Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Turncoat Dev Diary: Life in the Turncoat Universe

Since much of the Turncoat Universe's history exists to provide the backstory for a mystery, I'm hesitant to say too much very specific about it, but throughout this series of blog posts, I'll be talking about the process and the motivation that went into building our universe as well as the nuts and bolts of building the actual game. For the former to make any sense, you'll need at least a little context.

The original Turncoat story is set in the late 24th century during a war being fought between Earth and its former scientific colony on Mars. People of Earth call the people of Mars "Seditionists" or "Seds"; they only rarely call them "Martians" and never "Colonists".

This is not a civil war, however. Though no Earth government ever officially recognized Mars' sovereignty, neither had there ever been any attempt to prevent the secession. The two planets had been peacefully coexisting until about thirty years ago. The Mars Colony actually seceded a century earlier during a bloody multi-nation (but fortunately, non-nuclear) conflict on Earth, a conflict that led to the eventual creation of a single, unified Earth government.

Why are Earth and the Mars Colony at war? What started it, and why can't the two planets find a peaceful resolution? Those are some of the bigger mysteries of the Turncoat Universe; the player and the major characters don't know all the forces that are driving the conflict. In fact, most of what they do know is based solely on propaganda from their own side. What the player does know for sure from early on is that the war was started by the Seditionists who launched a surprise attack on Earth using devastating long-range weapons. Why the Seds attacked Earth is the subject of much conjecture, but the real reasons are not known on Earth. Players also find out quickly that the war has been going on for a very long time and shows no signs of ending any time soon.

In the Turncoat universe, there is no faster-than-light travel and there are only a handful of humans who have ever left the solar system. Travel between Earth and Mars is still a danger-frought six to eight week journey depending on the relative positions of the planets. That makes the war difficult and expensive to carry on. Large scale engagements are relatively rare, and only a small percentage of Earth citizens are involved in fighting the war. War happens "out there" and doesn't really affect the day-to-day life of average Earth folk who aren't in the military.

But "out there" is a dangerous place. Ships don't have shields like in Star Trek, nor do they have FTL capabilities. They're operating millions of kilometers away from home with very little in the way of support. When a ships takes a hit from enemy weapons, people die and parts of the ship become unusable.  But these ships have a job to, and if a ship is still able to fight, it stays "out there" and fights.

The player in Turncoat sees events from the point of view of elite Earth soldiers stationed on one of Earth's "Deep Fleet" ships. The Martians are the "bad guys". They're the mostly-nameless and mostly-faceless soldiers who are trying to kill them. At first, we don't even really see them as people. They're represented by enemy ships and mirror-faced space suits that are shooting at the player.

While players don't know much about the culture, history, or internal politics of these faceless enemies, at least at the start of our story, they do start finding out about life on 24th century Earth right from the get-go, so we had to put a lot of thought into what life would be like in our 24th century Earth.

One of the nice things about writing fiction is that you get to decide how things play out. We decided that we wanted our 24th century Earth to be, on whole, better than now. We want to present an optimistic outlook, but one tempered by reality. There will always be problems and conflicts; we do not want to present a utopia. People are still self-interested and petty. There are still rich and poor, and there are still people willing to profit at the expense of others.

But, overall, life is better for most people than in the past thanks to steady advances in medicine and technology and other fields.

Thinking forward nearly four hundred years is not as easy as you might think. If you work backwards that same amount of time, you'd be in the early seventeenth century. To put that in perspective, the early seventeenth century was the dawn of the Age of Sail. Firearms existed, but were not the primary weapons used to wage war. Only one of the American colonies had been founded. It would be nearly two hundred years before the British Empire would outlaw Slavery and over two hundred and fifty years until the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation would do the same in the United States. Throughout most of the world women were considered property, without the right to vote or hold title in their own name. People were wildly xenophobic and superstitious. In the early sixteen hundreds, people were still being put on trial and often hanged or burnt at the stake for witchcraft and heresy, and both the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions were in full force.  It would be another two hundred and twenty-five years, give or take, before Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle.

A person from the early seventeenth century would have a very hard time comprehending the modern world. It would be naïve and more than a little arrogant to think we would do any better comprehending life four hundred years from now. Realistically, we can't change our fictional world as much as the real world will actually change by then, and even if we were capable of doing so, we probably wouldn't want to because our player would feel out of place and uncomfortable.

But we need to convey to the player that social mores and culture have, in fact changed. In my mind, to be science fiction, rather than just futuristic fantasy, social mores and cultural standards have to be different from today. Those changes can be for the better or for the worse, but there have to be tangible differences in how people think about the world and how they interact with others, otherwise you're just creating General Hospital in Space. With lasers.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not what we're going for with Turncoat.

So, what cultural changes did we decide on for our Twenty-Fourth Century Earth?

First, we decided that the entire world had moved to a single-unified government. People are no longer citizens of countries, they're citizens of Earth. Countries are more like states or provinces or maybe even counties in today's world, and the existence of a common enemy has reinforced this feeling of planetary patriotism. To the mainstream twenty-fourth century Earthling, all other affiliations and identitifications are secondary to world citizenship, whether it's cultural heritage, ethnicity, religion, or anything else. Those things still have some importance to some people, but they're almost always of secondary importance.

There are a small number of people in the twenty-fourth century who consider their association with a cultural group, ethnicity, race, or religion to be more important than their citizenship. Those people are called "Traditionalists", and they tend be looked down upon by mainstream citizens, much the way many people today might look down upon uneducated rural people (but more so). There aren't a lot of these Traditionalists, though, and they tend to live in isolated communities far away from population centers.

A world-wide government doesn't come without its problems, of course. There is a lot of bureaucracy and waste in both the civilian government and in the military. Even with four hundred years of technological advancement, logistics are never handled perfectly. Just like today, large bureaucracies mean mistakes get made and change is often slow. Shipments and personnel often arrive at ships completely wrong. A ship might requisition food and end up with parts for equipment that the ship doesn't even have. They might desperately need a repair technician but be sent a trauma nurse instead.

Second, not only has racism been defeated, but few people in the twenty-fourth century outside of historical sociologists would even understand what the term means. Most people in the twenty-fourth century have ancestors from many ethnic backgrounds. It's not uncommon for people to have a surname from one culture, a first name from a different culture, and the physical traits that today we would associate with a third culture. You might have someone, for example, with a Japanese surname and a Portuguese first name,  but who has blue eyes, pale skin, freckles, and red hair. Essentially, there are no rules when it comes to names or physical characteristics. The world has become a true melting pot.

Third, twenty-fourth century Earth has long-sinced achieved true gender equality. Women fight alongside men, and both the civilian and military leadership have nearly identical numbers of men and women at all levels of leadership. We decided to have a little fun with this idea, though. We made that equality almost — but not quite —  universal. We decided, for grins and giggles, to put in one little tiny bit of subtle gender bias in our universe, but in just a single occupation. The job of fighter pilot, in the Turncoat universe, is a job heavily weighted toward women. We thought it would be interesting to reverse the situation of today. We decided to play "what if", and make it so that in the Turncoat Universe, for some reason, women just tend to be better fighter pilots in zero-gravity. We don't go into why — whether it's genetic or cultural or what, but the CAG, LSO, wing commanders, and most (but not all) of the accomplished pilots we meet in the Deep Fleet, are women. In literally ever other job in the universe, though, there is absolute and complete gender equality. 

Fourth, we decided that the world had evolved in terms of sexuality and sexual relations, but that this will be something that's more of a background element rather than something we put right out in front of the viewer. Mainstream Earth citizens have mostly moved beyond caring about things like sexual orientation or sexual identity. Except for Traditionalists, people just aren't uncomfortable with the idea that other people are different than they are. Related to that, the 24th century has no body modesty taboo. The ship's facilities — showers, bathrooms, barracks, and locker rooms — are all mixed gender except for a small portion on some ships that are set aside for "Borderliners" - Traditionalists who have chosen to try and live in mainstream society for one reason or another.

Overall, the citizens of twenty-fourth century Earth are generally rational, literate people. Public education systems are fairly good and most people have at least a basic foundation knowledge of the maths, sciences, and history. Most people are also not overly superstitious. There are some exceptions to that, though. One area where most people are very superstitious is with regards to the Seditionists. People just don't have much hard information about the Martians because it's been over seventy-five years since there was any meaningful communication with the red planet. As a result, there are a lot of rumors, stories, and myths about them, ranging from the plausible to the completely absurd. Almost all of these stores are completely untrue and yet many are fervently believed by some and are given some credence by many.

This view of Earth people towards the Martians is actually inspired by U.S. attitudes about the Soviet Union during the Cold War, especially the Reagan era Cold War. If you look at popular culture back then, you see a lot of examples of "red fear" in movies and television shows. Stories like No Way Out, Red Dawn, and Little Nikita  played on American fears about the threat posed by the Soviet Union and possibility of embedded Soviet "sleeper" spies living in America. While entertaining, these stories were fueled as much by half-truths and ignorance as they were by reality. Earth beliefs about Martians are similar, but the stories are even more dramatic and even more dramatically wrong.

In addition to cultural changes, there are also some important aspects of twenty-fourth century Earth that will color the events and decisions made by characters. The most important of these is that Earth is teetering on the brink of overpopulation and starvation. Restrictions on population growth combined with advances in agriculture and genetics, and the use of the moon and several agricultural space stations to grow food mean there's enough sustain Earth's population, but just barely. People on Earth live on a rationed 1800 calorie diet except for the very wealthy, and most of that comes from processed foods. Fresh fruits and produce are relatively rare treats for the middle class and almost unheard of for the poor. Only the very wealthy ever have meat, and it is looked upon by the non-wealthy the way some people today look upon caviar and foie gras: as unappetizing foods the wealthy eat just to show off the fact that they're wealthy.

For the Deep Fleet, keeping everyone fed is a challenge, and it's not uncommon for the ships to go on "starvation rations" of 1000 or 1200 calories a day for days at a time, sometimes even longer. Supply convoys are often targeted by the Seditionists and bureaucratic mix-ups often result in too little food being sent in the first place. There is a thriving (and tolerated) black market in the fleet that uses foodstuffs as the primary currency, and several larger ships have taken to converting unused space into makeshift hydroponics bays.

More than one Earth politician has looked at the sparsely populated and lushly terraformed Mars as an option for alleviating the overpopulation problem once the war has been won.

There's more to the Turncoat Universe, of course. In fact, there's several hundred pages more, but this should give you enough context to play along at home without spoiling anything too important.

Next Up: Finding a Smaller Game in the Backstory
Previous: Origin of the Universe


jens said...

‘Disparity’: that word does not mean what you think it means.

Small cliché checklist (rhetorical questions):
• ‘…if a ship is still able to fight, it stays “out there” and fights.’ Is turning around while in transit a practical option?
• Does the unified government of Earth consist of a bicameral parliament and a separately-elected, powerful president surrounded with magisterial pomp and circumstance?
• You talk about mixing “first names” and “surnames”. Does this mean that everyone uses an anglophone approach to naming structure? (In reality, many cultures – Japan, Hungary etc – use the reverse convention; Icelanders use patronymics – with gender-dependent formation rules – rather than surnames; Russians and Ukrainians use a patronymic and a surname; Spaniards have two family names, one from the father and one from the mother.)
• Have you considered just how much long-distance migration would be necessary to produce the degree of ethnic diffusion you’re suggesting in a mere fifteen or so generations?

Also, have you read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series? :-)

Jeff LaMarche said...


These don't sound rhetorical to me. :) These are actually some pretty good questions, and with an undertaking as large as this, yep, we're going to get some stuff wrong and some stuff we do won't be 100% realistic or feasible. We're hoping to get the major stuff right and hope the story makes the mistakes tolerable. But we have put a fair amount of thought and I have some answers.

re: "disparity". Yikes. Fixed.

As for traveling to Mars, yes turning around in transit is practical. While they don't have FTL drives, there have been 400 years of technological progress and ships are quite advanced, they just can't go faster than light.

The unified government of Earth's legislature is called the Diet, and the government does not have a powerful president - most power lies with the Diet. We don't dive too much into the politics, as that happens 75 million kilometers away (±30ish million kilometers), so we haven't developed all that much about what happens in the political system outside what directly affects the story, to be honest.

Language is an interesting thing. For purposes of English readers, yes, first names and surnames will be used. In the Turncoat universe, a common Earth language has evolved. If/when we localize, we may choose to present the names according to the country or locale we're localizing for. But yes, the primary English version will be somewhat English-centric because we don't want different characters to be using different conventions for their names = that would be a sign of tribalism and contrary to our vision.

As for the extent of the ethnic blending, yes, we've thought about it. Again, because the story mostly takes place "out there" and not back on Earth, we don't got into a lot of detail, but the world has had fast, cheap worldwide public transit since the late 22nd century and traveling even across continents does not take a lot of time and is not particularly expensive. It might not be, in reality, possible for the world to blend this much (although there are some historical events that contributed to it that I didn't go into), it doesn't matter. That's the way things are. :)

And no, I haven't read the Mars series. Wasn't aware of it before you mentioned it. Any good?

jens said...

The Mars series is good, but very long and very slow. I thought of it because the broad strokes are similar to your first few paragraphs. Not very similar overall, though.