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Opinion: Star Trek Online's 'episodes' are the key to its success

October 23, 2017 | By Katherine Cross

October 23, 2017 | By Katherine Cross
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More: Console/PC, Design, Video



As much as I’m enjoying Star Trek: Discovery I have often wondered what a new Star Trek television series, set after the events of Voyager and Deep Space Nine, would look like. For a decade and a half it’s seemed like Thar Be Dragons in those deep waters of the series’ chronology. 

Somehow I’d forgotten about Star Trek Online, however--at least until an io9 article that described the game in exactly these terms came across my feed. I have to say it really is the unofficial heir to the television series’ mantle of canon, and in the weeks I’ve played the game I’ve truly come to appreciate its storytelling and unique take on its source material.

The quality of its narrative is uneven, but mostly good and mostly very Trek-y. The best parts of the game are those that manage to go beyond mere combat to tell an interesting story about Trek’s weird, wonderful galaxy. Helping a species new to warp drive take their first steps out beyond their homeworld, for instance, or traveling back in time to stop a comet from attracting transphasic ghosts. 

There’s also no small joy to be had in how the game takes minor plot points from the old TV shows and spins them out into grand stories in their own right, often bringing back the original actors to provide voice work for the continuation of their stories. An obscure species that featured in a single episode of Voyager becomes the big bad for an entire satisfying arc about the Delta Quadrant; the fate of Tasha Yar spools out into an entire series of quests, and her half-Romulan daughter became a world historical figure. In the meantime, an epic and moving mission sees you help Captain Harry Kim make peace with a clone of himself created by a temporal rift. Yes, it’s all really weird--and that’s as Star Trek should be.

"Star Trek Online really is the unofficial heir to the television series’ mantle of canon, and in the weeks I’ve played the game I’ve truly come to appreciate its storytelling and unique take on its source material."

But it’s worth paying tribute to what makes this possible in STO. It’s the way each mission is structured as an “episode” of a television show. If you look, most missions in the game follow the narrative beats of an hour-long network TV show, which makes the game’s switching between its space and ground phases feel natural and even necessary. It’s, of course, a lot more combat heavy than The Next Generation, but that doesn’t stop the story from being told. 

Many missions start with a certain goal that is quickly superseded by rapidly evolving events. A quiet series of lunar scans turns into a search and rescue operation which turns into a race against time to stop a planetary superweapon from going off; it’s an old narrative trick but it’s used to stunningly great effect here in a way that has the added benefit of thoughtfully expressing Trek-y themes. Having these wild, sometimes improbable narrative jump-cuts make STO feel like the show.

Like most of these games, of course, combat can become a tedious and pointless grind--which feels especially prevalent in the away team missions. These third person combat sections, which most resemble traditional MMO combat, are the weakest part of the game in nearly every measure; gooey controls, ugly graphics, repetitive and uncreative combat. But the game shines in both its space battles (where there’s a surprising amount of replayability due to the fully 3D nature of it, permitting a kind of strategic thinking I’ve not toyed around with this much since Homeworld) and in its non-combat bits. 

Making a successful videogame that ties into a popular, non gaming IP relies on capturing the feel of the original work to some degree. STO manages this quite neatly in a number of simple, cost-effective non-combat puzzles in many of its missions. I am always pleasantly surprised when a game forces me to sit up and actually pay close attention to what I’m reading, where I’m asked to remember key facts and details, or names, or a certain order of operations for a later task. It’s almost always all multiple choice menus; STO gets a surprising amount of mileage out of its dialogue box, which does duty as everything from a frequency tuner to a warp core to an alien artifact. One gets the sense that this was a cost cutting measure. It forces a single, simple UI to do so much; that it’s done with such finesse is a testament to the skill of Cryptic’s developers.

"These wild, sometimes improbable narrative jump-cuts make STO feel like the show."

In another mission, you have to question a prisoner. Your officers advise the most culturally-sensitive path to building a rapport with the prisoner--a medic who participated in an assault on a defenseless ship. You need him to tell you how to safely remove a horribly invasive neural device he’d implanted in one of the survivors. Your dialogue choices, which are not always wildly different from one another, determine whether he opens up to you or walls himself off. It’s a relatively rare moment in this game, but it’s the sort of thing that really pays off. There’s a frisson that comes from these sorts of non-combat/dialogue puzzles where reading comprehension, empathy, and emotional reasoning are the primary skills you bring to bear. It’s also highly appropriate for a Star Trek game.

STO succeeds in large measure because it manages to nail Star Trek’s tone so well, using its limited suite of mechanics and UI tools in creative ways to capture that spirit. By fitting this into a narrative structure that mimics a 60 minute episode of a TV series, Cryptic manages to do this while also creating a satisfying series of missions that make this one of the best story-rich MMOs out there. The “page turner” effect I look for in in-game stories was definitely there. I wanted to do the next mission just to see what happened. I was, dare I say, engaged.

In any event, the game offers some surprising lessons on doing a lot with a little, especially where text is concerned. It’s almost like a visual novel was grafted onto this graphically intensive, explodey game--and I mean that as nothing but the highest of praise.

Now if we could just get working holodecks on our ships...

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.



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