Capital ships and YOU

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Part of a Series on Campaign Design by Nuclear1

Original post by Nuclear1 on the HLP forums, here.

Alright, so Freespace is a sci-fi universe. What's one thing we all like about sci-fi universes? Seeing massive, sometimes over-the-top so, warships bristling with futuristic weapons duelling on screen with other warships; or seeing these behemoths absolutely dominate the space they're in, as the symbol of a faction's power and reach. Many of us have grown up with the images of the Star Destroyer, the USS Enterprise, and the Battlestar.

Of course, Freespace is no exception to this. Ever since the series began, dominating warships have been a part of the story, from the Galatea to the Lucifer, from the Colossus to the Sathanas. Some of our most memorable moments from the series involve showdowns between these ships, or watching one arrive at just the right time to rescue the player.

So of course, if people love seeing large ships, and since some of our most memorable Freespace moments involve these behemoth, this means we should see them on a regular basis, right?

Well, not necessarily.

Let's examine the reasons why we love these gargantuan sci-fi warships as much as we do, and why their appearances in the Freespace saga are burned into our memories.

First Impressions Mean Everything

Alright, think back to the first time you saw Star Wars Episode IV. In our first scene ever in the saga, we're introduced to a small Rebel blockade runner frantically firing back at and fleeing from an unseen attacker. A matter of seconds later, the bow of an evidently massive vessel comes bearing down from above. Even though it is clearly moving at a speed to pursue the smaller ship, it takes a full twelve seconds for us to finally see the aft. If that doesn't sound like a long time to you, count it out.

So what do we get from this one scene? We get a clear visual representation of what we had been told in the text beforehand--that there's a small, ill-equipped rebel force fighting against an evil, galaxy-spanning Empire. We get the sense that the Empire dominates the entire galaxy in the same way that this behemoth of a warship just dominated the screen.

Would an introduction to the Star Destroyer and the Empire in general have worked if the chase had been occurring at a distance, several kilometres away? Not likely. The first reason we were ever given to fear the Empire was the awe we were faced with when we saw the Star Destroyer emerge on screen in the way it did.

Likewise, would we have been as impressed with the Colossus had we not had The Sixth Wonder? For those who don't recall, our very first introduction to the GTVA's juggernaut was in the defence of Enif Station, in a system overrun by the NTF. While Alpha frantically holds off waves of bombers attacking the station, with relentless bombardment from the Hawkwood, a massive warship emerges from subspace, overshadowing even the massive Arcadia. The first line we ever hear from the warship is opening fire on the Hawkwood, which is promptly obliterated.

You see what Volition did there? Three things: First, by having an Arcadia-class installation in the same mission as the Colossus, Volition allowed for an easy size comparison between the two; the Colossus clearly outsizes even one of the largest ships in Freespace to that date. Second, by having the Colossus obliterate, often in one salvo, a fairly-large warship, that it had warped in close proximity to, its power is demonstrated. Finally, we were shown a really, really, really big and really, really, really powerful warship arrive just in the nick of time to save our asses.

That was our first impression of the Colossus.

The Emotional Connection

What're some of the most vivid and clear memories we have of the Freespace saga? Not surprisingly, it's the moments where large ships are destroyed.

But, oddly enough, it's not the explosions themselves we remember. This is Freespace--we see cruisers, corvettes, destroyers blow up in every campaign, in at least every other mission. The fireball, the shockwave, the sound--it's not what makes a ship's death memorable. You don't remember the Vindicator do you? Come on, you blew it up! The Sicilian Defense? It made a really large explosion!

No, the ships whose destructions we remember are the Galatea, the Lucifer, the Colossus. Why?

By the simple fact that your brain can recall a memory better when there's an emotion attached to that memory.

That's right, the despair you felt watching the Lucifer destroy the Galatea, or the Sathanas destroy the Colossus; the joy and exhilaration you felt watching the Lucifer break apart. Those are the reasons you remember those ships dying.

There's reason you felt that way when they were destroyed; because you felt something toward them long before that. The Galatea was our first home ever in the Freespace saga; it's where our journey began. Watching our homeship die helpless, with us powerless to save it, all while it valiantly defended the homeworld of a race which it had faced on the front lines of a war, was an extreme heartbreak and a tragic moment.

Likewise, how many reading this, after the destruction of the Lucifer, said something to the effect of "That was for the Galatea, you bastards"? Or how many, after knowing what the Lucifer had done to Vasuda Prime, were relieved that Earth was spared the same fate? Or how many were simply exhilarated that they destroyed the ultimate symbol of Shivan power?

A big ship is memorable, not necessarily because of its model, or how it looks, but because of the emotions it triggers inside us. If you care about a ship, in any way, you'll feel some emotion when you see it.

How Campaigns Do Capital Ships Right...and How Many Do It Wrong

There are some ways campaigns have used large ships effectively. Most of these campaigns are the ones you remember--Derelict, Blue Planet, Sync, and Homesick among others. There are also those who do it horribly wrong.

War in Heaven: How to Make a Ship Feel Like Home

If I was only allowed to say one good thing about Blue Planet: War in Heaven, it would be this: it was one of the only times in Freespace campaign history that I felt like I was emotionally-connected with the home ship.

One of War in Heaven's greatest strengths is its ability to make a ship feel populated, and like a real place. As General Battuta mentioned in the WiH commentary, the Blue Planet team worked to not make a ship feel like a single character, but like a *ship*. In Freespace, we usually associate a ship with its head ANI. But what we don't realize is that the head ANI is typically just one person on board, usually the communications officer. It's not always supposed to be the captain, or a major character (though it certainly can be).

However, Blue Planet does a wonderful job of developing a cast of characters, sometimes through something as simple as a few paragraphs in fiction viewer, and places those characters in close proximity--on your home ship. You feel like, while you're on that ship, that you're surrounded by friends and people you care about. You realize there are more people on the ship than just the wingmen you fly with, your squadron leader, and whatever the ship's commanding officer is.

In this way, your home ship feels like a place not simply where missions are launched from, but where a lot of people live and work.

Derelict: Phear My Leet Ship

Without giving too much away about Derelict's well-constructed plot, one of the grandfather-of-all-campaign's most memorable features was the introduction of a corporate-owned, heavily-modified Orion-class destroyer, the Auriga.

Derelict was the original epic campaign in the Freespace 2 universe. Memorable characters, some revolutionary FRED tricks that created some chilling moments, and compelling antagonists. It was a campaign of roughly 40 missions.

Yet this deadly ship, while a key plot element, was in less than *half a dozen missions*. Even fewer if the second SOC loop isn't accepted.

So why do people remember the Auriga?

First, it was one of the first examples of a large warship in the hands of anyone other than the GTA/GTVA or its regular antagonists: the Shivans, HOL, or NTF. It made the Auriga unique, because an Orion had never been used in this fashion before.

Second, because while the Auriga appeared only a handful of times, each appearance demonstrated something unique about it; its ability to rapidly jump, to smash entire blockades on its own, to annihilate bases, and to escape even the best-laid traps. Each appearance was unique and memorable, and it gave us even more reason to respect and fear it.

Sync/Homesick: All We Have is Each Other

Sync was the debut campaign of horror atmosphere master Ransom Arceihn, telling the story of a small group of ships inadvertently isolated from the GTVA. Homesick, similarly, was one of the first campaigns released by one of the Freespace community's most prolific campaign writer, Blaise Russel, with a very similar storyline.

Both stories utilize the same isolated atmosphere as each other, with some minor differences. Essentially, at the core of each group of isolated vessels is one or two larger vessels; Sync's Persistence, and Homesick's Custodian, and their individual compliments of fighters.

In vast contrast to Blue Planet, the large ships in these campaigns are treated as individual characters. This works to make the unnerving, tense, and isolated atmosphere that much more tangible; rather than being made to imagine a Deimos as a vessel of three thousand crew members, we view it as one single entity or character; our numbers in each campaign are thus that much fewer, and the atmosphere stronger.

Because of the development of each ship as a character, the player feels closer to the ship, not as a home, but as a companion.

Now, for ways that campaigns do it *wrong*...

Relentless: Superdestroyers, Yarr!

Close to the end of KappaWing's Relentless, we find out that a pirate faction we had been fighting for a while had gotten its hands on a GTD Kiev Superdestroyer.

Yes, I'll repeat that...a Pirate Superdestroyer.

While it's not unbelievable to see factions other than the GTVA, NTF, or Shivans with access to larger vessels (again, see Derelict's Auriga), this is one example that is difficult to believe, as a band of pirates would realistically not be able to capture, let alone *man*, a vessel of that proportion.

When creating a large vessel for use by any faction, always ask yourself whether it would be believable that your faction could acquire (without the use of some voodoo magic) and operate such a vessel.

Second Great War Part 2: The Reason the Sathanas No Longer Scares You

Second Great War Part 2 is widely considered one of the worst campaigns of all time. In one reviewer's words, it's actually so bad, it's *good*. One of the reasons this campaign is so awful is for its absolute cheapening of the Sathanas.

If you remember the main Freespace 2 campaign, you remember the terror you felt dealing with the Sathanas. Its long arms projecting the most powerful beam weapon ever created, its utter size, and its destructive capability. You also remember that you only ever had to destroy *one* of them.

Fortunately, if you didn't get enough Sathanas destruction from High Noon, you were bound to get it in Second Great War Part II. In one subspace mission, where *shields are up*, the player is ordered to destroy--not disarm forward beams, but *destroy*--not one, not two, but *three* Sathanas juggernauts.

But it's okay! Those Sathanas juggernauts, the ones that destroyed Capella, that nearly annihilated the Colossus once, and then indeed annihilated it, won't scare you! Because you've got many, many wings of allied bombers to help you!

Another way a campaign cheapened a ship. In all fairness, you will have played many, many campaigns that have overly-used the Sathanas long before you will have played SGWP2, but this one subspace mission nearly ruined the Sathanas for me.

Inferno: The Cruisers Wear Redshirts

Alright, if you're on Hard Light Productions and you're not aware of Inferno, you should be. Inferno was for the longest time, HLP's flagship campaign. Massive, epic new ships, the return of the Ancients, reopening the jump node to Sol, and the Shivans returning...with massive, epic ships.

Then the campaign was released.

While not horrible for its time, it was a guarantee that in *every single mission*, at least *two* ships cruiser-sized and above, and in some cases, *destroyers* were simply tossed into battle and given a glorious, beamified death.

Not only does this fly in the face of the Zen philosophy, but it also shows that those ships were not meant to be anything more than big things that just haven't exploded yet.

Yes, the models were cool, and yes, they were epic; but they were exploited in such a throw-away, cheapened fashion that they didn't have the scale of epic many expected out of Inferno. They became ships that fired beams and blew up, with some other ships that looked somewhat different, fired beams, and blew up.

How Can I Avoid Making These Mistakes? How Can I Do It Right?

Besides following the examples of campaigns that have done it right, and learning from the mistakes of those who have done it wrong, you can make some great strides in using capital ships effectively yourself. Let's summarize what we've covered so far:

The Most Memorable Moments are the Most Emotional Moments

Remember, emotion is everything in telling a story. A narrative without the ability to connect on a personal level with the player is worthless, and it can often boil down to being nothing but a light show.

Each and every little thing you do to make the player's home ship feel like a real place, with more than just a briefing room and launch pad, can make the difference between bland and making the player at home. A small list of things you can do: A) Mention crewmembers that aren't pilots or commanders; the security guards, the deck crew, engineers, medical teams; remind them that they're on a ship with thousands of people, not just pilots and squadrons leaders. B) Have subtle subplots involving other areas of the ship; the bar is a favourite among most writers, but even mentioning recreation facilities, gymnasiums, the shower room, or the mess hall can really immerse the player and make them forget they're playing a game. C) Use the Fiction Viewer. If you're good enough to be writing dialogue and briefings for Freespace, you can write a few paragraphs in between missions to show pilots and crew members in their off-duty time. D) Names. There's a phrase, "it's harder to kill an animal you've named." Once you give a pilot, or a deckhand, or a squadron leader a name and a figurative face, it's easy to create an emotional bond.

Once you combine those elements, the player, more often than not, will feel like they're really at home on board that ship. It's truly an amazing thing when the player feels that connection.

Let A Ship Have a Memorable First Appearance

The Colossus showed up, outsizing an Arcadia and annihilating a corvette in one salvo. The Lucifer destroyed the fortress that was Tombaugh Station on its own. The Ravana crept out of the nebula and destroyed a ship before you could even see it.

A good first impression means everything. It sets the tone for how we're supposed to view a ship, and how we're supposed to feel towards it. Here are some simple pointers: A) Shock is only shocking when used rarely. If you want to do your own Ravana-style nebula creep attack, please find an original way; do not simply copy/paste Volition's method. Likewise, the overly-powerful ship arriving and annihilating jump node blockades is horribly trite... B) ...unless you can find a way to do it differently. Which Silent Threat: Reborn did excellently, by showing the aftermath of a large ship ploughing through a blockade, rather than showing it in progress. It wasn't the ship's first appearance, but it built up to one hell of a revelation. C) The camera is your friend. Remember the example of the Star Destroyer from A New Hope? The camera angle and the way the Star Destroyer was revealed is what made that shot (and the ship) memorable. Use the cutscene SEXPs to your advantage.

Don't Cheapen Your Ships

Ships cost a lot. Bigger ships cost even more. Training those thousands of people on board the larger vessels takes time and money; make sure they're treated as such in your campaign. Your missions should not all be centred around destroying vast numbers of large ships.