The original Star Trek series was an unspooling yarn of multicultural adventurism that celebrated the discovery of new species and new ways of life. These discoveries sometimes left human beings in the unflattering light of savage cowboys always ready to reach for the phaser when a simple “how do you do” would have sufficed. The new Star Trek game sits squarely in that gap, sometimes an ambient and joyful process of wandering around in strange new worlds and other times a foreboding confrontation with scaly aliens who induce a knee-jerk instinct for gunfire. Sheldon Carter, Creative Director at Digital Extremes, explains the challenges in bridging that gap in videogame form.
I know the point of reference for the game is the J.J. Abrams movie. What to you best defines his vision? How is it distinct from the spirit of the original series?
The thing we’re most enamored with in his take on the universe is the relationship between Kirk and Spock. I think his film put that to the forefront exceptionally well. The way that we can build on that through gameplay, I think that’s actually turning into an inspiration for the team making the new movie. Because you have to be balanced in a game, but in movies sometimes it’s easy for one character to kind of become dominant. But in a game both of these guys have unique skills and you really have to make sure they’re balanced.
Can you characterize that relationship between Kirk and Spock? Do you see it as the traditional conflict between rationality and impulsive action?
I think there’s a place for a level of antagonism between the two of them. It’s hard because we can’t talk too much about what we’re doing with their relationship, which connects with where the new movie is going, which I can’t talk about it.
They had a kind of natural friendship in the first movie.
They have a natural friendship.
And I guess you can assume that the point of storytelling is to put natural friendships under increasing levels of stress and conflict.
Yes, you could say that.
Most conflicts in the original series came from miscommunication. They weren’t the result of pure evil aliens being purely evil. But the new enemy, the lizard-like Gorn, feel a lot like the prototypical pure evil shooter enemy, just an evil lizard without any mitigating motivation.
Think about the classic episode, “Arena” that the Gorn came from. It’s basically a mistaken conflict over a colony that the Federation has taken that the Gorn think they’re invading. Then think about what happened in the new movie. Vulcan was destroyed and now the Vulcans are colonizing a planet and here are the Gorn. So we took the level in the game about how New Vulcan is evolving and wedged that together with some of the ideas from the original episode. There’s a lot more story that you’re going to get.
We think the most interesting thing about the Gorn in that episode is that it’s basically a misunderstanding. I’m not saying that they have some super redeeming qualities, but they do have a little more depth than just a monster. The last game we did was The Darkness 2. We really tried to tell an interesting story with that. We wanted to have tragic heroes and real adult storytelling. There’s no difference for us with Star Trek.
You’re using the idea of asymmetrical co-op in the game as well, where one player will be grappling with a Gorn and the other will have to save them. How much control do players have in those moments? Is the player who’s grappling just waiting for the other player to free them or are they both still in control somehow?
They’re all pretty different scenarios so it’s not like we have some template to it. One example is a scene where Spock jumps across a platform, Kirk misses his jump and is hanging from the ledge, and Spock is struggling with the Gorn. There’s a prompt for Spock to kick the phaser to Kirk, but if he misses the prompt the scene will play out differently. So there’s definitely agency within those setups, but its more important for us to put you in situations that really feel iconic for Kirk and Spock. But we definitely want players to feel in control during all of that.
There are also a lot of non-combative actions in the game like hacking doors and scanning bodies, which seem a little more complex than just hitting a button and watching a meter fill. How did those come about?
We have this balance in the game where there are quick hacks because you have the tricorder and can access the Enterprise for help, and then you have other ones that require both players to have different waves, like the one we’re showing here that has both players trying to match a sine wave on separate panels to open a door. Obviously we focus-tested the hell out of that, but we found most people will figure out how to do that within a minute. That feels alright, that’s a nice pace changer based on what you were doing before.