Redshirt preview – In space, everyone can hear your self-obsessed screams

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“It’s about this whole notion of all these sci-fi shows that have tried to show some vision of our future, but none of them have counted on the fact that we now live in a world where lots of people are obsessed with social media.” Mitu Khandaker is trying to explain just what makes up the core of Redshirt, her social simulation. A homage to Star Trek and the other sci-fi giants, Redshirt is that future but with one little, horrifying adjustment: Facebook. “It’s this nice kind of sci-fi future, but people are all self-obsessed. That’s what’s dystopian about it.”

Mitu makes up the solo crew of developer The Tiniest Shark. Along with indie publisher Positech Games (also a one-person outfit), Mitu has been working on making Redshirt the ultimate social media satire. As a redshirt fresh on a new space station, players must infiltrate into the complex existing web of friends, lovers, and arch rivals that make up the ship’s population. There’s only one way to do that: through Spacebook, the ship’s bespoke social network. But as you accept friend requests and flirt through status updates, something more sinister is occurring on-board the ship.

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“There is this epic storyline that will unfold. Ultimately you’re trying to stop being a Redshirt, stop being the most insignificant person. That is your ultimate aim for the game. Terrible things may or may not happen if you don’t do it within the 180 days time frame,” says Mitu. But telling this grand narrative hasn’t been as easy as pausing the action for an expositionary cut-scene. “The only way to convey what’s happening is through the Spacebook interface. So it’s through messages from other characters, through the updates that the station makes that the story is told.” Thanks to the dominance of the Spacebook interface (and perhaps technical limitations, too) Redshirt manages to achieve what numerous flashier, more expensive games fail at: spinning a narrative solely using gameplay. With the ominous ‘something’ due to happen in 180 days, you’ve got to get rid of that fatal uniform quickly. Time to get mingling.

A massively diverse cast of NPCs make up your crewmates, each one unscripted and entirely free to grow into its own person. With Redshirt being a social simulation, these AI creations are the mechanical heart of the game. Having AI being the driving force behind Redhsirt is something that Mitu finds exceptionally exciting: “It’s something I have no control over. It’s really neat to see what they end up doing, it’s just unexpected every time. The NPCs are seeded with these values when you start, but they become their own people. And because of that things won’t necessarily work out…”

These emergent personalities are what creates the game’s most unique, unpredictable moments. “I was trying to make a dev video showing the process of applying for a better job than you have now. You can either do it by being diligent and getting the skills you need, or by getting the hiring manager to like you. So I was going to show off how that works, so I tried to invite the hiring manager to the kinds of events that she would have liked, but she kept being busy with this other person,” recounts Mitu. The busy-body manager represents just one outcome of the social scene though. “I hope that different personalities come across when players play the game,” Mita says. “I think the gameplay does half the job, and I think its up to the player to bring the other half with their experience to it. It’s how they interpret the other NPCs actions. Thats a little bit like real life, we don’t ever know what other people are thinking. We just assess them based on their own judgement.”

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Mitu’s combination of sci-fi admiration and social-media cautionary tale really meet during the game’s random ‘Away Missions’. Occasionally you’ll be required to go on missions to that hallowed final frontier, and not everyone is going to make it. “One of the things that could happen is one of your best friends could come with you on your away mission and they could die. And then all your social climbing would be for nowt!” Like losing your best soldier in XCOM, the death of your best friend in Redshirt is the destruction of hours of planning, social backstabbing, and careful navigation of the ship’s in-crowd. For it all to be over in a few seconds of laser exchange feels cruel, but it’s arguably all we deserve for manipulating them just to gain a popularity boost back on the station.

Redshirt does not have a release date yet, with “coming 2013” the only date set in concrete. When something more solid materialises, a pre-order will be available from Positech Games and will bag you a beta version. Until then, you can – quite appropriately – follow Mitu and The Tiniest Shark’s progress on Facebook. You can also play the contemporary-set, real-life version of the game there too, but it does require using your actual friends rather than NPCs. For the sake of your social life, we recommend waiting for the game’s release.