A few hours in
Alright! It took a while, particularly once all the races got into space and started quarreling about everything and nothing… but after several hours of play, I was finally presented with the opportunity to start thinking about the Federation!
After that hurdle was taken, it only took a few… more hours of gameplay, before I finally got in a position where I could legitimately start thinking about launching an actual Federation. Yes, a Federation: turns out there’s many different ways of going about it! You can just jump-start your Federation with any two races that like each other… but you can also get all the sissy races together for a ‘Federation of Safety’, or all the bully races in a ‘Federation of Strength’. Which option is the best? Hell if I know; I don’t even know if they have any repercussions beyond just how you start them.
In my universe, the Andors, Pelitans and Skylaxians were being extraordinarily sissy. So after a whole mess of cajoling, dueling, and determining television programming, I finally managed to get the Burlust, the Acutians and the Boarine together into the Federation of Tough Guys.
The Pelitans were easily convinced to join after that, the Skylaxians were standoffish but open to the idea, and the Evucks were already annihilated. The only real opposition came from the Thoraxians, interstellar murderers and general Zerg-stand-ins: in reaction to my Federation, they launched the Thoraxian Protectorate. With the Andor, beatnik hippy peace-robots, of all partners.
I’ll have to end the Thoraxian menace before the Federation can be universal. If I can get the other races to destroy the Thoraxians first, the Andor could be convinced to join us… but I’ve already seen the Burlust eye the Andorian planet rather greedily, so they may not survive long enough.
Still, that’s about the state of it: I’ve started a Federation, I’m giving the opposition the stink eye, and it won’t be long before everyone left alive in the universe is hailing me, the Hydra…l.
“Wow, Jarenth,” I hear you say, “I guess you picked a good point to leave off on that previous page, huh? You’ve clearly mastered and used all the systems The Last Federation has to offer, by now. I mean, wouldn’t it just be silly if the game kept introducing factors and systems even as you’re already working towards the end-game?”
To which I would reply, “Err…”.
Here’s what The Last Federation has introduced after I last left off: diplomatic actions, insurgencies, building construction, space station construction, space station upkeep, planet-wide events, economic trends, population trends, assassins, further tech trees, hirable minions, a whole slew of species-specific diseases, raw materials, trade routes, eight different political systems, bribes, conspiracies, and more graphs and information displays than you can reasonably be expected to shake a stick at.
You’ll notice I brought relatively little of this up in my little debriefing, just now.
My official opinion stance on The Last Federation is that I bloody called it on the previous page. The Last Federation is another Arcen Games game to a tee: an incredibly interesting, relatively unique, far-out idea, drowned in a flood of pointless data, useless over-simulationist ideas, and the very clear design choice to focus on the hyper-specific to the exclusion of the necessary.
“The Last Federation has so much stuff, waa waa!” This may sound like a petty complaint, me crying at not being able to hack it at this game, but it really isn’t. Like so many other Arcen Games games, The Last Federation is hurt by this mechanical overload. It’s less of a game than it seemingly could be, and it is definitely less of a game than the interesting premise seems to lead up to. It’s still interesting and reasonably fun, mind, but that’s in spite of the endless layers of systematic code-barnacles attached to it.
Rather than complain about each ancillary system individually, reader, I invite you to run a thought experiment with me. A game design thought experiment. We’re going to take the premise of The Last Federation, just the premise, disregarding most of what we know to be true about it. And then we’re going to move forward from that, adding assumptions and ideas, until we get to where The Last Federation is right now. Hopefully, along the way, this’ll illuminate the point I’m trying to make.
Okay, so, starting-off point: the player exists in a solar system with eight different races. The races have no real affection or enmity towards each other, and they all vaguely dislike the player. It is the player’s goal to unite as many of the races as they can into a United Federation, with the implied goal of ending all wars, strife, and general awfulness between them.
What systems do we need to make this game idea happen? Clearly, first and foremost, the idea of inter-racial relations is something that plays a key role in the story experience we’re trying to sell. So we need some way of modeling how different races feel about one another. Similarly, they also feel a certain way towards the player: they start off disliking you, but you’ll have to make them trust you before they’ll go along in your Federation schemes. We’ll call that system ‘Influence’.
The player needs to be able to change these racial Influence values somehow; otherwise, we wouldn’t have much of an interesting game. Let’s say the player can perform certain actions for and with each race. Stuff like grunt work, military action, fighting a race’s enemies, acting as a diplomatic envoy… we’ll fill in the specifics later. Similarly, the player should be able to work against races, if they so choose: think about things like criminal behaviour, sabotage, destroying their assets, or even fighting a war against them.
Doing these things nets the player Influence with the races. And that Influence can be used to steer their behaviour, and to propose deals for them to follow. Obviously, the most important thing here is that the player can alter just how different races see each other, and that they can propose to start a Federation or to have races join it.
Mechanically, how does the player do all that stuff? We’re already in a space setting, so let’s say each race has a homeworld they live on. The player possesses a spaceship, one-of-a-kind, that they can use to travel from world to world, engaging in their deals and in combats.
If the player is space-faring, then so must the other races be, right? So let’s say the races don’t just sit still if the player isn’t around: they build fleets, expand their planetary forces, engage in diplomatic deals with other races, and go to wars of conquest. The player can influence these things, behind the scenes or overtly, but even they won’t see everything and can’t stop everything. This way, we’ll get a universe that feels interesting and alive, while still giving the player their unique position of influence and power.
And… hey, we’re basically done! We’ll need to fill out the systems, of course: combat needs to be designed and balanced, and we need to consider what sorts of acts a player can get up to. But on the whole, we have a decent-if-bare-bones set of game mechanics here, that does a good job of capturing the narrative fantasy we’re trying to sell.
Hey, who’s that? Why, it’s my good friend, Developer Strawman! Developer Strawman, please join me and my readership in our thought experiment. We have a nice initial setup here, but maybe you can help us flesh it out a little better.
“Your Influence idea is unclear, right now. It represents how races see you, but you also use it to achieve things? Maybe split this idea into two: one number that just represents how much each race likes you, and one number that represents how much direct pull you have with them and what your options are.”
Good idea, Developer Strawman! Let’s call the second one ‘Credit’. And can I call you ‘DS’?
“Right now, the player can engage in helpful or hostile acts, which respectively gain or lose them Influence. How about Credit? Maybe some helpful acts will get them Credit too, but other acts — like improving inter-race relations — should cost them Credit, because those represent the player advancing their own plans. And maybe hostile acts can get them Credit at a faster rate, representing a trade-off between being liked and being powerful.”
Sounds interesting, DS. Keep going…
“Building on that: right now, your eight races are a little samey. Let’s give them all unique names and personalities, and make it so they develop, behave, and deal in noticeably different ways.”
Couldn’t agree more. What should we be going for? The warlike race, the peaceful race, the neutral science race… the insect race, the robot race…
“And how about we make it so that each race has a different way of politically organizing? One race can be a democracy, and the player will have to get votes. And another one is all warlords, so they only respond to respect. And maybe the third one needs to be bribed with Credit. And the insect queen has mood swings, which randomly determine what the player can offer to them!”
Err… DS, I’m not so sure about this. How about our nice universal system of Influence and Credit? I’m all in favour of making the races feel different, but is this really the way?
“And if you beat races in combat, you can take their pilots hostage. And trade those for Influence, or Credit! And you can also bribe races with special bribe items, which have different effects on different races!”
DS, you’re information-overloading me. Slow down for a moment!
“Okay, different topic. What about research?”
What about research, DS?
“Sci-fi games like this always have tech trees and research, right? Let’s implement that in our game too!”
Alright, what did you have in mind? Our player is a solitary dude, so it’s not like they’ll have labs running.
“If the races act independently, that means they’ll do their own research, right? Each race progresses up the tech tree at its own speed.”
“So the player can fly to different planets and races, and help them develop the technology faster! And that gets the player a copy of the technology too, which they can then trade to other races!”
DS, why would our space-hydra mercenary know anything about resea-
“Of course, most technologies wouldn’t benefit a space hydra. But some of them would! And as for the others, well… obviously, not every race is going to want every technology. The environmentalists aren’t going to be interested in polluting power plants, that just makes sense. So different races have different ‘tech trees’, insofar that they can’t access all technologies. Hell, maybe some races can have unique technologies all to themselves!”
DS, you still haven’t explained how a space hydra would do research in the first place.
“Oh. Well, obviously, the player would be able to hire scientific goons from the black market to help them in their research. And if they manage to capture an orbital Science Station from one of the races, that would really give them a boost!
What? What’s this about stati-
“So some of those technologies would improve their spaceships or their soldiers, right? And others could help them build certain buildings — with the player’s help, of course, and with construction goons — or even allow them to improve the RCI values of their planets.”
What in the devil are RCI values, DS?
“Duh! Clearly ‘RCI’ stands for Economical, Medical, Environmental, and Public Order. I mean, if every planet has a whole civilization living on it, these are things that are obviously going to change over time. Maybe one race will have a booming economy, but at the cost of their environment. Or maybe one race will have awful medical stats and bad public order, which would lead to extremely sweaty rioting in the streets!”
DS, how does any of this play into the simple narrative fantasy of creating a Federation that we started out from?
“Sorry, what? I was too busy thinking up random events that can trigger if planetary RCI values reach certain thresholds. Like riots, or insurgents… stock market crashes, tourism hotspots… and let’s not forget the global pandemics!”
“Yeah, so I was thinking: people get sick, right? So we clearly need to model a few diseases into the game. But then I thought, if we have robot races and insect races, those wouldn’t get the same diseases as mammals do. At the very least, we’ll need to put in some ‘computer viruses’ as disease analogues for the robot races.”
“And sure, the player is going to be able to research vaccines to those disea-”
DS, for the love of Steve, stop for a moment! You’re on a systems cruft bender! How is any of this necessary for our game?
“What? Next thing you know, you’re going to tell me you don’t want the player to be able to see the raw resource types that races use to automatically construct buildings on their planets!”
And so on, and so on. I could probably write like eight more paragraphs of Developer Strawman, but at that point it would rapidly start approaching fanfic.
And I haven’t even mentioned the combat at all, have I? That’s how much that part of the game stuck out in my mind, I suppose. It hardly matters. For all its tactical systems and movement controls and spaceship subsystems, I never felt anything other than completely invulnerable while playing. I suppose the fact that all I have to say about the combat it that it’s functional and dull is a comparative blessing in disguise.
The point I’m trying to illustrate is this: The Last Federation has too many systems. It has too many systems, and almost none of those systems matter. Diseases, RCI values, raw resources, voting proxies, captured pilots, space stations. None of it. Research is somewhat important, and building buildings on planets can help you get our races of choice buddy-buddy faster. But everything else is just… ancillary. Over-loaded systemic dead weight. Cruft.
And in my experience, players respond to game system cruft in one of three ways. Some will rise to the perceived challenge, learn about all the systems and how they interact, and become masters of all they survey. Others (like me) will cut through the cruft, identify only the systems that are actually useful for playing the game, and tunnel-vision through the rest.
And the rest of the players, those that fall into neither earlier category… they tend to go ‘fuck it’, and stop playing entirely.
I did manage to beat The Last Federation, just for reference. Once. It was the same game I started at the start of this review, to give you an impression of the lengths we’re talking about here. After getting the Skylaxians to join my Federation due to ‘excessive military strength’ — which counterintuitively means that they got so strong that they ‘wanted to join us’ — and the Andors got wiped out by the Burlusts, all that remained was a protracted war against the Thoraxians. I… may or may not have won by launching an Acutian planet-cracker at their homeworld.
I even played around with Observer mode a little while. In this mode, you can run a universe without your interference, just to see what happens. In one universe, the Thoraxian bug-people got to space first, rapidly conquered planet after planet, and formed an Empire of Fear that spanned eternally. In another universe, the Skylaxians and the Burlust rapidly destroyed those same Thoraxians, before forming the volatile Solar Axis Pact. Are they still together? Maybe.
The Last Federation is an interesting game, jammed chock-full with surprises, systems, twists, turns, bits, bobs, writing, voice-acting, challenges, achievements, and all kinds of rigmarole. It provides a unique experience, one that very little other games can match, but at the expense of making the experience bloated, information-overloaded, and generally incredibly hard to control and master.
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe The Last Federation is a Sierra Madre-style lesson about learning to let go. It could happen.
But I find it much more likely that The Last Federation is, again, a clear product of the Arcen Games design philosophy. ‘Simulate what need not be simulated; inform the player of the things they’ll never need to know’. Please understand that I’m not opposed to modeling these things, here: the RCI values and resource and research trees and all that. But I’m opposed to bogging the player down with them. And for all The Last Federation’s cool possibilities for emergent narrative and digital storytelling, it falls incredibly flat in the field of being comprehensive, intuitive, and generally fun to play.
Jarenth would like to take this moment to inform you that, given that he’ll be in Paris all week next week, there may or may not be an Indie Wonderland available to read next week. Of course, if you want to stay up-to-date on his games writing goings-on, follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam.