So I’m reading STARSHIP TROOPERS (again, for the umpteenth time), because it is, of course, the greatest military science fiction novel ever written, as well as one of the most important lessons in civics and politics ever put to paper. And it has occurred to me, repeatedly, during the reading of it that this is one book that desperately needs to be turned into a truly great FPS squad-shooter game.
If you have played some of the better squad-based FPS games like Star Wars: Republic Commando – I have, many times – and Battlezone II: Combat Commander, along with modern straightforward FPS space marine games like, of course, the entirety of my beloved HALO series, then you will see immediately how this will work. The source material is absolutely perfect for a truly great squad-FPS game – provided that it is done right.
If you take the opening chapter in SWRC, for instance, the first mission starts off with Delta-38 being tossed straight into combat on Geonosis, with some tutorials and hints given in the HUD as he goes about slaughtering many, many aliens and robots. The exact same thing applies to the very first chapter of STARSHIP TROOPERS, where Juan (“Johnny”) Rico engages in a capsule drop straight onto the surface of a planet occupied by the “Skinnies” for a smash-and-run operation.
If done correctly, the cutscenes for that initial mission could easily be engineered in such a way as to convey Johnny’s fear and anticipation at being blasted out of the Rodger Young, then free-falling through space and then hitting atmosphere before coming down to land and engaging directly in combat. The chapter is practically tailored for a squad-based FPS in which Johnny first acts on his own, then meets up with his squadmates, and eventually with his entire platoon, in order to achieve specific objectives in predetermined ways using precise amounts of firepower.
Once that initial mission is completed – along with the pickup and death of Dizzy Flores – the game would then need to go all the way back to the beginning and relate how Johnny got into the Mobile Infantry in the first place. This would require quite a bit of trimming down of the original story, but it would have to be done in such a way as to avoid losing the core message about the relationship between service and citizenship.
Following Johnny through basic training, watching him become a real trained soldier, and then eventually shipping off to join Company K – “Willie’s Wildcats” – would likely serve as the first one-third to one-half of a really good game, book-ended by the disaster that is Operation Bughouse.
The game would then need to do some “filling in” of various blanks to get Johnny Rico from joining the Roughnecks – “the best outfit in the Fleet” – to Officer Candidate School, and eventually down onto Planet P for the final-stage campaign.
I can already see the ending of such a game with a linear storyline – the last chapter in the book is absolutely perfect in this respect.
Imagine fighting your way through a challenging FPS game, slaughtering millions of AI-enemy bugs, learning new tactics and squad-based commands, fighting in multiplayer campaign missions with your friends, and watching this young cap trooper grow from a callow, untested youth into a tough, trained, seasoned warrior. Imagine getting to that last bit where Johnny is knocked out of action by falling debris, wakes up on a hospital ship, and finds himself wondering whether he got busted down to buck sergeant again.
Imagine seeing the mighty new warships of the Federation fleet as a new campaign begins to spin up, seeing the new Ypres and the new Valley Forge and the long, long list of troop carriers named for foot-sloggers. Montezuma. Colonel Bowie. Devereaux. Vercingetorix. Swamp Fox. The Rog herself. Imagine seeing a cutscene where the sheer power of the Federation fleet musters together for the next phase of a win-or-die campaign against an utterly alien, totally remorseless foe.
And then, imagine yourself standing in front of the very platoon of Roughnecks that you fought and bled with throughout the game’s campaign, and hearing your player character saying the words:
Rico’s Roughnecks – ready for drop!
Now tell me that isn’t a BADASS game concept.
Here is the problem, though: STARSHIP TROOPERS is far more than merely a science fiction novel. It contains some of the most important ideas ever put into words about what it means to be both a citizen and a soldier. And those ideas absolutely must be conveyed to the fullest extent possible in such a game.
The alternative is to produce a video-game version of Paul Verhoeven’s execration of a film.
You know the one I mean:
That movie is offensive at every possible level to the hallowed memory of Robert A. Heinlein’s legendary work.
Powered armour? Gone. Citizenship earned through Federal service? Barely touched upon. The brilliant, profound moral and philosophical lectures and debates that formed the backbone of the book? Nowhere to be seen. The original portrayal of Carmencita Ibanez as a very smart and pretty young girl who signed up to be a pilot? Totally butchered. The personal growth and journey of young Juan Rico into the man and the legend that he would eventually become? YGBFKM!!!
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a sort of enjoyable film, in a really frakkin’ retarded way. I can only watch it when I’m doing my ironing or something equally mindless, because if I watch it too closely, I get to the point of wanting to break something.
The video-game adaptation would need to be better, in every way, to the shitheap that was the film.
Fortunately, it should be possible to rectify many of the (severe) flaws of the movie through CGI cutscenes and quick-time events in the game. (I’m not a big fan of the latter, by the way; I find them quite annoying most of the time. Out of all of the games that I have played, only HALO 4 really figured out how to make them work sensibly.)
Sadly it would not be possible to pack all of the lessons from the History and Moral Philosophy courses, either at Johnny’s school or in OCS, into cutscenes. It also would likely not be possible to put in the reunion between Johnny and his father, or at least, not beyond a fairly cursory scene. And I have a hard time seeing the best way to put Commandant Nielsen’s lecture to Hassan, Birdie, and Johnny into such a game in a way that would not interrupt the “flow” of it.
Also, I reckon that the best way to make an FPS game like this work would be to use the “faceless hero” model from the HALO and DOOM franchises – basically, Johnny Rico is whoever you want him to be, his face is never seen outside of his powered armour. After all, the game never describes his facial features, and only mentions very briefly that he was a bit of a skinny youth with overly long, untidy hair, and then too only in passing. I have a hard time seeing how such a thing would work in any other way; the beauty of STARSHIP TROOPERS is that you can imagine yourself in Johnny’s shoes, experiencing his own journey of growth from youth to manhood to military lifer.
But I suspect that all of these problems can be overcome or mitigated in some way. The real trick is to find the funding, the talent, the time, and the distribution network required to make something like this a reality.
Nonetheless, the ideas within the book are of critical importance, especially in this day and age. And as game franchises evidently are running out of fresh and original ideas – anyone who has played Gears of War 4 or HALO 5 will know what I’m talking about – the best place to look for great ideas about new FPS combat games is the literature of the past.
I’m not saying it would be easy. STARSHIP TROOPERS is an incredibly dense book, even though it only runs to 268 pages and is a very fast read. It is one of the most important books ever written, because it codifies and clarifies not merely the journey that a boy must undertake to become a man, but the one that a civilian must take in order to become a citizen.
Those core lessons cannot be lost in any video game adaptation. In fact, it is those very ideas that will make such a game successful. Those values, ideas, and messages about service and personal growth have long since been lost to our dying and decaying culture. If they are delivered in a way that is both entertaining and profound, while packaged in decent graphics with good music and some seriously good gameplay, then I suspect that such a game would be a runaway best-seller.