A product, not the goal.
Back when I started writing for Chooch several months ago, one of the ideas I pitched for my more-or-less “debut” article was an editorial about the 2D online roleplaying game/spaceman murder simulator Space Station 13. The idea was met with a resounding and hearty “uh, yeah, that might be cool,” and then everyone, including myself, proceeded to totally forget about it.
I wasn’t too surprised. Despite being around since 2003, Space Station 13 probably falls somewhere just past Dwarf Fortress, but just before Worlds.com on the “Games Obscurity Scale”. It’s also pretty high on the “Games Complexity Scale,” so not everyone who tries it ends up sticking with it, whether because of the mechanics, or the graphics, or the controls, or any number of other reasons.
But, you should try it. That’s kind of what I’m getting at with this editorial. Space Station 13 is a complicated, intricate, mess of a game, but it’s also hilarious and truly entertaining. I consider the hours I’ve managed to sink into/waste in SS13 just as precious as however many hours it took me to plug away at a blockbuster RPG like Fallout 3. So I guess if I’m going to ask you to play it, I should probably start with what SS13 actually is. If you can imagine Adult Swim’s Sealab 2021 having a child with the more absurd episodes of Star Trek, you’d be getting pretty close to the essence of SS13.
I mentioned “roleplaying game” up in the first paragraph, and that’s more or less where Space Station 13 both begins and ends. It isn’t an RPG as we would consider the aforementioned Fallout series or Final Fantasy, but rather an RPG closer in function to Dungeons & Dragons, or more appropriately, Paranoia. SS13 is essentially a pen-and-paper roleplaying game given glorious, pixilated form, and then let loose to run rampant across a small corner of the internet.
There are no character levels in Space Station 13, no skill points to spend on attributes, and no NPCs. Each round, you play as a crew member on the titular Space Station 13, represented by a variety of maps depending on the server you join. Your objectives are to do your job and survive until the end of the round, which are also the objectives of every other player in the game. Hindrances to your survival include, among other things, Traitors working to kill people, Wizards working to kill people, various aliens working to kill people, Cultists working to kill people, and Nuclear Operatives working to blow up the station, which includes killing a lot of people.
If you want to equate things to standard RPG terms, your job is basically your “class,” and it decides more or less what you’ll be doing the entire round. If you’re a Chef, you’ll spend a lot of time cooking for the crew. If you’re a Medical Doctor you’ll be patching people up, if you’re a Station Engineer you’ll be fixing things, and if you’re the Librarian you’ll either be printing out copies of player-uploaded erotic fan-fic or doing absolutely nothing. Learning to perform various jobs around the station are where the fantastic complexities of SS13 really start to show – for example, if you want to perform brain surgery, you can’t just click on a corpse with a scapel. You have to successfully complete a series of around twelve separate actions, with each requiring you to pick up a different item and select a different “intent”. In Space Station 13, it is rocket science.
For me, that’s where Space Station 13 really shines. Nothing is simplified for the benefit of players and everything operates on (sort of) realistic terms, despite the batshit insanity that tends to occur every round. That also means you’re gonna have to be willing to put a lot of time into learning how to do basically everything. You aren’t just on a space station, you’re on a space station that’s realistically wired for electricity, and as such, can be altered by actions like cutting wires and turning on or off various power sources. You aren’t just on a space station, you’re on a space station that’s fully destructible down to the screws in wall girders, a space station that can’t properly operate without cooperation from players, and a space station that has five billion things occurring at any given moment.
Although it’s rendered in the simplest terms, the world of SS13 feels real and substantive. That’s due to both the actual, beautiful physical complexity of the station itself as well as the infinite possibilities opened by all dialog and interaction coming from actual roleplaying people bereft of NPCs. Even though you’re generally confined to a death-trap metal hunk of a spaceship, I struggle to think of another game that affords as much roleplaying freedom.
Of course, it isn’t totally free, as causing undue trouble will get you jailed by the station’s security forces, or banned in some cases. But all in all, there’s something simultaneously liberating and challenging about roleplaying on such a broad scale. When you step into Space Station 13, you’re, for example, Han Double, a 28-year-old Bartender who’s an intricate part of the crew’s entertainment and relaxation, but who’s also secretly a traitor intending to kill the Head of Personnel, and the challenge/reward comes from being able to play that part to the best of your ability.
Or hey, maybe the reward comes from causing as much chaos as humanly possible. If you get assigned an Antagonist role, successfully murdering your co-workers or managing to consume the entire station as an alien blob can be just as, if not more challenging, than working to stop that same blob. Just because you can load up on illegal weapons like a not-Lightsaber and hull-breaching bombs, it doesn’t mean killing that damn Chemist is going to be easy. Everyone on the station is another player, and they’re every bit as smart, competent, and suspicious as you are.
Of course, they’re also all just as dumb, incompetent, and willing to cause trouble as you are. There’s no such thing as a “normal” shift in Space Station 13, even if whatever antagonistic force is defeated. Did you manage to completely thwart the Nuclear Operatives and get away on the escape shuttle? Some careless Station Engineer will “accidentally” release the singularity (a black hole that powers the ship) and destroy everything anyway. Maybe you’re about to deactivate the rogue AI, but then a Scientist working in the Toxins Lab unintentionally vents a ton of Nitrous Oxide into the air and puts the whole Science ward to sleep. Or maybe all the Assistants get lynched for playing “Never Gonna Give You Up” on the bar’s piano, or maybe the Head of Personnel gets shot into space for giving the Clown access to all areas of the ship, or maybe the Botanists release a ton of killer tomatoes.
No matter what happens, it’s usually always a wild ride. Sure, it can get kind of boring when you’re dead and floating around as a ghost until the round ends, especially since they can take anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours, but at least you can observe whatever chaos is currently unfolding. Rounds where nothing much happens are few and far between, but hopefully you’ve chosen a job you like enough that roleplaying it makes up for the lack of pants-shitting madness.
Worst case scenario, you actually spend a round doing what you’re “supposed” to be doing. One of my favorite jobs in the game is Roboticist, where I can spend my time creating mechs and helper bots and bringing useless fleshy dead crew members back to life by surgically extracting their brain and shoving it into a more efficient robot body.
I’ll admit that initially, Space Station 13 isn’t anywhere near the riotously entertaining experience I make it out to be. It takes a lot of patience and commitment to learn the controls and mechanics, and even more patience to tolerate those controls. SS13, unlike a mouse-based game such as Prison Architect, is complex in virtually every facet – even though a lot of the controls are based around WASD and point-and-click mechanics, it’ll take you several rounds to parse out operating the equipment slots and left-clicking versus right-clicking, not to mention the effects of the various “intent” functions and keyboard shortcuts.
Managing to learn all the functions of the game (not to mention master them) is a reward on its own – the game doesn’t inherently punish you, but the more you know how to do, the better your experience will be. In fact, pretty much every big SS13 server has its own separate Wiki dedicated to detailed walkthroughs for player reference and cataloging all the different content on every server. It’s a game that essentially demands the use of Wikis and YouTube playthroughs to learn. The universe of SS13 seems simplistic at first, but it’s honestly one of the most intricate games I know. Even after playing consistently for over a year, there are still jobs I don’t necessarily feel confident performing and there are still new things I’m discovering about the gameplay itself.
At the end of the day, Space Station 13 is a deeply complex and generally demanding experience that will totally put off as many people as it attracts. But, it’s also light-hearted and pretty hilarious. I for one love it to death, and although I get sad when people who try it give up on it, I also understand completely. SS13 will probably only appeal to those who are into pen-and-paper RPGs or other complex games like Dwarf Fortress, but for those people, I can’t recommend it enough. Putting in the time to learn the game opens up a whole new time-sink of entertainment and hilarity, and honestly, if even just one person ends up trying and loving SS13 thanks to this editorial, I’ll be content. My purpose on Chooch will be fulfilled, and finally, I can ascend and return to my home planet.
Also, the dude who made DayZ, Dean Hall, said SS13 was an inspiraton for his new space game ION while onstage at E3 this year. That was really, really surreal.