me they'd finished running through a practice game and were now ready to kick off a real game. It would only take "five minutes of your time a day". I thought it would be interesting to write about on Electron Dance and, as I trusted Kent, I signed up.
I think Kent felt a bit guilty when the game made us its John Romero-style bitches after just a few days. But don't worry, Kent. We're alive and still talking to each other, that's the main thing. And it was a gaming experience I'll never forget.
Or ever want to relive.
Tuesday June 22, Day Zero
My goal was to prove that if you have no time, you can't possibly win. Being delineated by a 7-to-5 job, a young son and another young one on the way, my existence didn't sound compatible with the demands of Neptune's Pride.
Although we weren't a bunch of freelance journalists sitting at home in our underpants all day, I got the feeling I was the old man playing against young people with more time to engage in fights of fancy. My competitors: I hated them already. They were:
- Kent Sutherland & Laura Michet of Second Person Shooter (2PS)
- Switchbreak – cubicle wage slave leading secret life as indie game developer
- theprettiestboyontheplanet – faithful 2PS commenter about whom I know jack schmidt
- Kerry Turner – Flash developer in real life, Flixel game maker in extra life, featured once on RPS (actually twice if you're in the know)
- Miles Newton – half of The Machination gaming blog, aspiring indie game developer and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.phile
- Sid "BeamSplashX" Menon – film student and regular in the comments on both 2PS and Electron Dance
- Veret – used to pop up all the time on RPS and 2PS but not so much recently (where are you now, dude?) - has written for Crispy Gamer
But few used their real name in the game. The Neptune's Pride player roster was as follows:
- Starspackle (game sponsor, had to be Kent)
- Abacus Master
- Baron Copernicus
- The Aspiration (yours truly)
Kieron Gillen commented on the classy RPS Solium Infernum AAR that Greg Wild playing as Zah'hak stayed in character throughout the entire game (mentioned in Part 5). This sounded kind of fun for other players and wanted to give role-play a go.
Thus I created The Aspiration, a race of theopaths that believed everyone should aspire to be just like them. Through three separate genocidal campaigns amongst their own, they'd convinced themselves that their goal was one of galactic peace. It would just take a lot of death to get there.
On the eve of war, I stayed up late reading practically everything about Neptune's Pride I could lay my browser window on. Rules. Strategies. Tips. From simple stuff like having thirty minutes to cancel any fleet order to subtle play like leaving one ship on every star you take to dissuade interlopers from opportunistic land grabs.
I was ready. Sorta.
Wednesday June 23, Day One
Still getting my bearings, Starspackle and Abacus Master had already contacted me by the time I'd opened the game (the latter sent an enormous mail, obviously someone who had played before). Polite mails regarding trading tech upgrades and possible long-term strategies.
I didn't want to be played so ended up being friendly while trusting no one at all. I smiled nicely at Starspackle and Abacus Master. Seance also jumped in but I wasn't sure I needed to have yet another trading relationship; I put off turning Seance down for a day.
Responding to Starspackle, I tried out The Aspiration's voice for the first time:
-72519- We are pleased to receive your communication. The Aspiration only wishes to spread the peaceful message of the Virtuous Rapture. We accept your wise suggestion of non-aggression, which fits our philosophical aims of cultural exchange and communal harmony. If your species were amenable to a tech trade, we are currently researching Weapons for self-defensive operations and would be most interested in any advances in the Scanning or Range disciplines. Together we Aspire.
These words were the real genesis of The Aspiration. Although I was pleased with my handiwork, it was possible my competitors thought The Aspiration was on some top-notch narcotics. And in the game.
Unfortunately, I wasn't happy with my location, concerned I was going to bump into red neighbour Facewizard to the north sooner rather than later. So I sent my fleets to capture as many free stars in the vicinity as possible in a day.
Still, the game's reputation, even at this early stage, made me feel acutely vulnerable. Players were already discussing who to target after our economies were established.
Thursday June 24, Day Two
On the second day, to my surprise, I was leading the game with the most stars. Don't worry, I didn't entertain any ideas I could win the game. No, that sort of delusion would only occur to me on the third day.
Southern neighbour Crossheart, whoever he/she was, sent a missive asking to be friends. I agreed using warm phrases such as "we have no intention of attacking other peaceable races" but a pact like this without tangibles is meaningless. It's masking a tautology: until I decide to invade you, I won't invade you. Who can forget good old Neville Chamberlain?
However, it was the Facewizard situation to the north that defined my thinking. I spent all of my cash on the cheapest economy and industry upgrades across my expanded territory and thought of hunkering down and getting defensive. Facewizard was getting close. A good place to stop expanding was a world called Procyon as it was essentially a choke point for any invasion heading south.
I considered telling Facewizard that Procyon would be the end of my expansion north. And I thought, nahhh. Facewizard couldn't possibly launch an assault at this early stage and putting one player on edge sounded like a good strategy. Facewizard was most likely to be my first target as he/she was just too close for comfort. The plan was to build up a fleet at the border without communicating anything regarding its intention to Facewizard.
Nevertheless, I still opened a communication to Facewizard and Starspackle on a different matter. Veret worried me the most. He had all this space in the map corner and was cut off from the rest of us by an interstellar chasm that no-one, as yet, had the technology to bridge. He could expand far and wide without fear of any meddling kids playing on his lawn. If you've ever seen Babylon 5, I saw Veret as the nightmarish Shadows, lurking out on the rim, ready to swoop in at any moment and cause total destruction.
+60606+ We speak to our friends across the void ... unlike the other races, the Veret have no organic boundary. No neighbour to limit expansion. No neighbour to engage in cultural exchange. Such a limited view may lead to xenophobic tendencies. In time, growing untethered, the Veret may become a powerful empire and refuse to participate in communal harmony. In short, the Veret perhaps have a significant advantage above the other races.
This is not a call for action, for The Aspiration are a peace-amenable race. We purged ourselves of violent traits through three genocides of the unenlightened over the past century. However: as your two species are the Veret's nearest neighbours, The Aspiration wonder if you share our concerns. We seek your counsel.
Together we Aspire!
Neither Starspackle nor Facewizard responded to this enquiry.
And then, just as I was going to bed, I saw one of Facewizard's fleets bearing down on Procyon.
God damn it. Two days and a fight already. I calculated I would get there first and win the ensuing battle - combat basically comes down to who has the most ships, with weapons level as a sort of multiplier. There's no randomness to worry about.
It was most likely due to a newbie mistake: us new players were learning the hard way to avoid diplomatic incidents like this. Our empires were more-or-less blind with an extremely limited scan range. But it didn't stop me from firing off a faux threat:
*93871* We are displeased at the incursion by your species against the rightful territory of the Spiritual Domain of The Aspiration. At Procyon, we will nullify your ships when they arrive.
Celebrate their ascension.
I also used the incident as propaganda. I told both Starspackle and Abacus Master that The Aspiration was under attack. This seemed like what I was supposed to do. Lie, cheat, steal. I get it.
Friday June 25, Day Three
I noticed that Neptune's Pride had broken through into my work-mind. Concentration would occasionally focus on the burning question of the hour: "What happened on Procyon?" I had to wait until I got home to learn of the fallout.
I won. Facewizard sent a terse response: it was a mistake, buddy, leave it at that. But, having pissed off a neighbour, I became anxious. Starspackle had been helpful and chatty so far, but was he truly on my side? Facewizard and I were knocking on each other's door. And Baron Copernicus, my eastern neighbour, was also closing in. As we were all starting to bump up against each other in an increasingly crowded galactic room, paranoia was manifesting. You can see this in my game journal for the third day: Need to be cleverer about my ship deployments. Ships everywhere, and the borders are weak. If I was Facewizard, now would be the time to make a move. Soon it will be too late.
Veret finally got in touch and wanted to trade. It seemed he was role playing too, but spoke via different people of importance within his empire. Which was nice, as it meant I wasn't the only person making a fool of myself:
Uh...anyway. So this afternoon, our exalted Leader--may his serpentine tail extend onward to infinity to embrace all the galaxy--did his all-seeing eye thing again and noticed that your ships have bigger guns than our ships. That's cool; we're not, like, jealous or anything. But somebody in R&D talked to somebody over in Conqu--uh...Foreign Relations, and they sent our department a memo saying we should try to get "a piece of that action." So what do you want to trade for it? I think we're going to have some kind of range dealie by tomorrow, and we've also got, like, money. I think.
He had also given away the location of his homeworld Ankaa, something I had avoided; losing your homeworld is not a game-ender, but it is a very juicy target for any nearby empire. He also made a reference to the "epic shit-ton of industry" I had at my disposal. True that. My military muscle was looking pretty beefy.
So tech trading was really moving now. I sent Starspackle a weapons upgrade but, of course, The Aspiration couldn't just transmit "here's your upgrade, dude":
-65203- The scientists of The Aspiration have discovered a new form of self-defensive weapon which can disintegrate flesh from great distances. It inflicts a multitude of special pain effects on those you wish to ascend; built-in ability to record MPEG7 video of target being nullified.
This we now confer to you, as part of our pact of peace and cultural exchange. You rise to the next level of Weapon skills.
Together we Aspire.
Saturday June 26, Day Four
The weekend delivered a miraculous gift: the ability to leave my PC on all day long and thus stay in permanent contact with my fleets. I transformed into Borg, part-human, part-Neptune's Pride.
Starspackle frightened the hell out of me, though, pointing out that quiet and inoffensive neighbour Crossheart had an enormous scientific infrastructure, devoted to building the three W's: weapons, weapons and, bloody hell, weapons. God, if Facewizard was working with Crossheart... I would totally have a paddle up my shit creek.
I sent more ships to Procyon. Facewizard did the same, sending more to Procyon's opposite number, Dnoces. The two worlds were reflections of one another but one of us have to break step sooner or later.
Getting a feel for the larger psychological and political picture seemed important. So I did something I had sworn never to do - sign up on Twitter, just to be able to hook into other players' feeds. Conversations in-game and out-game revealed everyone was nervous and paranoid. After only three days, it had switched from a game into something sounding like a fight for survival even though no major conflict had erupted. Looking across the map, changes in star colour between the screenshots I'd been taking revealed little tussles between Starspackle/Abacus Master, Seance/Abacus Master, Switchbreak/Seance. Nothing outright bloody, though.
I was also uncomfortable with the obvious fact that the middle to end game could be dominated by the freak who logged the most hours each day. It would likely take the shine off the entire experience but, so far, it had been kind of fun. I doubted that euphoria could continue.
So who were the players behind these empires? Starspackle had hinted enough to suggest that Facewizard was Laura Michet. Miles fretted on his blog that his position was terrible, so I deduced he must have been eastern neighbour Baron Copernicus, piggy in the map middle. The others were up in the air; I suspected Kerry was Seance but wasn't confident of that (frankly, I should have guessed as I knew she was working on a game about a ouija board).
On a whim, I decided The Aspiration wasn't going to be some empty-headed fanatical civilisation intent on galactic conquest just because. To Starspackle:
+52671+ The Aspiration recently nullified ships belonging to Facewizard and analysis of materials in the ship fragments leads us to one conclusion. Our original homeworld, where we were first spawned by the Divine Virtuous Rapture, is within the ghetto that Facewizard considers their empire.
Our people are hungry to reclaim our original homeworld and with peace and understanding we are going to lean into Facewizard's border at Procyon. Watch them move. Watch them react.
This maneuver will initiate in approximately one to two days.
See? That's not aggressive, that's just like an orphan looking for his parents.