March 27, 2015

Gratuitous Space Battles (2009)

I’m not going to include the cover and title screenshot like I usually do, because that would give the false impression that I played this game for more than 17 minutes.

Here’s the standard data and links though:

developed by Positech Games (Lightwater, Surrey, UK)
first published November 17, 2009, for Windows, $22.99

Played for 17 minutes in utter dismay, 3/17/15.

On Tuesday, December 13, 2011, at 2:40 PM I get an email alerting me to the launch of “Humble Indie Bundle 4,” containing seven games, and at 11:14 PM that night, I buy in for $5 = $0.71 per game.

Among the seven games are Cave Story+ and NightSky, both of which I’ve already completed and needn’t revisit. Then there are BIT.TRIP RUNNER and Super Meat Boy, each of which I played for several hours some years ago, but didn’t come close to completing; I’ll be revisiting those at least briefly to see whether they deserve more of my time, because I don’t remember. And then there are Gratuitous Space Battles, Jamestown, and Shank, which I haven’t touched before.

For a long time my pride was “throw anything at me and I will manage to consider it the way it wants to be considered.” That’s the subtext of a lot of this blog. It’s what drove me to start the Western Canon reading project back in 2006; I thought I was ready to read everything because I was ready to be any possible reader.

Now I see that my pride ought to be “throw anything at me and I will manage to consider it as myself.” This is actually the harder task, and far more rewarding.

Molding oneself into the ideal audience member for a given work is a social adjustment, and social adjustment can only give you social rewards. Whereas asocial, existential adjustment gives you the world; you just have to be ready to accept that sometimes it means friction and alienation in relation to things (and people). At least temporarily. In the long run, though, it means your relationships improve, because you’re really in them.

I had learned to will myself to pay attention to any possible book because it felt like it was the skill that would get any possible book to pay attention to me. But it doesn’t work that way. The Western Canon, History, The Hall of Fame, might seem like they demand from us a perfectly agreeable malleability, but actually they just welcome our company, and they’ll be fine if they don’t get it. They never say it out loud, but the invitation is “Come as you are.”

That goes for all culture, high, low, and otherwise.

I am me and I do not want to play Gratuitous Space Battles, not one little bit.

Something I love about movies is that at first you’re just living your life, not watching them, and then they start, and they have to make their case from there. There are titles, and a first image, and first words, and you just sit there with these things in front of you and think whatever you happen to think. Movies have been designed such that by doing no more than this, in time you will end up caring about them, freely and involuntarily. This is a wonderful gift!

A few years ago I was at a bar and a fairly drunk acquaintance of mine, a pinball aficionado, was waxing to me about the particular pinball machine at the back of this bar. He gestured to it, with all its lights and ramps and mechanical gizmos, and said, “It’s a gift, you know? It’s a gift that this exists.”

That’s what all culture is. It’s for you.

So when you get nothing out of it, you’re still doing it right.

In case you didn’t watch the trailer, the gist of Gratuitous Space Battles is: you set up a bunch of spaceships to face off against a bunch of bad-guy spaceships, and then you press “fight” and the battle plays out automatically, and you sit back and watch it and see if you won. So the gameplay is all contained within “you set up a bunch of spaceships.” It basically entails designing the ships by putting weapons and shields and engines and things on them, arranging them on the battlefield, and giving them each elaborate orders. Everything is extensively configurable, and everything comes with lots of “stats” that need to be taken into account. It all comes out of a big ol’ catalog of make-believe technology, and, naturally, it all costs money and must be fit within a budget.

In some ways this is like Frozen Synapse: do intricate prep, and then hit “go” and find out how well you did. But in Frozen Synapse, there are really only a couple options for each soldier, and they all correspond to intuitive real-life stuff: move, stand still, aim, duck: the intricacy arises only from your own anxious effort to find some way of covering all the bases. Also, you’re stuck with the soldiers the game gives you, and have to work with what you got. Here, there are lots and lots of things you can do, a whole catalog’s worth plus lots of pop-up option windows, and they’re all make-believe, and they all cost money, and it’s entirely up to you to pick which ones you want.

Well, I don’t care about that stuff! I’ll play a game, or I’ll watch a story, but I certainly don’t actually personally care which ships I have, or what lasers they have, or how many distance units from the enemy cruisers they should be before firing weapons of however many hit points at whatever fire interval requiring whatever number of crew. That stuff is all just data to me. I don’t actually care about data! I would only suffer through learning it all in order to get to some goal, some kind of locus of human or aesthetic interest.

But right there in the title, the developer is telling us outright: there’s nothing else to care about. There’s just this data for you to assimilate through trial and error; that’s it. The title is a joke, and the joke is: “We all know that it doesn’t really matter what any of this stuff means, so it will be nerd-droll of me to admit it openly. For there to be a ‘point’ would be an insult to your intelligence, am I right?”

In other words, he expects me to see spaceships shooting lasers, and look at this catalog of spaceship add-ons and just start to salivate.

The battles look more or less like Star Trek cut scenes (2D-ified), and the music sounds pretty overtly like the Star Wars prequel soundtracks, and obviously all the jargon of “ion pulse cannons” and whatnot draws on those same traditions. So there are some allusions to a wider world of cultural investment there. But that’s really all you get; that’s the full extent of the game’s sell, its seduction. That stuff is apparently expected to trigger a response so strong that we look at the title and chuckle, “Yeah, ‘gratuitous’ according to respectable rules of culture, but not according to our shared compulsions, we the nerdy few! Ha ha ha: guilty pleasure, decadent inguldence, brain candy, FTW, am I right?”

To that I say, Shut up, lady! I don’t want no part in your stupid repressions.

Is there another kind of person who might have given Gratuitous Space Battles more of a chance and ended up loving it? OBVIOUSLY YES!

If I chose to, could I contort my soul to resemble such a person, and consider the game the way they would? YES, I COULD.

Would I then sound thoughtful and open-minded? SURE, MAYBE, SUPERFICIALLY.

So do I choose to do this? NOT ANYMORE I DON’T!

I started it up, played the tutorial levels for 17 minutes, and knew it was time to go. That’s one of those things you just know, when you’re you.

So that $0.71 was a bust.

But dissatisfaction is the price of freedom. I’ll take it!

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