Thursday, October 16, 2014

Analysis: Wing Commander


First released in September of 1990, Chris Robert's Wing Commander series was both traditional and novel, combining a classic "space ace" concept with innovations in storytelling and worldbuilding. Drawing influence from the Pacific Theater of World War 2 as well as more contemporary works like Top Gun, this memorable and influential series certainly has a lot of concepts to explore.

Setting
Set in the distant future, Wing Commander takes place during a war between the Terran Confederation and the Kilrathi, a race of imperialistic, militant cat-people. The player takes the role of Christopher "Maverick" Blair; in the first game, he is fresh out of the academy, assigned to the carrier Tiger's Claw. The series follows Maverick's actions through the war and beyond. The earlier games generally follow a more militarized pattern, focusing on missions and patrols assigned by your commanding officer. In later games, as the war changes, your objectives are more based on pursuing individual goals, uncovering plots, and so on.

Representation
The Terran Confederation as depicted in most of the games is a relatively progressive society; pilots from all over the world are represented on the Tiger's Claw, and female pilots are common as well. While the statistics still skew towards white men (6 of 9 pilots in WC1 are white, and 7 of 9 are male), there's at least a clear attempt at inclusion (which makes sense for the setting). The uniforms worn by pilots are the same for men and women - a sensible WW2-inspired look for dress uniforms, and a relatively goofier-looking flight suit. Combat is taken seriously and combatants are treated with respect; the occasional exception, like Todd "Maniac" Marshall, is done intentionally, to contrast with the more serious standard of the rest of the cast. In terms of design, Wing Commander is basically what I want out of games: I want combat to be taken seriously, and "the way characters are designed" should be part of that seriousness.

Mechanics
Wing Commander is not a realistic simulation of spaceflight, but it is a relatively consistent one. Space combat happens in a certain way, at certain ranges, and everything about the game's setting is designed around that. As such, it is believable, but not realistic. Of course, it was designed this way for a reason, and that reason is "you can't have exciting dogfights in a realistic space game". Wing Commander was designed to be WW2 in space, just like Star Wars was, and that manifests itself in the fact that dogfighting in WC is heavily reliant on guns as opposed to long-range missile exchanges. The depths of space serve as a stand-in for the Pacific Ocean, with planets serving as its "islands".

Imbalances
By its nature, Wing Commander is a "space ace" narrative. You are playing a single pilot. You are going to get the most kills. You are going to be the biggest contributor to the war effort. You are going to make or break every mission. In that sense, Wing Commander is a classic PvE setup: your enemies are numerous and incompetent. The player's ability to "beat the odds" is artificially inflated because the odds in question are meaningless; it doesn't matter if they outnumber you ten to one if they can barely fly in a straight line. And of course that incompetence isn't limited to your enemies; your allies are also pretty bad at flying, so that you can feel awesome for flying a thousand times better than them. In the land of blind men, the one-eyed player-character is king. This sort of forced imbalance compromises the setting itself, and it also makes the player's victories feel weird if they stop and think about it. A smaller number of more-skilled pilots would have been just as challenging without making the player feel like they're picking on pilots far inferior to themselves.

However, there are certain levels of "consistency" that still exist in the series. For example, you're "legitimately" flying the same fighters as everyone else; you don't have advantages in terms of your statistics, number of missiles, or anything like that. You've got shields and armor on your ship, and it's the same level as everyone else who flies that ship. The only difference between you and everyone else is your flying ability. This is a marked difference to something like Call of Duty, where your superhuman ability to absorb bullets is (a) never mentioned and (b) completely vital to your ability to complete missions.

WC1 even included "failure" as a gameplay concept, with a webbed sequence of missions that would change based on your success or failure in a given area. This was abandoned in WC2, when it was discovered that players were generally more likely to reload and try again than to accept a bad result. Another important failure-related gameplay feature was the ability to eject from your craft, thus living to fight another day (unless something bad happened to you post-ejection). These mechanics helped "defeat" to feel like a more natural part of the setting, instead of a thing that should be ignored and erased ("not canon", as it were).

Morality
In the first game, morality is simple; the Kilrathi are the enemy. They are not just an enemy, they are the enemy: an implacable, non-negotiating race of super-warriors who have the darkest possible plans for Earth. There is zero reason to feel remorse for killing a Kilrathi, and many reasons to feel good about it. Like orcs in most fantasy, the Kilrathi is a remorseless aggressor who can only be stopped with violence, thus justifying a gameplay scheme based entirely around killing.

In WC2 the idea is introduced that not all Kilrathi are like that; a defector Kilrathi, nicknamed "Hobbes", joins your crew and flies alongside you. In addition, there is a revolt in one of the Kilrathi colonies, suggesting that not all the Kilrathi support their totalitarian government. These simple additions transformed the Kilrathi from "100% merciless killers" to "99% merciless killers", a change that warranted some introspection. The game certainly addresses the issue, as Blair begins to question his own attitude towards the Kilrathi and the potential that peace could be reached.

[SPOILER ALERT]

One of the more troubling twists in the game is the fact that Hobbes turns out to be a traitor. While this is not by itself a bad plot twist, in context Hobbes is the only friendly Kilrathi that exists. Obviously a few other ones exist, but Hobbes is the only one that the player ever sees or talks to. As such, the ratio shifts from the Kilrathi being "99% merciless killers" back to "100% merciless killers, and also 1% duplicitous backstabbers".

Conclusion
Wing Commander is a game where you never actually command any wings and that legitimately bothers me. It bothers me because if you strip away the "space ace" stuff you have a pretty solid premise: a roster of well-characterized pilots fighting a serious war against an aggressor. The setting is compromised by the need to make the player feel better than everyone else, and if you took that element away and turned it into something more like X-COM, you'd have a better product overall.

Okay, done? Great. I just explained everything I feel about video games in one accessibly-written article.

2 comments:

  1. Do you really think the game made for MS DOS in 1990 doesn't have AI on par with a human being for 3d dogfight combat because they consciously sat there and decided to hamstring it so the player could feel like a super cool dude. Even if they weren't the dudes who had to hex edit an error message so it "Thank you for playing Wing Commander" because they couldn't fix a bug when players exited the game on time for release I would have a hard time believing it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that's a good point and a reasonable explanation for why they had no *alternative* but to make it that way, but at the same time "arcade flight games" are common enough that I don't think it was accidental. Compare Wing Commander to something like Ace Combat and you'll see basically the same patterns emerge.

      Delete