The Ship

Okay, enough dawdling. Time to tackle another game that I bought on CD-ROM a long time ago and which now has Steam trading cards. The Ship, a murder simulator set on a 1920s-plus-anachronisms cruise liner, was one of my last purchases from the bargain bin of a bricks-and-mortar software retailer. I picked it up mainly because the cover blurbs promised something new and different and innovative, and I was already in that state where these attributes were more appealing than “fun” or “well-crafted”. (Blogging may have something to do with this. It’s definitely easier to describe what a game does differently than what it does well. It’s probably more informative to boot.) But then, having bought it, I waited eight years to actually give it a try, ruining the newness. My first impression of the game’s content is that it has stylistic elements of Bioshock (ironic juxtaposition of brutal violence with art-deco opulence and old-timey music recordings) and Team Fortress 2 (the particular style of gangly-limbed caricature used in the character models and their animations), both of which were released a year later.

Although The Ship comes with a short single-player “story mode” campaign, it is essentially a competitive multiplayer FPS along the same lines as its enginemates TF2 and Counterstrike. Its chief difference from them is that it’s designed from the ground up to support gameplay more like live-action Assassin. At any given moment, you have one other player you’re trying to murder. As such, the game goes to some length to make individual characters recognizably distinct in both face and wardrobe, and reserves a biggish portion of the UI for a portrait of your target and a statement of their last known location. Combat usually involves improvised hand-to-hand weapons like golf clubs and frying pans rather than guns, and tends to be quick and deadly, an aggressor suddenly pulling out a weapon and dispatching a target who doesn’t get much chance to fight back, preferably from behind. So it’s a little like if everyone in a TF2 match were playing the Spy. Indeed, there’s a hint of Spy Party in the design. Although you know who you’re hunting, you don’t know who’s hunting you, unless they give themselves away through their behavior — say, by following you around. I can imagine advanced players developing tricks to mask their intentions.

Alas, I will probably never see any advanced players. I was unable to play a genuine multiplayer game, due to the in-game matchmaking no longer working. Apparently there are still servers out there that you can connect to manually, but by the time I learned this, I had played to satiation against bots. And frankly, if the servers take any special effort to find, they’re probably populated entirely by people who have spent the last eight years honing their skills at this particular game. Being the newbie in such an environment does not sound appealing. Oh, I’ll give it another try if someone tells me it’s worth it, but for now, I’ve been through the single-player content and tried all the game modes and consider The Ship to be off the Stack.

There are a couple of other mechanical peculiarities worth noting. First of all, there are places where it’s unsafe to fight. If you draw a weapon in view of a guard or a security camera, or linger too long in a staff-only area, you will be arrested, relieved of your weapons, and temporarily thrown in the ship’s brig — which isn’t just a time-out, it’s a small explorable area where you can still fight other imprisoned players if you can find a shiv. If your target gets arrested, you could conceivably trigger your own arrest deliberately in order to pursue them, although in most situations it would probably be more effective to wait right outside the brig, to ambush them when they’re released and haven’t found a new weapon yet.

Now, this mechanism creates murder-free zones where you can sit safely, and it would be a shame if the players just sat there timidly. So the game has a system to force you out of them: Needs. This works kind of like The Sims. Your character requires periodic sleep, especially if you exert yourself. You need food and drink, which in turn produces a need to go to the bathroom, which increases your need to wash. There are even Needs for social interaction and reading material. All of these Needs slowly fill meters, which are normally hidden from view until they’re at least half full. I’m not entirely sure of the consequences of letting the meters fill up completely. The only meter I ever allowed to fill was Hunger, once, when I was still getting used to the rules. This killed my character. Do all the meters do this? If you don’t read anything, can you literally die of boredom? It would take a while to find out; these meters fill pretty slowly. That’s because keeping your Needs satisfied isn’t really meant as a challenge. It’s just a way to force the players to actually engage in evironmental activities other than stalking their prey, and behave a little more like a passenger on a cruise ship. I can’t say it’s entirely successful at this. There’s a screenshot on the box that shows a character stealthily sneaking up on someone who’s obliviously leaning on a rail and gazing out over the ocean, but that would never happen in practice, because there’s no reason to gaze out over the ocean. You never take leisurely saunters around the promenade deck. You satisfy your needs as efficiently as possible to get back to the business of killing. It’s less like being a passenger on a cruise and more like being a TF2 character who needs to run to the bathroom every few minutes.

The premise of the whole thing, explained in the intro cutscene in story mode, is that a masked sadist known as Mr. X has given out a number of free tickets to the cruise, only to reveal once the ship is underway that he’s diverted it from its scheduled course until the passengers murder each other for his amusement. This at least makes sense of some of the game’s rules: they’re dictated by the whims of a madman. In particular, killing your designated victim gets you a cash reward, and the size of the reward depends on the weapon you used. A keypress brings up a list of the current per-weapon rewards, which changes whenever someone gets a kill, because obviously Mr. X craves variety and doesn’t want to see the same weapon used over and over again — and neither do the players or spectators, of course. This, I felt, induced desired behavior much better than the Needs did.

The peculiar thing about Mr. X is that he’s obviously the villain of the story, but, due to the gameplay model, you never get to confront him, or even act against him in any way. He’s not so much an end boss as a personification of the game itself, and the players are his partners in crime. Even the player characters may have been hoodwinked into the whole situation, but once there, all they can do is cooperate with his insane demands or lose. That’s rather grim, isn’t it? This is a world where evil is all-powerful and untouchable, and everyone else dances to its tune, fighting each other instead of the real enemy.

Ah, but what about the single-player campaign? Unlike the multiplayer modes, it has a plot that moves forward, and can contain changes to the status quo. But if anything, it just turns up the grimness even more. We learn that Mr. X has no intention of letting anyone leave the ship alive, and plans to send a helicopter to drop bombs on it when he’s through with his fun. A friendly bellboy offers to help you escape if you give him a large sum of cash, to be obtained through various missions on the ship, mostly criminal in nature: steal a painting from the captain’s quarters, whack a bunch of thugs who someone’s mad at, move your way up to another mission source who pays more. It reminds me a lot of the missions in GTA3. When you’re done, you just make off in a dinghy while the ship sinks behind you, emphasizing the pointlessness of everything you were asked to do, and also how small your victory was. This is followed by a tacked-on Prisoner-esque coda in which you wake up in the sickbay of another of Mr. X’s ships, presumably because an ending where you actually escape was considered too hopeful. You’ve seen more story than you do in deathmatch mode, but you’re still trapped in a never-ending cycle. I feel like this seals off any possibility of even thwarting Mr. X in a sequel or a fanfic, even in a minor way. Such a thing would be too far from the spirit of the game to believably happen in the same world.