From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. In his third look at Star Trek games, it's time for a trip to the Federation's darkest corner—the hub of politics and intrigue that is Deep Space Nine.
Deep Space Nine is almost the anti-Star Trek. Where the other series were fervently optimistic, it was realistic. Its Captain lied and cheated and did back-room deals to get the job done. Its crew included a former terrorist, a genetic outlaw, a thief, and a lost member of the baddies with a tendency to forget his loyalties. It showed that the Federation had dirty-tricks divisions, that even Paradise isn't perfect, and that there is no more horrible sight in the universe than a greedy Ferengi in drag.
Most importantly, it remains the only Star Trek series so far to really dig into the implications of the seemingly utopian Federation. What happens to those of us who aren't perfect? What happens in the face of a threat that can't be conveniently dealt with in an hour—or 42 minutes, including adverts?
Sure, Babylon 5 covered much of the same ground, but much of the fascination of Deep Space Nine was seeing how Star Trek specifically fared in the 'real world' when the chips finally went down.
(It's also the only series in history whose creators specifically released counterfeit merchandise, just to give collectors everywhere the pleasure of holding it up with a hiss of "It's a FAAAAAAKE!" Or so I encourage you to believe, tell your friends, and add to respectable wikis everywhere.)
But what of the games? Surely they're just as brilliant as the show? Yeah. About that…
The problem with a series like Deep Space Nine is that, much like Babylon 5, it was one of the first mainstream shows to really do plot arcs and story development instead of being largely individual episodes written for syndication purposes. That makes it tough to slip a story that actually means anything into the mix—but worse, means that developers have no idea what the state of play is actually going to be like when the game comes out and thus what the players will be expecting.
Though it wasn't ever likely to be this…
As a counter, in The Next Generation, you could be fairly sure of the status quo. There may be a few changes here and there, like Troi becoming a command officer or Worf's backstory being revealed, but those are minor details. Picard would be giving speeches, Riker would smile smugly and Troi would crash the bloody ship. The Next Generation was conveniently reliable like that.
Deep Space Nine on the other hand was anybody's guess. The premise, of a small mining station that becomes a hub of importance with the discovery of a wormhole to the other side of the galaxy on its doorstep, soon went from 'alien of the week' stories to all out war. Every season was different, from the weak opener with episodes like Move Along Home and If Wishes Were Horses to the political upheavals of the second. As a specific example, it wasn't until the third series that it was revealed that there was a hostile empire called the Dominion on the other side of the wormhole, and that idea itself wasn't invented until almost a couple of years into the show. Even so, any attempt to use the wormhole to tell stories that didn't factor this in was going to seem silly. And Deep Space Nine was anything but silly.
(Probably the worst ever case of this was for Farscape: The Game, which was atrocious anyway, but really suffered particularly from being set at the end of the first series and so focusing on stuff that hadn't meant a damn thing to the show for literally years. Its plot can be summed up as 'a mysterious forest appears on a planet and for some reason you care'. Only it was even duller than this sounds.)
Couple this with the fact that Deep Space Nine was an acquired taste that split Trek fandom, and it's not too surprising that there weren't many games. In fact, there were exactly three on PC, all with a certain "What the hell do we do?" feel of desperation dripping from them. There was another in development, simply called "The Hunt", but it got cancelled and only exists now in this preview. It doesn't look very good though, especially the bit where Science Officer Dax has an arse on her chin.
There is one way to take a trip round Deep Space Nine though, in a form you may have missed: Star Trek Online. It's free to play, and while I don't particularly like the game itself, it is worth finishing the tutorial, closing the quest screen entirely, and heading into the Bajor system to check this bit out. You don't need to level up or do any pre-requisites to board. Just fly there and dock.
Arriving, you're first warned that some work has been done to the place—this is developer Cryptic's way of saying "don't expect perfection, fanboys!"—and the cast of the show aren't around, but visually it's pretty good. You can go shopping on the Promenade, and visit the upper level to check out the wormhole. You can head up to Ops, where you'll probably see a random bunch of people jumping on the consoles like gibbering monkeys, and visit Sisko's office to check out his baseball. Like the rest of the game, it's all a little oversized, but the sentiment is there. You can also beam down to Bajor proper if you want, where a cute custom ground region awaits your crew, and one of the missions involves walking around on DS9's hull. There's even a whole episode of the in-game story devoted to a dropped thread from the show—a fleet of invading Jem'hadar ships eaten by the wormhole.
Probably the best-handled individual bit though is Quark's Bar. It looks decent by STO standards, and has a (almost) unique mini-game to play: Dabo, which is Bajoran for "Roulette With Boobs". This specific game is run by a hologram of Deep Space Nine's occasionally appearing Ms. Fanservice, Leeta, who mostly existed to demonstrate that deeply spiritual peoples can indeed invent breast implants, to provide any PG-rated nudity that the rest of the cast wasn't up for, and remind the world that hotties will occasionally turn down handsome, charming doctors in favour of dribbling orange trolls called Rom.
(To give her credit though, it worked out— not least because Rom eventually developed into a heroic figure who became the leader of his people. So, yeah. Way to go, Leeta, I guess.)
What you won't find in Star Trek: Online's version of Quark's Bar though are the Holosuites—which are much the same as The Next Generation's holodecks, only with the understanding that no matter how enlightened they are, no people with a machine capable of creating any fantasy in the universe are going to just fight the Battle of the Alamo and pretend to be Victorian governesses and the like. The main cast never really indulged, but it was understood that not all of Quark's customers were so restrained—one episode's B story was entirely about an alien trying to get him to make a virtual love-doll of Kira, the station's first officer, and a woman doomed to always be described using the dreadful word 'feisty'.
Sadly, building a room capable of creating anything in the universe proved beyond Star Trek Online's designers—the wusses—so forget about having a hot stardate, milking the franchise, cleaning out Jeffrey's tubes, whacking off with Weyoun, penetrating the galactic barrier, implanting a Trill, turning O'Brien smiley, touching Q's finger, worshipping the Celestial Temple, spooning like Cardassian voles, making first, second and third contact, using the Vulcan kegel pinch, riding a runabout, venturing into the pink wormhole, fondling your Tribbles, bumping Pakleds, making Odo splash on the floor, adopting the Emissary position, distributing some ketrasex-white, waltzing with Bashir, relocating some Space Seed, warping to fourth base, giving Bones double-duty, doing the Efram Cochran, promoting the bald Captain, digging into fresh gagh, being fingered by the hands of the Prophets, giving it the old Badda-Bing Badda-Bang, communing with a couple of Bajoran orbs, getting some glop-on-your-stick, engorging holosuite safeties, going to subspace with the Dominion, lapping the habitation ring, jerking the Kirk, docking at Deep Space Sixty-Nine, buggering a Borg, or setting phasers to spunk.
At least for now. Maybe in a future expansion pack.
There are three official Deep Space Nine games. The third of them is the easiest described —it's a really buggy, not very good strategy game called Dominion Wars with little of note to really say about it save that it exists and is deservedly forgotten. To fill some time, I shall hum a little. Dum de dee de dum.
The first proper attempt, Harbinger, was an adventure game designed to test the limits of human boredom. You play Envoy Nobody of the Planet Nobody Cares About, on the way back from Operation: Whatever. The trip is rudely interrupted by an attack by drones that even the Daleks would make pepper pot jokes about, and you end up crashing on an almost deserted Deep Space Nine.
What follows is one of the most sterile, tedious adventures ever, with a cast that look like they were digitised based on action figures rather than the actual actors, and the kind of voice-work that doesn't quite feature Captain Sisko going "Station Log: This morning I woke up and decided to spend the day not giving a shit", but really gets close at times. It does at least feature Avery Brooks as Sisko, along with the actors for Dax, Kira, Odo, and Quark, but even their presence only helps so much in a plot with plenty of padding, and excruciatingly tiresome technobabble delivered by a main character who sounds like he'd be more comfortable filing tax returns than saving Deep Space Nine.
To make matters even worse, the dialogue is endless, the drama non-existent, the animation hyper-limited, and instead of music, Harbinger opts for a constant 'woomph woomph' ambient thing that acts like white noise. They should use this game as a sleeping aid. For the dead.
The closest Harbinger gets to being fun is in a B-Movie kind of way. One of the hardest puzzles in the entire game is walking round Operations, which uses a Myst style first-person control scheme with controls designed by Satan. Without a word of a lie, you can be trapped next to an open door because you can't find the bit of the screen that turns you towards it, and actually navigating is toe-curlingly insane. The only reason to endure it is to realise that yes, you really do end up fighting a race called the "Tarragan"—the most dangerous herbs in the galaxy! (Sadly, they don't have thyme travel.) It's like every Christmas came at once and all you got was a mountain of coal!
Here's your friendly neighbourhood Let's Play. How long can you stick it out?
Yeah. I can't outright say that nobody involved with this game cared even a little about it, but that's very much the vibe you get from it. It completely wastes the show's canon wherever possible, and the only reason to play it at the time was that it was at least a way of wandering around the station. Now, it's so boring that if you used it as a frisbee, your dog would fall asleep instead of catching it.
By contrast, the second game, The Fallen, hasn't aged well, but was an extremely solid release. It was weighed down by having one of the worst names and box designs in spin-off history (just check out this awful thing), but was an acceptable Unreal-powered shooter for 2000.
Story-wise, it takes place in the sixth season of the show (of seven) and features most of the cast. Avery Brooks didn't show up, and was replaced by a Sisko apparently ordered to actively not do an Avery Brooks impression, while Colm Meaney (who played the station engineer O'Brien) was punished for his non-appearance by forever knowing he inflicted one of the worst Oirish accents ever on an unsuspecting world. Every line his replacement speaks ends on a silent 'Faith and begorrah!'
The main plot is fairly complex if you don't know Deep Space Nine's backstory up to this point, but I'll try to sum it up quickly. Before Deep Space Nine was Deep Space Nine, it was a Cardassian mining station called Terok Nor, where the oppressed Bajoran people were forced to process ore to buy both food, and the essential little brushes required to get gunk out of their pesky nose-wrinkles. When the Cardassians finally withdrew, the Federation took over the station with a mind to helping the Bajorans recover from the brutal Occupation and sign-up—only to have a giant wormhole open up right next to the planet that instantly turned it into one of the galaxy's most important tactical locations.
The wormhole turned out to be home to a race of mostly nice god-aliens called the Prophets—a bunch of swirly confusion balls who pretended not to know about linear time, but were pretty clearly just dicking with everyone. However, over time it turned out that there was another set of not-so-nice god aliens who had been banished from the wormhole for constantly dismissing everything. For this, they became known as the "Pah!" Wraiths, and condemned to labour forever on Bajoran high-streets as baristas in a chain of coffee shops called "Costa Mojan". Or something like that. It's been a while since I saw the show.
Anyway, The Fallen is about them and their worshippers' attempts to set them loose, and it's your job to stop them. Mostly, this is done through standard third-person shooter methods, but not without a few quirks. For starters, you can choose to play as three different characters, Captain Sisko, first officer Kira, and token Klingon Worf—and each gets their own path through the game and style of playing. Sisko spends most of his time indulging in a mix of puzzle solving and shooting, Worf shoots everything and smashes them over the head for good measure, and Kira bounces comfortably between exploration and using the power of the Death Note to execute criminals. Something for everyone then!
As with STO, arguably the best bit is ambling around Deep Space Nine itself between missions, with a few of the actual characters like Quark and Garak and Morn in residence rather than a bunch of new people you don't care about. There's not a lot to do, but you can check out Quark's, visit the Bajoran Shrine, and get around a hell of a lot more easily than in Harbinger. There's even a few people there. Not many, but some! And some is always better than none, except in MMOs, where people suck.
Here's Not-Sisko in action for the actual game part though. Enjoy the awful acting, the inevitable third-person crab-walking, and those 'beautiful' early 3D environments from the era before people learned to program lightswitches and complicated geometry in the Unreal engine.
It's tough to say that Deep Space Nine 'deserved' better. Even during its run, it was the show that nobody really expected to get an awesome game out of, and the attempts faded from memory incredibly quickly. Still, at least it got a couple. More than you can say for Babylon 5.
Next week, this look at Star Trek concludes with… ugh… Voyager. Can the most insipid of shows without the word 'Enterprise' in the title lead to some of its most memorable games? Maybe. And while the high points are pretty well known already, it may not even need an elite force to make it so.
Oh, yes. There is… another.