I'm in third-class cabin 3.
For reasons I can't remember, I have 90 seconds to kill someone. Mr. X told me to do it, and I can't refuse. The hair on my neck stands up. I know Mr. X hired someone to kill me, too.
Please God, let me find a weapon.
I walk through the endless corridors. I'm lost. Everything seems so familiar, but I still can't find the axe. I know there's an axe here somewhere. I pass the lounge. A few passengers sit snoring in the corner: no threat. I turn and look behind me. There's a woman. She's close. Too close. She enters my zone of fear and I sprint towards the safety of the guard in the lounge. She stands next to me. She smiles.
Quietly, she talks to the guard. They both look at me. I see a flash of green paper and I start to run, but I'm too tired, I can only walk away. The guard turns his back. I feel the sting of the needle. The world tilts, and goes black.
The reason The Ship (Outerlight) is so good has nothing to do with the digital fiddlybits that download into the Steam client in your taskbar. The textures don't really matter. The polygon count is strikingly low. There's little use of your rig's hot new HDR card, 5.1 sound, or the massive processing power of your phallic CPU. Even your phat 'net connection and your tiny little ping don't matter.
The reason The Ship is so good is the pace. The Ship is a slow game. While a form of deathmatch, you only ever have a single target, and are only the target of a single player. Your motive for murder is the whim of an absent and silent "Mr. X", a convenient and thin fiction who demands blood and rewards your efforts with cold hard cash.
In "the Hunt" version of the game, when you die, you spawn as a new character, with a new target. In "Elimination", murderers acquire their victim's target when they make a kill, until finally there can be only one. In either case, the recently departed spawn as a new, untargeted character walking the decks in limbo. Smart players use the time either to spoil other murders (by witnessing them and sending the perpetrator to jail, invoking a stiff fine), or to scrounge for more interesting weapons.
There are no machine guns, no snipers. Your arsenal consists of whatever you can find, from the obvious to the preposterous: knives and guns, but also wallet bombs, golf clubs, poison, and the occasional shove overboard. Mr. X pays higher rewards for the unusual kills. Anyone can kill with a revolver, but a tennis racket? That's style.
No matter what game you play, with what people, or how you play it, you always move at a snail's pace. For a gamer-brain wired for the frantic pace of Quake, even your painfully short ability to sprint seems like a mere stroll. To make matters worse, if you become good enough at the game to survive, you'll constantly be making tradeoffs between hunting, evading, and one of many needs: sleep, eat, and bathe. There are no open firefights. Any twitch-muscle instinct to pull out your weapon and kill will most likely result in your immediate internment.
The real-world slowness is made more fully laconic by the muted tones, the simplistic visuals, and the '30s music that lulls would-be-murderers into a sense of calm. Yet underneath the smooth waters a very real panic builds. Finding a weapon--if only for self defense--can be frantic. Like some soon-to-be horror-flick victim fumbling for your car keys, you will find yourself on the verge of fumbling for a crowbar only to be knifed in the back. You'll find yourself walking backwards up stairwells out of paranoia. You'll press the elevator button over and over again hoping you can get to Deck D before the clock runs out.
And that's where the game verges on brilliance. By bringing down the pace, The Ship successfully evokes an emotion we've long since abandoned for pure adrenaline: panic. Pure, monster-under-the-bed panic. And this slow pace makes the act of killing much more real. These aren't "frags." These are raw, cold-blooded, viscous crimes. Not as disturbing as, say, Hitman, but visceral enough to make killing your friend much more personal than "Boom, Headshot."
The Ship isn't without its flaws. There's virtually no documentation, but this seems less a liability and more an opportunity to learn the game in an organic way. Other gamers pass tips around like conspirators. Some of the visuals are horribly bad--people on fire look like special effects from the original Wizardry. After 10 hours or so of playing, I still find the "everything's a left click" system of interacting with the world less than intuitive and occasionally clunky. The visual style, while interesting, is monotonous. The game has its share of good old-fashioned bugs. But I find myself simply not caring.
There's an overused but completely accurate sentiment among jaded gamers that shiny may sell, but it's almost always gameplay for the win. It's the reason you can still find thousands of people playing Counter-Strike, 7 years after its first release. It's the reason people use MAME to play 8-bit arcade games.
The Ship is unique. It won't outsell Oblivion, but it will stand the test of time. By using the Steam distribution system, Outerlight would seem to have targeted exactly the wrong market, and it will still work. A legion of Counter-Strike players (I count myself one) suffer from an adrenaline fired epileptic twitch-disorder and don't know the cure. Some of them will be intrigued by The Ship because of what they read, because a friend recommends it, or simply because it's different. They'll toss the $15 bucks down the rabbit hole, and play the game.
If Outerlight is smart they will take a cue from Valve. They'll dribble out updates on a regular basis. Nothing spectacular--a new ship here, a new weapon there (and bug fixes everywhere). This will keep the core users happy, and will help them as they recruit new legions of would-be murderers and victims. Players will come back to the game next week, next month, and months after that. It won't be their staple diet.
It will be their after-dinner mint.