Who wants to fly to the Final Frontier, explore Deep Space (9) and maybe even boldly mop surfaces no one has mopped before? Sounds too good to be true right? Well don’t worry, you won’t be doing anything dangerous like piloting a ship or blasting a Gorn with a DIY diamond cannon. Instead, you’ll be interacting with this futuristic universe in a far more familiar way. You’ll be using Faceb….. Um… SpaceBook. It’s a social networking site for the young, professional, dynamic crew of a space station. A space station where you are tasked with the mundane but critical role as a cleaner. Don’t worry though, if you dream big enough you can work through the ranks and become a senior member of the stations cleaning crew!
So yes, Red Shirts is a virtual Facebook game. You may be in space, but your moment to moment gameplay will involve accepting contact requests from people you hate to get closer to their more attractive friends, managing disappointment when no one attends events you invite them to, and managing the existential dread of posting a status update that no one likes. So a bit painfully close to real life then…. or at least my life.
Red Shirts interface design is fantastic. In many ways, by recreating Facebook in a streamlined form and with a sci fi skin, it’s both easier to use and simpler to navigate than the real thing. And if you’ve used Facebook at all, you will find the game takes almost no time to learn. Indeed, so ingrained is Facebook in my psyche that I found I had to keep reminding myself this was a game and I had to be more careful with my choices. In Red Shirts, I am more careful about what I say and do than I am with real friends in real (what does that word even mean now?) life.
In Red Shirts your goals are relatable and mundane. You want promotions, more money, and most of all the respect and admiration of your peers. You want to be successful and popular, and with those goals in mind you start at the very bottom in each respective category. The game also gives you short term goals which help guide your choices, such as befriending a specific crewmate or getting someone to mention you in a post. There are three of these goals active at any one time, and they really help you focus on where you should be spending your time.
You can only perform a set number of actions per day. By the time you update your status in the morning, go to work, arrange a dinner event (where you get stood up AGAIN) and do some “vague-booking” it’s time for bed. If you don’t plan your choices well, you’ll find days become weeks with your goals of promotion and social inclusion fading as the dull monotony of real life crushes your dreams. It looks like you can buy more actions in a day with in game money that you earn in your job.
Red Shirts gets a lot of things right. The interface is slick and works well, the writing is good and the concept is clever. Much like Cart Life, you feel like the game has something to say, or at least hold a mirror up to our digital personas and shows us something about ourselves and how we use social media. It’s funny too.
When I first started playing Red Shirts I was confused. I wondered why the developers would put you on a space station, and then limit your actions to social media. Now I think that the space station is just a clever framing device to provide some distance to the player. Make no mistake; this is a complex game about who we are and how important other people’s opinions of us can be. If only Kirk could have sent the Gorn a friend invite….