There’s a new Star Wars game everyone!
I’m actually not a particularly big fan of Star Wars beyond the original films, and by no means am I attempting to stake out an elitist position: my interest in that trilogy is pretty slight anyway and has more to do with childhood memories and a broad love of sci-fi (SPACE!) than any kind of deep appreciation of the film’s themes or storytelling. I find the original interesting from an historical point of view in terms of its position in the transformation of the American film industry and the trilogy’s pioneering trail in brazen commercialism. The fictional universe itself doesn’t move me in any particular way, but neither am I particularly antagonistic towards the Star Wars universe either. I watched all three of the prequels in the cinema and I am open to new Star Wars films, TV shows, video games… It goes on and on. And on and on. And so forth.
Funnily enough, my encounter with this newest Star Wars product came about mostly by accident thanks to advertising in another mobile game: Pocket Trains. I’m not going to say much about Pocket Trains except that it was a lot more fun than I expected but dull enough to render me slightly embarrassed to admit to playing it. In any case, Star Wars: Tiny Death Star was soon on my “mobile device”[ref]I know this is the typical term now but I wish we could come up with a better one, collectively as a society. “Mobile device” sound so corporate, though of course our mobile devices are the ultimate corporate dream, inserting marketing messages into our psyches intravenously.[/ref] and squatting some prime real estate right there on my home screen, daring me to play it. Well, no. It wasn’t daring me to do anything. It’s just software. Still, it seemed only right to give it a shot. Lord knows I’ve spent precious seconds of my life playing worse.
Tiny Death Star is a derivative of Tiny Tower, a successful iOS/Android game that focuses on business management: the hiring of staff, purchasing of goods and expansion of property upwards in an apparently infinite skyscraper combed with stories dedicated to exclusive functional use (e.g. residential, retail, etc.) with no specific final goal in mind. There is, as far as I can tell, little or no management of pricing structures or supply chain manipulation beyond the slow-drip time delays designed to foster gentle addiction in the player. This is the object of the game, naturally, and Tiny Tower is a magnificent example of the specimen. It offers the opportunity to have “fun” with no investment but liberally offers opportunities for the player to reach into his or her virtual wallet to speed up construction of a new level or develop a boundless virtual repository to rival the riches of Solomon. Said riches can then be used to build more levels, hire more workers, order more goods… The player is presented with no object within gameplay beyond continuing to build; the game seeks to build that classic “one more turn” urging within the player without any other payoff or pretense at plot or character. The game is vacuous in the manner that only the mobile games of our age can truly achieve. Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man seem unfathomably deep by comparison.[ref]This is by no means a dig against two of the great classics. Rather, it strikes me as interesting that video games have been written off by large numbers of people for so long as something infantile and aesthetically shallow only for intentionally aesthetically shallow tripe to become widely accepted on smartphones across the world.[/ref] To be fair, Tiny Tower excels in uniting its purpose and its theme, seeking to make money from its player-base via micro-transactions by creating a gameplay model based on the spending of resources and the cultivation of hunger for more resources to spend.
If one takes the supreme capitalist impulse of the game as a given, and I suggest we should as there’s little reason not to do so, Tiny Tower functions perfectly well within its own defined parameters. Tiny Death Star is a perfectly serviceable licensed game, taking the basic model of the original game and adding cutesie Emperor and Darth Vader characters that lead you through a basic tutorial and then entreat you to fulfill basic missions for virtual cash rewards. Vader seems particularly interested in the Death Star taking off as some kind of commercial hub for the greater Alderaan system. Or something. I’m not going to pretend I can fake any kind of a decent Star Wars universe reference. It’s all done rather well, really. I’ve already encountered a couple of new races of alien with which I am completely unfamiliar. It’s entirely possible the designers are just making creatures up, of course, but they win either way: if they’re rehashing old alien race designs they are doing a good job of delivering “fan service”, if they’ve produced new designs well then… we can hardly complain about creating new art for a licensed game, can we?[ref]No. We can.[/ref] The developers have fully committed to a cartoony feel, as well. The Emperor and Vader are both little more than comic relief, but it’s all pitched well. It helps that the Star Wars universe has about as much weight as a Transformers spin-off at this point, but that’s being slightly disingenuous. Tiny Death Star is a well made game, and it can be quite funny.
That brings me to the game’s biggest problem, apart from the usual micro-transaction garbage: it charts rather worrying moral territory. Specifically, you’re playing the bad guys. Now, this in itself is no issue, and playing as the Empire in Star Wars games is often a good idea. The problem is that in reviving some of the more memorable tropes from the original trilogy, this unassuming mobile game that seeks to earn money from you by a thousand cuts rewards you for torturing rebels.
I have no interest in dabbling in outrage, mainly because I’m not outraged. For one thing, the game manages to be relatively tasteful in its encouragement of torturing rebels for information, if you can believe it. The most egregious reaction I could imagine the game eliciting would be a particularly underwhelming “meh”, that great expostulation of our age, that masterpiece in half-heartedness. No outrage here. It is rather troubling though. This game, already solidly within a moral vacuum in regards to its economic reason for being, also seeks to turn the concept of torture into a monetizing mechanic. One of the floors available to construct within the Death Star is “imperial”, a level reserved for the administration of torture of the Emperor’s enemies in an interrogation chamber built below the basic zero level, a -1, while the toy store and gym inhabit floors 4 and 5 respectively. The torture itself is described as the act of “creating” rebel secrets. You don’t uncover the secrets or ascertain the details of rebel secrets. You acquire the secrets, themselves another fungible good within the context of the game’s business management theme. Yet within the interrogation level the famous torture droid hovers as stormtroopers potter about above. It’s all very… odd.
Odd but not offensive. As I say, no outrage here. It seems like a waste of energy. I am infuriated by a particular type of moral equivalency within a commercial product defined by a different type of moral equivalency! Honestly, the fact I’ve played the game long enough to unlock its torture rewards more or less disqualifies me from criticizing the game on a moral level. I haven’t spent a penny, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve clicked and waited for money to refill to start another level, I’ve chuckled at one of those flesh-dreadlock things going through the motions on a space treadmill. As I say, the game is done well.
The torture though… it seems so unnecessary and in truth it’s profoundly weird. Not as weird as, say, the Emperor welcoming you back to a play session by informing you how much money the Death Star made in your absence, but pretty weird all the same. What’s worse, the fact that a game designed for such a broad (and potentially young) audience can refer to torture obliquely as part of its reward model or the fact that said model, with all of its naked capitalist exploitative vim, has become ubiquitous on smartphones across the planet? I don’t have the answer to that really. Well, I do: the latter is clearly worse, because there’s no way the public sphere would sustain a boom of torture themed cartoon video games whereas it is clearly open to dominance of the “casual games” market bordering on hegemony by barely disguised scams. The scams themselves, like Tiny Death Star, can have quite a bit going for them, but scams they remain. It’s depressing to think about, but people spend money on these things. In principle that’s not an issue because another person’s money is theirs to do with as they wish, but the truth is that you’re not being offered anything for your money short of a built-in workaround past artificial barriers to playing the game in a straightforward manner. So, to add the prospect of rewarding the player for torturing faceless opponents to the Emperor’s will doesn’t obscure the inherent awfulness of the genre as a whole; it merely begs the question of how much farther all of this is going to go.