In terms of sheer fanservice, Star Trek Online succeeds wildly. It embraces continuity in such a way that anyone close to the franchise will immediately be dashed on waves of nostalgia. Cameos bring up familiar names, places and plots, to the point where precious inventory slots will at some point be burdened with an abundance of Tribbles. There’s hardly a phaser or photon torpedo out of tune, hardly a miscellaneous forehead-alien that gets glossed over, the soundscape is alive with soothing pings and whirrs, and the jargon is as abstract and vaguely technical as it has ever been. Aesthetically, it’s all my childhood dreams of living in a starship brought to virtual life.
But as much as the world looks and sounds familiar, there’s something very off with the whole affair. The problem isn’t so much tedious plotting, writing, or routine play mechanics. Granted, a part of the shortcomings are due to its structure as an MMORPG – and my usage of the term "MMORPG" should clue you in on how completely uninvested I’ve been in that particular scene. But to be perfectly frank, there’s enough nerd-nectar to keep me casually on the hook for seasons to come, cross-galactic fetch missions be damned. I’m already content with building a collection of ships named after characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Just toss me an Enterprise-D after 100 hours of gameplay, and I’ll come out of it happy.
What I can’t reconcile is the tone of everything.
When I was growing up, my weekly dose of Star Trek: The Next Generation was inspiring. I followed the franchise through Voyager, in awe of a future where mankind could travel to distant planets, communicate with foreign species, and explore the far reaches of the stars. Unlike most sci-fi programs, Star Trek had no central villain. There was no disaster to befall humanity and force it out of its cradle. No tyrannical government enforcing lifeless uniformity. No cyborgs out to eradicate life — well, not until 1989, at least. It depicted a future, a seemingly inevitable future, where mankind had overcome adversity, racism, and hatred in the spirit of unity, discovery and exploration. That is what Star Trek feels like and invokes in me.
What Star Trek Online presents is a war-ravaged future where factionalism is the rule of the day. Allies are on the verge of becoming bitter rivals, ancestral homes are wiped out, enemies infiltrate the highest ranks of leadership, and the most common response to a tense situation is to atomize someone with a high-powered laser rifle.
There’s a bit of a disconnect from the “highly evolved” state of humanity that Captain Picard triumphed, to be sure.
I want to avoid attributing the bulk of this shift to Deep Space 9 because, while the change may seem like an extension of where DS9 took the franchise, that thematic core was still intact. In the face of growing paranoia, the crew of DS9 strengthened the bonds of friendship that had developed over the trials of the series. Where TNG presented mystery in the external, the writers of DS9 shifted the narrative to extremely personal stories — loss of love, questions of religion, struggles between observation and faith, betrayal — fundamental, human, stories told against the backdrop of undiscovered countries. In the darkest of hours, there was still a sense of humanity’s struggle to triumph.
I understand that the franchise is trying to maintain the timeline before J. J. Abrams’ post-processed reboot. I understand that the Earth’s governments have seen attempted invasions by zombified rubber-suited technocommunists, jelly-filled shapeshifters, fluidic-dwelling praying mantises, and (most recently) disgruntled Nosferatu-like malcontents. I get that the state of the universal union is fragile, frayed and barely functioning. At its core, though, Star Trek has always promoted the idea of better living through technology. It has fulfilled the 20th century belief that the next big thing will provide comfort to modern man and lead us down a path to even greater achievements. And though the ships in the series were well-armed, rarely was the first response to a chance encounter “bring every gun you have to bear and shoot until their electrons flop over in agony.”
In Star Trek the 25th Anniversary, a point-and-click adventure from the wizened era of the 1990s, players were chastised for acting in bad faith. If I decided to turn into a greedy, homicidal monster, Star Fleet would recall the Enterprise. If I engaged in mindless destruction, my crewmates would voice their disgust. Like STO, classic locations and characters from the series were utilized heavily. But unlike STO, players felt like their actions had consequence. They felt like they were representatives of something greater, something to uphold.
Every time I’m forced to carry out an action that is antithetical to the beliefs of the series, my belief in the game world is weakened. Every senseless act of violenece, unnecessary confrontation, and ridiculous weapon — There’s a phaser-minigun that you can give to your away team. Seriously. — pushes the game farther away from Star Trek, and into some vaguely themed Star Trek fanfiction universe.
And violence is pretty much your only option here. Star Trek Online robs the player of any sense of diplomacy, any alternative to flailing about with gigatons of life-ending hellfire. The few chances you get to play diplomat, medecin sans planets, or cosmic engineer are done through menu interfaces, by sending bridge officers away for a few hours. That’s great if your dream StarFleet job was head of pan-galactic HR. For the player, there’s no attempt to move beyond the confines of the setting — not the fictional world, mind you, but the mechanical world, the world of Games. In a future where energy is essentially free, where equipment is plentiful, and where the whims of man, be they pleasure, sustenance or knowledge, are literally provided out of thin air by the push of a button, STO limits the player’s experience by holding on to weary tropes.
I am stuffed to the gills with aforementioned Tribbles. I could turn my science ship into a travelling Tribble petting zoo at this point, were it not for my also-sizeable collection of multicolored, anomalous reading doodads. Why, exactly, am I still bound by inventory slots? Why are there no repercussions to providing the worst possible answers in an ambassador mission? Why, also, is it perfectly acceptable to massacre squadrons full of aliens after a cursory exchange of dialogue and not lament the loss?
Because it’s a game.
It’s unfortunate that STO hasn’t stretched its scope yet. Just this year, FTL proved that you can do an interesting take on the management of a space ship and have it be gripping to boot. If there’s a way to make space handyman an enthralling experience, there must be a way to similarly make ambassadorship engaging. And if STO is to spend its days as a Free-to-Play affair, it’d be wonderful if the generic MMOG grind could provide for features meant to go off the beaten path.
Given the geopolitical landscape of the last decade, it’s not hard to see why writers would feel like a bright, shiny future would be hard to swallow. Perhaps visions of a boundless future are becoming as antiquated as stories about atomic-powered rocket cars. More and more, it seems like Star Trek is leaving the utopian view of the future behind, favoring a more divisive universe. Look as far as Abrams’ next entry in the series, Into Darkness, to see evidence of this. I just hope that the franchise keeps in mind the qualities of hope and optimism that made it a cornerstone of science fiction