Thursday, November 28, 2013

Flight Simulator: The Star Trek Text Video Game

The Star Trek Text Video Game
In one of my other lives I moonlight as a video game journalist. Now, when I say that I mean I write largely gonzo stream-of-consciousness mytho-symbolic reactions to video games from twenty-seven years ago, which is admittedly what you'd probably expect from me. The point being video games have been an incredibly important part of my life for a very long time. So much so that I'm far more comfortable associating with and relating to video games then I am to pretty much any other kind of creative expression with the exception of music, and this influences the approach I take to media studies and just media consumption in general. It's also why I find it...not so much disquieting as ironically curious that my biggest project to date is a sprawling overview of a franchise most known for its film and television work. On the whole, I don't work well with scripted drama. I feel I've never been able to truly appreciate it the way most people do and that I keep coming at it from weird angles. In that sense my long relationship with Star Trek and the scant few other non-game or -music works I hold dear to me is almost a fluke.

But Star Trek itself has a very important relationship with video games that goes back almost as long as video games do. The idea of a licensed video game is an interesting one: For this kind of game to be successful it has to be beholden to both the standards of good game design and fealty to its source material. It's a very thin line to walk and too far in either direction all but guarantees failure, if not commercially or critically definitely aesthetically. My own history with Star Trek is also quite bound up with my history with video games: Some of the first games I ever played were Star Trek ones, and it's been a minor life goal of mine to find that one elusive Star Trek game that both works as a game and fits with my conception of what Star Trek should be like (and given the way so many licensed games turn out and the fact not even most televised Star Trek holds to what I think Star Trek should be like, you can probably tell what a fruitless endeavour this is). But even so, there have been a number of Star Trek video games that have proved to be both historically and personally significant, and this series looks at some of them.

And so it happens that one of the earliest computer games distributed as part of a pack of games written in BASIC for early home computers happened to be based on the original Star Trek. What became The Star Trek Text Video Game was born out of an early jam session held by programmer Mike Mayfield and some of his high school friends in 1971, and was eventually ported to the HP-2000C when Hewlett-Packard asked Maynard for a version of it. David H Ahl, who worked with DEC, then found this version and included it in his list of 101 BASIC Games. Bob Leedom then cleaned the game up, adding a new user interface and simplifying the commands for better ease of use. Ahl contacted Leedom and eventually they released this version of the game jointly as Super Star Trek in 1974 as part of the book Creative Computing. Following a reprint in 1978 just as personal computers were becoming more ubiquitous, Super Star Trek became the first computer game to sell over a million copies, and got a thumbs-up from Dave Gerrold himself.

The game itself has the player, in control of the Enterprise, hunting down enemy Klingon warships. The game world is a galaxy divided up into quadrants on an eight by eight grid, and each quadrant is a further eight by eight grid of sectors.. From there, the game is simply about chasing down the different Klingon ships with short and long range sensors, engaging them in combat with phasers and photon torpedoes and occasionally refueling at Federation starbases. But there's a surprising amount of flexibility and control over different variables for a game this old: You have to manage not just the amount of fuel the Enterprise has, but the level of power in your shields and the range of weapons (turning and aiming are vital, and considering it's all done via coordinates this becomes pretty tiresome pretty quickly). Using the long range sensors, it's also possible scope out any remaining targets or starbases and navigate there using warp drive, which gives the game a genuine sense of scale. This is naturally very befitting of a Star Trek game set in an entire galaxy, but it's still surprising considering the first version came out in 1971: This was definitely an ambitious title for its time.

That said, The Star Trek Text Video Game is, as you might expect, extremely simplistic. Everything is not only controlled through text commands, it's also depicted entirely though text as well. There's no actual “gameplay” to speak of: It's more inputting a series of commands and responding to what the game prints out, which is an experience suspiciously akin to productivity on a command line interface. And here's where we start to enter into the territory of having to define what is and what isn't a video game: As of this writing, it's a somewhat contentious issue in circles frequented by people who prefer to spend their time philosophizing about the nature of the medium and how to write about video games instead of playing them (which is, I'll admit, a situation I'm not altogether unfamiliar with myself). The big debate tends to centre around whether things like the output of studios like Quantic Dream or Twine stories ought to be considered video games, or if they're better classified as something else. My own opinion on the matter in brief is “not in the slightest” and “almost, but not quite” respectively, and this is primary due to how I personally conceive of what a video game looks like.

See to me a game has to at the very least be comparable in some way with something like Asteroids. There has to be some baseline level of graphics and real-time action. If a work isn't meeting those minimum standards, I tend to be reluctant to call it a proper video game. The Star Trek Text Video Game is a really borderline case here, and I don't think I'm being too unfair in my judgment: SpaceWar came out three years prior to it, and Tennis for Two even before that, and both of those are unquestionably recognisable as what we'd now call a video game. Compared to those altogether more dynamic titles, The Star Trek Text Video Game comes across looking a bit behind the times even for 1971. That's not to denigrate or belittle it, as it's still very obviously an impressive achievement, it's just an indication that it might be a slightly different breed of animal than the sort of thing I tend to be more accustomed to. What I think it might actually get at is a slight schism between what we call “video games” and what might actually be better described as “computer games”

The Star Trek Text Video Game is an exercise in playing around with what personal computers can do. The fact it was eventually released as part of a bundle entitled Creative Computing is sort of telling: It's more a technology experiment for computer hobbyists to muck around with alone in their bedrooms, garages, workshops whereas video games always seemed to be designed as accessible social experiences from the beginning. This also highlights, for the perhaps the first time (at least the first time since “Arena”) the segment of Star Trek fandom that will ultimately become the most vocal and dominant. The only people who would be playing The Star Trek Text Video Game, at least at first, were people who already had access to computers. So, once again, we're looking at big universities specializing in subsidized technoscience research. Even afterwards you had to first own a PC yourself, and they didn't exactly come cheap. By definition these people are going to be somewhat affluent and privileged technologically-minded individuals, which is, if we think back to the “Save Star Trek!” business, precisely the sort of audience NBC wanted to court with Star Trek. Even though computer programming was not the male-dominated industry in the 1970s it is today, it's still tough to imagine the kind of person who would be writing Kirk/Spock fanfiction sitting down and loading this thing up in BASIC.

Which is probably at least part of the reason Paramount gave Ahl the go-ahead to use the name “Star Trek” and why Dave Gerrold ended up advertising the game. Even then Paramount knew who their primary demographic was supposed to be and made overtures to court it. That said though, and in spite of all the officially licensed Star Trek games to come, The Star Trek Text Video Game is still largely a game that couldn't be made in a lot of the subsequent eras of Star Trek history. Especially when the brand became a massive cash cow in the 1990s, the idea of a purely fan made video game being initially distributed through word-of-mouth would have had sent Paramount's lawsuit instincts into overdrive (and indeed when a spiritual successor to this game based on Star Trek: The Next Generation emerged in 1994, Paramount clamped down on that pretty quickly). But of course by that point both the personal computer and video game industries were very different than they were in 1971.

But as for The Star Trek Text Video Game itself, no matter what else we can say about the climate it was coming into, it's clear it was an important part of electronics history. So much so it was eventually remade for the Atari 2600 as another classic, Star Raiders, which is essentially the same game except without the Star Trek license, but with actual graphics and proper real-time action. But the original game is still worth a look for its historical significance if for nothing else: If you don't mind its archaic gameplay, you can play a JavaScript recreation of the Super Star Trek version here.


  1. I remember playing that game on my C=64 in the early '90s. Yes, not so much video game as computer game, and more like the procedural/turn-based games like Rogue or NetHack.

    BTW, I don't know if you're planning to cover the Star Trek novels and books that came out during the wilderness years. You may already know about him, but Steve Donoghue at the Stevereads site was a ST fan from way back and reviews some of the books that were published during those years. And he passes along a bit of history as it was lived for a fan of the time. Here's an example of one of his posts:


    1. Thanks for the link-I've got different plans for the so-called "Wilderness Years" of the 1970s, but this is a great little bit of history. I'm no expert on Star Trek fandom, so it's always good for me to see something from people who are far more qualified then me!

  2. "he point being video games have been an incredibly important part of my life for a very long time. So much so that I'm far more comfortable associating with and relating to video games then I am to pretty much any other kind of creative expression with the exception of music, and this influences the approach I take to media studies and just media consumption in general."

    Hear hear! This is the sort of perspective we need more of in this day and age, says I. Although I must shamefully admit, Elite Force is still my favorite Trek game.

    Speaking of video games generally though, have you played the Metal Gear Solid series at all, Josh? I think you'd find quite a lot to both love and say about it (especially MGS2) if you haven't already.

    1. Well, I certainly did not expect to get *praise* for slagging off scripted drama in a blog about scripted drama, but I certainly appreciate it and am flattered!

      I have played Metal Gear Solid, though I quit the series after Subsistence/Snake Eater. After that point it kinda felt like Kojima was silently screaming for help to me. And yes, Sons of Liberty/Substance was utterly, utterly brilliant (I presume you've seen this?

  3. I have in fact read the Delta Head essays (multiple times, in fact); I don't think I'd be overstating it too much to say that what Elder Scrolls is for you, Metal Gear is for me. It's not just entertainment, it gets at Truth. And hoo boy, if you think MGS3 was Kojima screaming for help, better for you that you never played MGS4, which goes even further. He seems to have gotten a second wind with the MGS5, although given some of the things I've been hearing he's doing rather too good a job of playing loyal company man (the gratuitously oversexualized female characters for the bald-facedly singular purpose of increasing the potential merchandising? Good lord). Here's hoping he's got some furtherfast ones to pull on us.

    And nah, scripted drama, like any form of art, has limitations, and acknowledging it as the be all and end all of what TV, prestige or otherwise, can achieve is as wrongheaded as putting any other form of entertainment in that role. In fact, I've begun to think that video games are the only medium/form of art we have in which meaningful art can be created on a true budget, that is one that you can partake of without having to worry about the larger societal issues that abetted its making. While Hollywood builds a ziggurat to Western excess and The Fuckign Avengers makes enough money to feed multiple Third World countries twice over, here we have things like Gone Home, or Braid, or Kentucky Route Zero (which I cannot recommend to you highly enough if you haven't already played it, you will adore it), or any number of games produced before the inflation of the industry. Which isn't to say the rest of the industry isn't already beginning to scale to Hollywood heights of excess, but still. At the very least change can be meaningfully affected within it in a way that it most likely never will be in Hollywood.

    1. Oh, I liked MGS3: I thought it was a great conclusion to the trilogy. It was, like you said, MGS4 where I thought things started to get stilted and stretched thin.

      I guess my problem with scripted drama is that it feels so patriarchal and authoritarian: I'm expected to sit and passively consume someone else's story. I'm free to dislike it, but it's considered unbecoming if I want to change it myself. More often than not I find myself liking parts of a thing but wishing it went differently-I'm a big fan of reappropriation in that sense. You may have noticed this creeping into my episode reviews: I tend to say stuff like "this would have worked a lot better if X". That's why I dig the fanficiton scene as much as I do.

      Furthermore I just really don't like conflict and spectacle for conflict and spectacle's sake, which is what pretty much all drama boils down to IMO. And that goes for *all* kinds of spectacle, of which I would say "character development" is the biggest one these days. The TV I do like (such as Scooby-Doo, for example) relies on imagery, atmosphere and symbolism. I can seriously do without character arcs.

    2. "I guess my problem with scripted drama is that it feels so patriarchal and authoritarian: I'm expected to sit and passively consume someone else's story. I'm free to dislike it, but it's considered unbecoming if I want to change it myself."

      Yeah, I see where you're coming from there. Personally, I think it can be really interesting to get a peek into someone else's creative vision, when it's done well; I've never really had much problem being sat down and told a story. Plus, as you go on to note, the fanfiction scene acts as a corrective to this regardless. That said, I think TV that relies more on "imagery, atmosphere, and symbolism" and less on character arcs/spectacle is indeed something we're in desperate need of (that Twin Peaks was a thing that actually happened on American TV seems less and less possible as the years wear on). I think the tension in Trek between arcs and more programmatic storytelling is definitely a strength lacking in a lot of today's fare.

      Speaking of imagery, atmosphere and symbolism, incidentally, have you perchance seen Revolutionary Girl Utena?

    3. Well, certainly there's a fine line to walk. Just because *I* don't have patience for a lot of scripted drama doesn't mean there's something inherently wrong with telling a story. I suppose what gets to me is the connection between storytelling and authority in Western societies. It's the deification of Creator, which while a logical extension of the concept of Creator in the first place, that really bothers me.

      Also, I just tend to be of the belief stories should grow generatively, be shared orally and be constantly be reinterpreted by different people and periods. I'd remove the concept of "Writing", or at least scale it back and considerably reappropriate it, if I could.

      Not seen Revolutionary Girl Utena nor read the manga, but I have heard of it. My knowledge of anime/manga isn't as comprehensive as it probably should be.

  4. "Also, I just tend to be of the belief stories should grow generatively, be shared orally and be constantly be reinterpreted by different people and periods. I'd remove the concept of "Writing", or at least scale it back and considerably reappropriate it, if I could."

    I can get behind this :) Or the two can at the very least exist side by side. This actually reminds me of a great scene from that Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey fight dragons in the post-apocalypse movie Reign of Fire, where two characters are orally Star Wars (namely the climax of Empire Strikes Back) to a group of children, complete with re-enactment, and how it perfectly recaptures what it's like to have seen it for the first time as a kid (to say nothing of being better than all three prequels put together). Aside from characters like Superman and Sherlock Holmes, who really are intended to be told and retold forever, I wonder how Shakespeare, or Paradise Lost, or Dostoyevsky would change and morph if they existed solely in a oral-generative context only, or had started there? Actually, come to Star Wars, the EU (and Star Trek's as well) may be as good evidence as any of your idea. This gets at one of the things I love about video games: at their best, they split the difference between Creator/auteur and generative/participatory in truly fruitful ways (this opposed to glorified roller coasters like CoD). MGS2 is all about this, and games like Journey up and dispense with narrative storytelling altogether in favor of atmosphere and player interaction.

    You can safely ignore the manga, but Utena the anime would be right up your alley, I think; at 36 episodes it's a bit of a commitment, and it doesn't really and truly dive down the rabbit hole until the second arc, but boy howdy is it worth the ride.

  5. I reviewed local theater for a couple of years and there's nothing more manufactured and stylized than theater productions. That said, there's good and bad scripted drama just as there's good and bad everything. The good novels, movies, TV, radio, etc. are really really good and I don't notice their plotting. Or plotting is probably the least important thing to me. (And by "good", I mean "I liked it.")

    That said, I do find myself getting rather tired of plotted stories in movies and whatnot. One of my favorite movies of recent years was "Russian Ark," a sort of dramatized tour through the history of the Hermitage Museum that didn't follow a story but that had me mesmerized throughout. When I described it to friends, most of them said that it would have driven them crazy. They needed a destination whereas this movie was about the journey.

  6. Josh: "stories should grow generatively, be shared orally and be constantly be reinterpreted by different people and periods"

    I really agree with this - though I am a lover of both scripted and non-scripted narratives. One of my ways of making a living is through live storytelling performance. I work with my own improvised interpretations of a lot or Irish, Welsh, Celtic and Faerie-world based myths and tales. Stories always change if they are passed on orally, no one person can ever tell them the same, and the context and audience (if the teller is sensitive) will change them too too. I especially love taking the old myths and dropping them into a modern context too.

    And brownstudy - Yes! Russian Ark is a masterpiece!