Artemis allows six people take the bridge of a starship, and tell their own story
Artemis is designed for anyone who watched Star Trek and dreamed of what it would be like to sit on the bridge of a star ship. That dream comes at a price, as playing a game of Artemis requires some organization and a lot of hardware. You need up to six computers and a projector or large television for the full experience, as there are five stations that need to be controlled directly and a view screen for the captain. The captain’s job is to ask for information from the other five members of the crew, digest what it all means, look at data on the main view screen, and make command decisions. The game requires a quick wit and the ability to work well with others. Artemis is $40, which is steep for an indie game with such basic graphics, but that license allows you to play the game on all six computers. There is no DRM, as the game's creator simply asks you to abide by Wheaton’s Law.It may not be easy to find five other people that want to pretend to fly a spaceship in this manner, but the game is like nothing else you've experienced once it's set up correctly. Everyone tends to snap into their role and share the information coming to them from their station while interacting with the crew and captain. The Helm station flies the Artemis. The Weapons station controls your offensive powers. Engineering moves power and handles repairs. Science can scan enemy ships and share intel. Communications allows you to interact with both enemy and friendly ships. Each station has information that must be shared with the rest of the crew to keep the ship healthy and flying. Don’t worry about your hardware, as the game’s requirements are slim. Netbooks, old laptops, or even Macs running windows will handle the game just fine. There is something magical that takes place when you walk into a room and see the five stations and main view screen in action, showing information and allowing you to control all the aspects of your ships. In the right room with the lights low it's easy to pretend you're in space. This is LARPing for science fiction fans, with the exception that everything you want to work actually does. You're not pretending to throw spells, you're actually telling Engineering to send more power to the shields during a tense standoff. You’ll do battle, and the combat is a tactical, naval affair, just like Star Trek. “My vision is directly inspired by when I was 18 and wanted to create a game that was just like the Star Trek bridge,” Thomas Robertson, the game’s creator, told the Penny Arcade Report. He coded the entirety of the game himself, despite pleas from the community to accept help. “I’m really flattered, but they don’t know what I know about how comfortable I am in my lone wolf skin,” Robertson said. “I look at the giant list [of features to implement] in front of me, but it’s not insurmountable, it’s not something I’m going to run screaming from. It’s just a lot of work. I don’t feel a ton of pressure to build a team.” Artemis is an ambitious attempt to model the Star Trek experience many of us grew up with, but there is one aspect of the science fiction world Robertson is not interested in recreating: The story.
The players create the story
“I have to rant here. I am totally with Will Wright, and the truth is that video games should not have narrative stories. That’s not why video games exist. Video games exist so people can have their own stories. [Artemis] is about creating and telling your own story,” Robertson said when I asked about the possibility of a central campaign in the game. He brought up God of War, which was “beautifully scripted,” but he stated that “it’s crap. L.A. Noire and games like that are just movies trying hard to masquerade as video games. They’re losing sight of the fundamental thing that makes video games as an art form different than any other art form. Authorial control is no longer in the hands of the author, but in the hands of the player. That’s the way it should be.” The game does come with missions, but they’re often basic, and provide little in the way of plot. You will find yourself in battle, or you may be asked to explore a bit of space. Things happen in the game, but the real narrative takes place in the physical room the players inhabit; the story is in how you interact with the game and each other. The latest version of Artemis even includes a station that can be manned by a game master to control the missions on the fly, just like a dungeon master adds monsters or story to a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Robertson isn’t interested in telling you a story, he wants to provide a game where you can act out your own story, or tell each other stories. “People use the scripting system and they have an opportunity to tell stories. I’m not going to shoot them down, they’re bringing something to do the table, and something of worth, but I think video games are about telling your own story. Video games should focus on the mechanics and the verbs that allow the player to tell their own story,” he explained. By splitting control into five stations and giving everyone something to do, Robertson has been able to create a new form of co-op gaming. Flying a ship to a specific location and firing on an enemy may be an easy task in most games, but in Artemis it requires the captain to say where to go, the Helm to fly the ship, the Science station to find the weakness in the enemy, and the Weapons station to load the munitions, aim, and fire. “There’s no doubt that game design is verb building, I can run, I can jump, I can shoot,” Robertson said. “In my case I just made a game where those verbs are on different consoles and are handled by different people. You just have to provide enough verbs and have them be meaningful.” Some of the verbs may not be integral to the game play experience, the red alert command doesn’t do anything, for instance, but when you’re under attack and you tell one of your team to sound the alarm it makes everything feel more dramatic. The ability to work your station well and execute the captain’s orders is what will allow you to “win” each mission, and to my surprise I had just as much fun on the Engineering station as I did as captain. Being in charge isn’t as important as being part of the whole, and when everything is up and running the game comes to life. This is what it must feel like to command a starship. With the lights out and the game running it’s easy to imagine you’re in deep space, squaring off against other ships. The captain can’t even control what he sees on the main screen. He or she has to ask a member of the crew to change the view coming from through the projector, although you can also play with the main screen on a television for a slightly less epic feel. To give the sense of a Star Trek-like bridge, the captain never touches or does anything, they simply take in information and give commands. “Bring up navigation!” The captain can say, and a crewman can then put the map on the main screen.You look at the map of the space around you, and tell the helm where to go, and what speed to travel. Engineering can show you how much power the ship is using. If you encounter ships, you can ask Communication to speak with them. Watching battles on the main screen in the external view may not make a ton of sense (is there a camera trailing behind your ship?), but it's a tense way to take in the battles. Each interaction is fun, and adds to the sense of immersion even when very little is going on. You need to work as a crew to keep your ship operational. Robertson asked me how hard it was to learn the game as a first-time player with a full crew. I told him we simply made it part of the game; we role-played the idea that we were students who were joy-riding in a space ship and had to learn as we go. “That’s awesome,” he said, beaming. “That’s validation for me. That’s actually what I wanted.”
Development will continue
The game has been available since 2011, but Robertson continues to listen to fan feedback and works to improve the experience. The community has also gone to work creating new missions and add-ons such as a graphics pack that gives everything a look more reminiscent of Star Trek. There is no sign of Robertson, or the community, slowing down. “Honestly, the length of time I've spent on Artemis is a total anomaly. As an indie, I've been used to working on whatever I want, and skipping from project to project practically every month,” Robertson said. “Of course, that's no way to make money or build a brand, but my real incentive to keep going with Artemis is the community growing around it. My relationship with the Artemis fans is very rewarding and nourishing, and that’s not something EVERYONE can say about their fan communities. As long as that continues, I'll be coding Artemis.” Personally, I’m hoping to get a crew together this weekend to play the latest update. Robertson just wants to build the ships and the tools; it’s up to you to fly them and give them life.