The Story So Far
If you can't be bothered to read the previous eight weeks then, fine, here it is summarised in a three minute video:
"Looking at all these stars now almost makes me sad."
These were Starspackle's last words over the public chat after the game shut down. It wasn't just our game that had come to an end but the stars themselves. The surviving players' reward was to see their respective war machine empires reduced to a collection of inert, coloured dots. Lifeless and untouchable, like collectibles in some tedious, grindy GTA mini-game.
The passing of the game left a whopping great void. It was like coming home after being on an insane weekend adventure with your friends, except everyone took a knife with them and called you a phallus behind your back. The plan was to write an article together on Google Docs. I recall feeling a little anxious about a reunion, wondering if our relationships and goodwill towards all men and women had remained intact, but my fears were groundless.
Our online chat was the equivalent of hugs and backslapping, laughing at each other's failed plans. We were glad it was over and it was time to reminisce. There were too many laugh-out-loud moments in our online chat, but my absolute favourite is when Veret discovered I had planned to attack Switchbreak:
HM: as a swan song, i was going to run at switchbreak on a suicidal run with miles/copernicus
Kent: except that we crushed him too quickly
Veret: oh thats what all your refugee fleets were for?
Veret: god dammit that would have won me the game
HM: then i woke up and saw half his stars disappeared
Veret: WHY GOD
I was goaded into writing my bits in the voice of The Aspiration which was no piece of pie. Kerry wrote a hilarious description of her devious "strategy" while Laura's small contribution took most of us by surprise. We had no idea that Laura's experience had been so negative and I actually followed up with an apology just in case there was bad blood. (There wasn't.)
A few months later I wrote a small game called Neptune's Price, a "Choose Your Own Adventure" affair based on our Neptune's Pride match. But it's telling that I put the player in Laura's shoes (and Laura's crazy hat). The game was not just a measure of catharsis but an act of contrition. If you do give the game a spin, try to find the "real ending" which should be obvious for those of you who've stuck with the last eight weeks of this series.
Our joint write-up was never finished though. Getting nine independent hands to condense a four-week game into something readable proved to be a lot more difficult than herding Farmville players into a money mincer. So you might never hear of Veret’s final cunning ploy to split Starspackle and Switchbreak. You might never discover why Starspackle had a beef with Abacus Master.
But let's now look at how Neptune's Pride works as a game.
BeamSplashX: I was always beating the drums saying "War is coming!" and I got wiped in no time when it actually did. Those warning drums are pretty expensive, though.
Veret: dude, you had no ships
Neptune's Pride is numbers. Good players will spend all their time looking at route durations, optimising flight envelopes to amass fleets, and calculating the number of ships required to take down stars.
Neptune's Price is scarcity. Players are always short of cash, of ships, of speed. This makes every choice seem crucial. In the single-player space, there is much talk about invoking "permanence" to give every action more significance. In a multiplayer experience like Neptune's Pride, there is no quick load. Each action is nothing but consequences.
But Neptune's Pride is not the harmless, slow game it pretends to be. Over the duration of a match, speed upgrades gradually accelerate the game, tilting war in favour of the players willing to devote more time to it. Something significant will happen several times a day and a player who logs in just the once cannot hope to win.
For some players, this alienates them; if they can't match the callous new pace of the game, they might as well give up. Switchbreak attacked Kerry in the first week while she was at World of Love for two days. If your only crime is not being available for the game rather than being dumb as haystacks when it comes to strategy, how would that make you feel? (Disclaimer: It may be true that Kerry is dumb as haystacks when it comes to strategy, I've done no research here.)
For other players, it's femme fatale seductive. I quickly lost credibility with regards my original goal of proving "no time means auto-fail" because I didn't want to be a quitter. I gave the game regular transfusions of my life.
Compounding the speed issue was cross-time zone play. Playing with a group of friends in the same time zone keeps everyone on the same page, although evil players may decide to abuse this and wage war while their victim empires are asleep in bed with Winnie the Pooh. An international game makes every hour dangerous. Every log off is a new cliffhanger and you're never quite sure what the next session will reveal. Leaving the game for more than a few hours can be absolutely terrifying. The daytime routine falls into orbit around the game: wake up, check game, work, check game, dinner, check game. (See the comments on this RPS article for people lamenting the effect NP had on their life.)
Whilst I rail against the concept of speed technology, there is a serious downside to putting a cap on ship speed. As mentioned by Kent, losing is like a car crash in slow motion. Locking the speed on slow means that the game and it's deaths would drag on for weeks. Slow-mo death becomes that much more painful.
The map can also pit player against player in an absurdly asymmetric manner. Miles had a hard time being dead centre of the galaxy; it's not an impossible situation - Kent started with five neighbours compared to Miles' six - but we all envied Veret's entrenched starting position.
However analysing the limited spectrum of game mechanics misses the point. The most important numbers of the game are these:
2 > 1
It's The People, Stupid
HM: you can be assured that The Aspiration never referred to Ankaa as "The FUCKER" during discussions with other species
Veret: owing, no doubt, to a lack of clarity as to which fucker you wished to malign. i believe it was oppenheimer who said "now, we are all sons of bitches" this was shortly after some momentous occasion. i think he had just completed the world's first game of NP.
Neptune's Pride is not about hoarding stars and building ships, it's Lord of the Flies. It's negotiation and trust. It's the prisoner's dilemma. How can you trust anyone when everyone wants to be a millionaire? Thankfully, the introduction of first, second and third ranking relieves this tension compared to the beta approach of winner takes all... although not as much as you might think.
Those of us who hadn't played before were screwed, newbies playing a game of single player: Laura, BeamSplashX, Miles and myself looked to cultivate a garden of stars and would only then ask the question "what next?" That's too late. In Soviet Galactica, stars find you.
Although I was forward looking, aware that I needed to keep expanding in step with my opponent empires, I still fell afoul of the single-player mentality. If The Aspiration had united with Veret, Facewizard or Crossheart at an early stage, it would've been a very different game as I could've traded some of the paranoia for strength. Alliances are what win the game. The superpowers in our match - Veret, Kent and Switchbreak - had played in the practice game and understood this already.
So if you don't engage in the galactic conversation, you're not playing the game. And here there is vast scope for making your own game.
The Blank Canvas
BeamSplashX: It's funny how NP is kind of like a less-intense alternative to EVE Online. A space opera just naturally forms out of the gameplay.
The bare bones Fight Club rules and focus on people opens the game up to tinkering. In particular, you can role-play your ass off.
There were two reasons I role played. One was to enhance the game for other players, which sounded like it could be fun. The other was to act as a buffer. I'd heard Neptune's Pride could affect real life relationships, where players are faced with friends using "underhand" tactics to ruin them. By wrapping myself up in role play, I hoped to firewall my emotions.
But late into the game, Kent mentioned something to me I hadn't considered: this firewall might have made me feel alienated. I was disconnected and all alone in those midnight hours, hitting the Refresh button on the interface again and again, shielded behind my alien façade.
Further, the role play became so significant an exercise that the threat of destruction became more potent and fearful, the equivalent of someone snatching the pen out of your hand while you're in the middle of writing a story. It is possible the role play made the stress worse.
But on the other hand, post-death, role play lives on. I psychologically survived Veret's murder attempt on my empire simply by deferring to role play. I wasn't really playing the game any more; I was playing The Aspiration: The Movie.
This was not an isolated case. I spoke to Veret recently about the game end, and he went through the same cycle of stress, resignation and ascension to performance art. Role play gave Veret something to play for:
Veret: I think at that point I was more attached to the idea of Zombie Jennifer Hale than winning. The actual plan was to punch a massive hole through to Pollux, and then plant my zombified ass there for the rest of the game. Idea being, that's where all your refugee ships were headed, so you clearly wanted it pretty bad and I was in full-on villain mode at that point.
HM: The thing I didn't count - which is why I should have had far less reason to be worried - is that Switchbreak wanted Veret stars too, which meant you weren't losing just stars to Starspackle's 99 but 99 + Switchbreak. There was really nothing to fear. And looking at it that way, you just wanted to say FUCK YOU I CAN HAS YOUR POLLUX.
Veret: Pretty much, yep.
And going further, it was my role play that dragged Switchbreak in to "save my day":
I still don't know whether I was writing a story or playing a game but it's clear that role play had a far more significant effect on play than an observer might have guessed.
But at the same time, you need the right people for Neptune's Pride.
Turning of the Screw
Veret: i think i ended up grabbing [pollux] towards the end
BeamSplashX: That was one nice star...
HM: for about 10 MINUTES DUDE, 10 MINUTES I TOOK SCREENSHOTS
Veret: IT WAS TOTALLY WORTH IT
Playing with "internet randoms" as ShaunCG of Arcadian Rhythms put it last week runs some risks. People may just give up, whether through frustration that the game needs too much time or rejecting the notion they have to live out their slow-mo car crash end. Surviving players expect those dying to play out their death and this is a big ask, clicking out their days for the benefit of others.
Also, anonymous internet people are easier to hate in an emotive game like Neptune's Pride and I'm not sure that's altogether healthy.
Here's a revealing quote from Douglas Wilson's academic paper on intentionally broken games:
It is the 2010 Nordic Game Conference, and we are at a club in Malmö, Sweden for the conference party. With some apprehension I am watching my friend Nicklas play B.U.T.T.O.N. Most people at the club are very drunk, and Nicklas’ three opponents prove no exception. Nicklas is an experienced player, but his slender build and mild-mannered personality make him an awkward match-up for three belligerent drunks. The round begins, and one of the drunks gets a little too excited, tackling poor Nicklas down to the floor. Somehow, this is no longer the same game that Nicklas remembers playing with our own group of less aggressive friends.
A social compact between like-minded friends can ensure all the players work together to make the game a positive experience - even though Neptune's Pride resists such attempts through the tacit approval of deception and betrayal.
The game's lack of concern for player well-being means you need people with lives that can cope with its burden. Truth is, I couldn't. I let it steam-roll over my life because I just couldn't quit you. But Laura could and did quit.
I recently asked Laura if she felt any social responsibility to stay in rather than leave. While admitting she felt bad about "leaving everyone high and dry", she had a new job to take care of in real life and didn't think ducking out of the game would have caused much upset. It is this battle between real and virtual life that is the foundation of the mental strain the players are put under.
Over on Second Person Shooter, Laura posted about LARP Humans Vs Zombies (HVZ) and what struck me was how similar the experience was to Neptune's Pride. Both are games which leak into real life; in HVZ, you need to think about whether you'll be ambushed on your way to lectures. In Neptune's Pride, you are constantly plotting potential scenarios like the WOPR from WarGames.
More interesting was Laura's second post, which exposed player frustrations and disenchantment as the experience became all-consuming. Players quit HVZ like they do Neptune's Pride simply because it's too intense. I'd argue that Neptune's Pride is of a different ilk. HVZ integrates itself into your environment and is pervasive, existing within real-life spaces. Neptune's Pride demands you forgo real-life in favour of its universe. I'm not sure which one you could call the more stressful and punishing but I imagine the players of HVZ went to bed on time every night. With Winnie the Pooh.
There's something else quite interesting about the game, though. Reading through the notes of the game's early days, at times I can't ascertain who I considered an enemy or an ally. It's contradictory, schizoid. Veret explained this unreliable narrative quality as follows: "I think everyone got in the habit of telling people what they wanted to hear then decided later whether or not they were lying about it."
And so there's an element of Rashomon here; after eight weeks, is my story the truth? Or a fiction interpolated to fit the broken words I put down at the time? Veret and Kent think a specific encounter at a star called Taygeta is the point at which my game was lost, while this barely features in my record.
For my final point, I go back to something Kent told me. He commented that he could have been backstabbed by Switchbreak at any time, but had to trust him. I don't think anybody wanted to play much more and Switchbreak had no interest prolonging the match. (See the RPS Neptune's Pride AAR for an example of player self-destruction through endless cycles of betrayal.)
In other words, exhaustion was how the game was won.
Neptune's Pride is a marvellous theatre in which such grand, beautiful stories are told but by God it will make you pay for them. And so while I am glad I participated in Kent's game, I have no interest in a rematch.
The truth is Neptune's Pride was one of the most profound gaming experiences of my life. It is the first time I have ever played a computer game that was literally unhealthy for me yet the memories I take from it are amongst the greatest gaming memories I possess.
Thanks to everyone who waded through this wordy and deserving-of-some-serious-downsizing series.
Take care and don't have nightmares.
UPDATE! The Aspiration returned Christmas 2011 for another mini-series "The Xmaspiration" which explored some of the lost stories of our Neptune's Pride game.
No trackbacks yet.