A number of recent games acknowledge social networking's popularity explosion over the last few years, but very few actually leverage the idea as a gameplay mechanic.
Enter Redshirt, a labor of love from independent developer Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris, also known as The Tiniest Shark. Here we have a game that embraces the concept of social networking and its related considerations wholeheartedly to provide an amusing, satirical and surprisingly deep exploration of how we manage our relationships in the modern world -- often to our own selfish advantage.
Redshirt casts you in the role of a new employee aboard the space station Megalodon 9. You're living the dream of working in space, but at the same time you're the lowest of the low, forced to do little more than clean up transporter accidents each and every day. Shortly after the game starts, it becomes apparent that something very bad indeed is going to happen in 180 days' time, and you'd better be elsewhere when it happens. Thus begins your race to get off Megalodon 9 before the Bad Thing arrives, though exactly how you choose to go about it is up to you -- will you honestly work your way up the career ladder to become the commander's personal assistant? Or will you attempt to schmooze your way off the station by cultivating a good reputation and forming a close relationship with someone who will be able to whisk you away before disaster strikes? However you choose to do it, you're stuck with a hard time limit, so you'd better choose what you do wisely.
Redshirt is essentially a hybrid of several turn-based genres -- life sim, strategy game and RPG, to be specific -- in which you make use of Megalodon 9's on-board social networking system Spacebook to manage everything about your situation. Each day, you'll have a set number of actions to spend on various activities, though five out of seven days in every week will see most of your day being taken up by your job. The remainder of your time is yours to spend as you see fit, however, whether it's working on relationships by sending messages and writing on your crewmates' and colleagues' walls, or attending various events to work on your skills and interests.
There are a number of roads to success in Redshirt. Going for the honest route involves picking an appropriate career path and then focusing on activities that develop the appropriate skills, though if you take this approach you run the risk of becoming a bit of a shut-in and alienating your friends, or becoming sick and depressed. A much more interesting path to victory is to indulge in a little social engineering -- become known as someone who hosts a good party, say, and people will start to recognize and appreciate you a lot more. Spend time hanging out with the bosses of the higher-level jobs and you might just find they're willing to let some of the requirements for the more lucrative positions slide -- or you may even be able to charm your way into their romantic affections and use them as a means of escaping the impending disaster. The most ruthless will start treating their virtual friends and acquaintances as resources to be exploited rather than people -- realizing you're doing this in the game might just give you pause to think about how you and your friends are making use of social media in the real world!
Your progress in Redshirt is measured in a several ways. As you continue to work a job, you'll earn experience towards mastering it, and also build up skills that are prerequisites for higher-level positions. As you successfully invite people to social occasions -- arranged through a take on Facebook's own Event interface -- you'll earn Charisma experience and levels. The combination of your job tier and your charisma level determines your total "rank" -- as this rises, you'll find it much easier to interact with and manipulate the more important, popular people on the station. In other words, by working on your charisma to a sufficient degree, you'll be forming your character into someone so charming that they can talk their way into any situation, even if they don't have any of the necessary skills to actually perform a particular job.
Redshirt's lampooning of modern social media practices is spot-on. "Like" your own status and most people will think negatively of you being a self-absorbed jerk, though some may secretly appreciate it, particularly if they were mentioned. Compose a status update and you have the option to indulge in "vaguebooking" by posting song lyrics or passive-aggressive statements; compose a message to another character and you have a number of different options for each line of the note, allowing you to come across as creepy, friendly, aggressive or frighteningly schizophrenic; invite certain people to an event and others will get upset and jealous that they weren't invited. The game even takes a sly dig at free-to-play social games by charging you hefty amounts of in-game currency if you want to take more than the normally allowed number of actions per day, mirroring the fact that those with money to burn can often buy their way to an advantageous position, both in games and life. And all the time you play, the Spacebook news feed continually fills up with the vapid, meaningless, pointless witterings of your friends and colleagues, each of them desperately hoping to be noticed, validated and appreciated by their peers and superiors.
Khandaker-Kokoris cites Cliff Harris' life sim Kudos 2 as a key inspiration for Redshirt. Harris himself, who is publishing the game via his Positech Games label, encouraged Khandaker-Kokoris to expand the game's initial concept from simply being a social networking sim to a deeper, more complex experience that encourages strategy and creativity to succeed. It's ended up as a fun, humorous but surprisingly deep and thought-provoking experience; even without the satirical angle, it'd be a highly competent turn-based RPG/strategy/life sim title, but with it, it's a rather biting take on modern life and how easy it is to fall into an inherently selfish way of thinking.
Redshirt doesn't have a specific release date as yet, but Khandaker-Kokoris notes that it should be ready within the next month or two. Like many of her peers in the independent developer community, she's been taking full advantage of the Eurogamer Expo audience for playtesting, feedback and finding bugs that haven't been spotted until now, and has been pleased at the overall positive response from those who played it -- though she did grit her teeth somewhat when recounting the tale of the young gamers who showed up, played the game for a few minutes and then turned to her and asked "how do you start?" Young 'uns who apparently can't grasp the concept of a menu-driven game aside, however, I saw a steady flow of people trying out the game any time I passed by, which should help build it an audience for when it does eventually blast off.
You can preorder Redshirt now via the official site, which will get you immediate access to the current beta version, and it'll be available on Steam and GOG at launch.