It is said that history and popular culture make poor bedmates because one always sensationalizes the sex while the other likes repeating things. That said, both seem to be in agreement about one thing: mankind more terrifying than any monster we've ever conceived. And in Mush, their latest experiment in dystopian society-building, Motion Twin posits a tangential question: is the monster within worse than the monster without?
Short version for those who are impatient: Mush is John Carpenter's The Thing married to Battlestar Galactica, an interstellar real-time (sort of) game of Werewolf played out with adorable pixel people on a surprising platform. While you'd expect Mush to belong to a genre everyone approves of, it doesn't. Mush, believe it or not, is a social game and in spite of the negative connotations associated with that term, it's also bloody brilliant.
Tonally, Mush is very much reminiscent of Die2Nite, one of Motion Twin's earlier releases. Both feature an inhuman threat; one has zombies, the other a shapeshifting alien Judas Iscariot. Both explore a dichotomous idea of player freedom. Traditional stuff like sprawling character customization and the ability to do as you will without being drastically affected by another's whims? None of that here. A sandbox environment where chicanery, tyranny and death by mob rule can happen? Plenty of that in Mush. Most importantly, however, both games argue (and prove with disarming ease) that human beings can be god-honest jerks.
Motion Twin appears to have learned a lot from their previous endeavor. Mush feels tighter, more refined than its predecessor. There's a cohesive narrative supporting its fundamental conceit: you're one of the sixteen crew members aboard the S.S Daedalus, humanity's last hope for continued existence, and it is your collective duty to ensure everyone survives. Doing so, quite naturally, is no simple task. On top of avoiding fungal conversion or one-way trips to the morgue, players will need to attend to more primal concerns like hunger, dwindling oxygen supplies, hostile space ships and declining mental health.
The bulk of your time in Mush will be spent juggling your supply of Action Points and Movement Points. As the names implicate, the former is used whenever you want to do something (examine an alien sample, scan a distant planet, drink coffee and so forth) while the other is instrumental for travel. Though you're free to wander through the space you're currently in for no cost, navigating between rooms will demand you spend some Movement Points. It's also pretty much just point and click. Want to examine a weird glob on the floor? If you have sufficient Action Points, you simply need to click on it to do so.
Being clever with the usage of these points is essential. Mush, for all of its cuteness, is brutal. Fail to feed your character and they will eventually starve to death. Fail to destroy the Hunter ships pecking at your vessel in time and your entire crew will be excised into space. There is a copious amount of ways to die in Mush. In fact, just being in the wrong room at the wrong time can result in an abrupt dismissal from the land of the living.
With so many social games, it feels like the entire purpose of the experience is to coerce you into a micro-transaction. Mush doesn't do that. Sure, there might be only a limited number of things you can accomplish within a specific time frame but you're rarely left feeling as though progress has been prematurely stunted. Instead, there's a strong sense of an urgency. What do you do with the little that you have? Do you go into research so as to be able to identify the Mush player with greater speed or do you take a shower? Do you leave the space combat to the pilots in the group or do you join the fray? Or do you just buy more Action Points right there and then? A whole mess of options exist and it's entirely up to you to make the right decisions.
And for the rest of the crew to serve as judge, jury and executioner.
The human element in Mush is what makes it all shine. Every character on the ship serves a purpose, you see. From the physicist to the nurse who is genetically immune to Mush infection to the corpulent captain, everyone has their own specialties. Removing even a single individual from the equation can be dangerous. Suddenly, there is that much less action points in the collective. Projects will slow, risks will build. As such, it's almost mandatory to keep everyone alive for as long as possible regardless of the fact that somewhere, somehow, someone is actively trying to kill you. The unpleasantness that such a setting evokes is absolutely fascinating to watch. In one game, I found myself under a dictatorship, "Do as we say or we will declare you a Mush and kill you." In another, people were simply murdering other people for the hell of it.
I'll be first to admit that social games are usually terrible. I can't abide by shameless money grabs and will threaten anyone who insists on sending me those abominable requests over Facebook. But Motion Twin has a gift for making the medium work and Mush is looking like it might be pretty sweet. (Unfortunately, it's firmly in closed beta right now so you may have to wait a while before you can try it yourself.)