The Cruel Realities of NPCs

So, I’ve been playing Star Trek: Online a lot lately. It’s excellent, and I highly recommend it—not least because it’s F2P. I’m nothing if not a cheap bastard.

One of the aspects of the game that I’ve enjoyed the most is the Duty Officer system, kind of hybrid between Pokemon-type card games and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance‘s mission system. In short, players get a set of minor officers (Duty Officers, or Doffs for short) with various specialties that can be assigned to a rotating list of available side missions. After a certain period (between 30 minutes and 24+ hours), the assignment will conclude and either reward the player with some loot or end in failure (and possibly the “death” of the Doff). Importantly—at least for this post—these assignments are carried out autonomously; the player assigns the officers (and tries to maximize the profits and minimize the risk of failure by choosing appropriate skills and traits) but the gods of RNG mostly control the outcome. These Doffs are bots “managed” by the player.


On loyalty and the RNG

Early in my captaining, I got a green-level Doff named Ernie Michael Hauser. Green-level Doffs have a base +5% bonus to mission success, and often have additional qualities that increase the potential success for missions (telepathy, for example, or teamwork and so on). Hauser’s specialty is Astrometrics, a role that is required for a number of different types of assignments. In short, Hauser provides a number of bonuses over other Doffs and is in demand on many Doff assignments.

Like a good captain, I want to be loyal to my crew, particularly when they perform well. When Astrometrics assignments come up, I look to assign Hauser first. He generally was successful on the missions I sent him on (because he matched the criteria of the mission design), and he fit a number of different mission types. I liked using Hauser because he “worked” mechanically (he fit the parameters of the Doff assignments and increased the chance of success). But I also liked using him because he was a good officer and crewman. He “worked” in the narrative of the game, and of Star Trek en masse.

This, however, is where it gets weird. The Doff system is a mechanic in a game, and must adhere to certain rules about what games can and can’t do (yes, this is a loaded statement; no, I’m not going to get into it here). In particular, a game like ST:O follows the conventions of most RPG-like games where a die-roll (or RNG) determines the outcome of any parameter. Doff assignments, then, are a series of die-rolls carried out by the game against pre-determined win-states; the player’s only contributions are to engage the mechanic in the first place, and to add to their die collection by matching traits that lead to successful outcomes. I assign Hauser to missions that require Astrometric Scientists; I don’t use him for Sick Bay missions. Like much else in an RPG-like game, I’m just playing the odds.

But ST:O is also enmeshed in a long and deep history of the Star Trek franchise, one which both drives the internal narrative of the gameworld as well as the players’ possible narratives about what that world is and what actions they are taking. That is, how we make sense of the game and our actions is filtered through an established mythos; players who are more familiar with the Star Trek universe most likely can make more rich and complex meaning out of the environments, characters and actions in the game. More specifically, Star Trek has spent a great deal of time contemplating what it means to be alive, to be sentient, and to be a “person.” In The Next Generation alone, episodes were dedicated to claiming that Data was “alive”, bio-medical nanites were sentient, exocomp machines were rational, thinking beings and many others as well.

What’s best for the mission is what’s best for me

Here’s the tension, then: the choices I make about what Doffs to assign to a given mission as a Star Fleet captain (with all its inherent ethics of person-hood and duty and honor and loyalty and diversity and on and on) are often in conflict with the mechanics of the game (and all its inherent ethics of odds-making and RNG-ing and mechanics exploits and systems-thinking and on and on). More simply, the way I ethically “play” the game conflicts with the way I “ethically” act within the construct of the Star Trek world. There is a dissonance between the mythos of Star Trek and the mechanics of the game.

Let me give a different example: Doffs, as Pokemon-type “cards” in a players deck, are valued for their properties (specializations, attributes). Using the Doffs system is an exercise in matching properties in order to maximize the rewards. Doffs are not valued—in the system—for their looks, or their name, or their history of performance, or any feature beyond how their attributes align with the given assignment. Doffs are, in essence, a commodity owned by the player. Further, Doffs can be traded and sold to other players through the Exchange (ST:O’s auction house). Players can supplement their Doff rosters (and, by extension, their available resources) by buying and selling officers among other players.

How does this jibe with the mythos of Star Trek? How does this type of commodification of the roster, the make-up of the player’s crew as resource commodities and the inherent adoption of an ethics of attribute stacking, relate to the narrative developed throughout the various franchises? When Picard takes on the much-maligned Ensign Ro in TNG, he often assigns her to difficult missions not because she is the best “fit,” but because he values her development as a crew member, as a Star Fleet officer, and as a citizen of the universe. There were better officers on board that likely would have maximized the possible outcomes of the mission; Picard’s choice was driven by an ethic that values personal growth and development instead.

Yes, this is an over-simplification of the argument. The shows could deal with personal growth and development in a way that a game may not be able to; I could easily make the argument that Picard’s choice of Ensign Ro for missions as a way to develop her into a more capable officer is a way of maximizing the rewards if we assume that a more competent crew member in the future is a way to “stack attributes.” Further, I think a valid argument exists that Picard’s choice is also driven by matching attributes of his crew in the broad sense; ST:O is limited to very basic types of attributes in a way that a dramatized story like Star Trek isn’t.

Still, there is something very uncomfortable about the way Doffs operate on my ship. I never had a problem with sending members of my party of for side-missions in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance; I probably wouldn’t have a problem buying and selling crew members if the transactions were taking place in Everquest or Metal Gear or Assassin’s Creed (ignoring the games themselves and focusing on their internal ethics). These worlds might support narratives that treat people as commodities. But Star Trek has such a strong history of defining people as entities with inherent values as people and not just resources; by applying this history to a game mechanic like the Doff system, the narratives about the game (process narrative) and about the world in which they exist (world narratives) seem to mis-match.


There is one very glaring counter-example which I can’t ignore: those damn Red Shirts. Red Shirts were, essentially, story-telling commodities. When someone had to die to show just how dangerous the mission was, throw in a Red Shirt as fodder and call it a day. Red Shirts were Star Trek writers’ tool to be used when someone had to die, but not a main character. The value of the Red Shirt—to the writers—was in their throw-away nature, in their attribute as person-who-we-don’t-really-care-about and their inherent expendability. We (the audience) recognized them enough as people, as Star Fleet officers and so gave them some level of empathy; but as minor characters with no real story beyond a generalized and assumed existence, we weren’t overwhelmed with grief when they died. Instead, they served to reinforce how much we cared about what happened to Kirk, and how much we didn’t want him to meet the same fate as the Red Shirt. They were plot devices; they were story commodities.

Poor, poor Red Shirt.

How much the Red Shirt was valued as a person within the world of the story is important, and debatable. We can assume that they were as valued as the main characters; the limits of the narrative limited our exposure to it. That is, because Star Trek episodes are conventionalized story-telling vehicles, they must adhere to limits of time (45-minute segments once a week) and to the level of attention that could give to any facet of the people in the story. Further, because of the conventions of episodic television, there is a limit on the number of characters we could possibly examine, even stretched over multiple episodes or even seasons. When we were given the chance to explicitly explore the “humanity” of Data, it was possible mostly because of the accumulated history of previous character (and ethical) development as well as by dedicating an entire narrative arc to this exploration. That is, we could think about Data as a person because we’d already learned a lot about him during the series, a lot about what Star Trek thought about person-hood throughout the series, and we were given an entire episode to play with these notions in a specific context.

Perhaps this is a silly argument, and one which I’ve already solved. Because ST:O is a game, it too has conventions that must drive the choices a player makes; these conventions may also prevent the kind of ethical ambiguity that a TV narrative can tackle, at least in the way ST:O is designed (there are other games, certainly, that may be able to ask these questions as a central focus of the game). Playing with a die-roll mechanic probably excludes the possibility of the kinds of ethical complexity that Star Trek uses as a foundational mythos. Nevertheless, there is something unsettling about selling a crew member in an auction house, or using a newly-acquired Doff over a member of my crew that has been with me since early in my career simply because they have a 5% chance at giving me more dilithium. It feels out of place in what I know about Star trek and how I am supposed to act within that world.

Still, I want that extra dilithium. Sorry, Ernie Michael Hauser; if only you were a telepath….

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