|The Star Trek Text Video Game|
In one of my other lives I moonlight as a video game journalist. Now, when I say that I mean I write largely gonzo stream-of-consciousness mytho-symbolic reactions to video games from twenty-seven years ago, which is admittedly what you’d probably expect from me. The point being video games have been an incredibly important part of my life for a very long time. So much so that I’m far more comfortable associating with and relating to video games then I am to pretty much any other kind of creative expression with the exception of music, and this influences the approach I take to media studies and just media consumption in general. It’s also why I find it…not so much disquieting as ironically curious that my biggest project to date is a sprawling overview of a franchise most known for its film and television work. On the whole, I don’t work well with scripted drama. I feel I’ve never been able to truly appreciate it the way most people do and that I keep coming at it from weird angles. In that sense my long relationship with Star Trek and the scant few other non-game or -music works I hold dear to me is almost a fluke.
But Star Trek itself has a very important relationship with video games that goes back almost as long as video games do. The idea of a licensed video game is an interesting one: For this kind of game to be successful it has to be beholden to both the standards of good game design and fealty to its source material. It’s a very thin line to walk and too far in either direction all but guarantees failure, if not commercially or critically definitely aesthetically. My own history with Star Trek is also quite bound up with my history with video games: Some of the first games I ever played were Star Trek ones, and it’s been a minor life goal of mine to find that one elusive Star Trek game that both works as a game and fits with my conception of what Star Trek should be like (and given the way so many licensed games turn out and the fact not even most televised Star Trek holds to what I think Star Trek should be like, you can probably tell what a fruitless endeavour this is). But even so, there have been a number of Star Trek video games that have proved to be both historically and personally significant, and this series looks at some of them.
And so it happens that one of the earliest computer games distributed as part of a pack of games written in BASIC for early home computers happened to be based on the original Star Trek. What became The Star Trek Text Video Game was born out of an early jam session held by programmer Mike Mayfield and some of his high school friends in 1971, and was eventually ported to the HP-2000C when Hewlett-Packard asked Maynard for a version of it. David H Ahl, who worked with DEC, then found this version and included it in his list of 101 BASIC Games. Bob Leedom then cleaned the game up, adding a new user interface and simplifying the commands for better ease of use. Ahl contacted Leedom and eventually they released this version of the game jointly as Super Star Trek in 1974 as part of the book Creative Computing. Following a reprint in 1978 just as personal computers were becoming more ubiquitous, Super Star Trek became the first computer game to sell over a million copies, and got a thumbs-up from Dave Gerrold himself.
The game itself has the player, in control of the Enterprise, hunting down enemy Klingon warships. The game world is a galaxy divided up into quadrants on an eight by eight grid, and each quadrant is a further eight by eight grid of sectors.. From there, the game is simply about chasing down the different Klingon ships with short and long range sensors, engaging them in combat with phasers and photon torpedoes and occasionally refueling at Federation starbases. But there’s a surprising amount of flexibility and control over different variables for a game this old: You have to manage not just the amount of fuel the Enterprise has, but the level of power in your shields and the range of weapons (turning and aiming are vital, and considering it’s all done via coordinates this becomes pretty tiresome pretty quickly). Using the long range sensors, it’s also possible scope out any remaining targets or starbases and navigate there using warp drive, which gives the game a genuine sense of scale. This is naturally very befitting of a Star Trek game set in an entire galaxy, but it’s still surprising considering the first version came out in 1971: This was definitely an ambitious title for its time.
That said, The Star Trek Text Video Game is, as you might expect, extremely simplistic. Everything is not only controlled through text commands, it’s also depicted entirely though text as well. There’s no actual “gameplay” to speak of: It’s more inputting a series of commands and responding to what the game prints out, which is an experience suspiciously akin to productivity on a command line interface. And here’s where we start to enter into the territory of having to define what is and what isn’t a video game: As of this writing, it’s a somewhat contentious issue in circles frequented by people who prefer to spend their time philosophizing about the nature of the medium and how to write about video games instead of playing them (which is, I’ll admit, a situation I’m not altogether unfamiliar with myself). The big debate tends to centre around whether things like the output of studios like Quantic Dream or Twine stories ought to be considered video games, or if they’re better classified as something else. My own opinion on the matter in brief is “not in the slightest” and “almost, but not quite” respectively, and this is primary due to how I personally conceive of what a video game looks like.
See to me a game has to at the very least be comparable in some way with something like Asteroids. There has to be some baseline level of graphics and real-time action. If a work isn’t meeting those minimum standards, I tend to be reluctant to call it a proper video game. The Star Trek Text Video Game is a really borderline case here, and I don’t think I’m being too unfair in my judgment: SpaceWar came out three years prior to it, and Tennis for Two even before that, and both of those are unquestionably recognisable as what we’d now call a video game. Compared to those altogether more dynamic titles, The Star Trek Text Video Game comes across looking a bit behind the times even for 1971. That’s not to denigrate or belittle it, as it’s still very obviously an impressive achievement, it’s just an indication that it might be a slightly different breed of animal than the sort of thing I tend to be more accustomed to. What I think it might actually get at is a slight schism between what we call “video games” and what might actually be better described as “computer games”
The Star Trek Text Video Game is an exercise in playing around with what personal computers can do. The fact it was eventually released as part of a bundle entitled Creative Computing is sort of telling: It’s more a technology experiment for computer hobbyists to muck around with alone in their bedrooms, garages, workshops whereas video games always seemed to be designed as accessible social experiences from the beginning. This also highlights, for the perhaps the first time (at least the first time since “Arena”) the segment of Star Trek fandom that will ultimately become the most vocal and dominant. The only people who would be playing The Star Trek Text Video Game, at least at first, were people who already had access to computers. So, once again, we’re looking at big universities specializing in subsidized technoscience research. Even afterwards you had to first own a PC yourself, and they didn’t exactly come cheap. By definition these people are going to be somewhat affluent and privileged technologically-minded individuals, which is, if we think back to the “Save Star Trek!” business, precisely the sort of audience NBC wanted to court with Star Trek. Even though computer programming was not the male-dominated industry in the 1970s it is today, it’s still tough to imagine the kind of person who would be writing Kirk/Spock fanfiction sitting down and loading this thing up in BASIC.
Which is probably at least part of the reason Paramount gave Ahl the go-ahead to use the name “Star Trek” and why Dave Gerrold ended up advertising the game. Even then Paramount knew who their primary demographic was supposed to be and made overtures to court it. That said though, and in spite of all the officially licensed Star Trek games to come, The Star Trek Text Video Game is still largely a game that couldn’t be made in a lot of the subsequent eras of Star Trek history. Especially when the brand became a massive cash cow in the 1990s, the idea of a purely fan made video game being initially distributed through word-of-mouth would have had sent Paramount’s lawsuit instincts into overdrive (and indeed when a spiritual successor to this game based on Star Trek: The Next Generation emerged in 1994, Paramount clamped down on that pretty quickly). But of course by that point both the personal computer and video game industries were very different than they were in 1971.