It is half past seven on a late December evening and my silver-haired mother-in-law, a respectable and influential figure in her church, sits bolt upright in her chair and shouts “Wiggle Bulb Rotor!”
We are playing Spaceteam.
She is one of a crew of four brave astronauts performing vital maintenance tasks on board a spaceship as it attempts to escape the ever-expanding burst radius of an exploding sun. Each player (you may have up to four and no fewer than two) uses their smartphone to display a panel of randomly-generated buttons and an instruction window. The instruction window displays time-sensitive instructions on which buttons to push to ensure that the ship is not destroyed by the sun. Often – more often than not – the instructions are for another player.
Spaceteam is, therefore, a game of shouting.
Shouting all at once. Shouting questions. Shouting responses. Shouting out half-read instructions over and over in the hope that someone will push the button. Shouting the name of a switch – things like “Photon Plug” and “Analogue Shuffler” and “Theta Sink” – and furiously demanding to know who has it before sheepishly and silently realising it was on your screen all along. It sounds like the crew of the Enterprise trying (unsuccessfully) to pilot the TARDIS.
“Who has the Bulb Rotor?” asked my mother-in-law. “Wiggle it! Wiggle the Bulb Rotor!” There is a crashing noise and the unmistakable sound of the epilogue music as the sun catches up with them, one too many mistakes pushing them into failure and explosive death.
“Oh,” she says, reading the mission status report, “I’ve been posthumously awarded a medal for my Reading. That’s nice. I wondered why all of the medals you were being awarded were posthumous.”
Spaceteam is (for the time being) free to download, so everyone in the family with a device that could support it did so. Nephews and nieces borrow iDevices off their parents or grandparents or uncles or aunts and play too, at first in the groups of adults but later on their own in pairs or triples in an attempt to be heard over louder voices.
One nephew, Reuben, doesn’t like reading; it’s not that he’s bad at it, per se, but he just doesn’t see the point in it when there are far more exciting things to do than stare at a book. His younger brother Jonah loves reading but is, sadly, a bit dyslexic.
Jonah is jealous of Reuben’s school books because they have so many words in them, and if we can pause for a second to take joy in imagining what it must be like to be excited by sheer volume of unexplored words much in the same way an explorer might look at an ancient map, I’d be thankful. Reuben, conversely, is jealous of Jonah’s books because they are much shorter and easier to read.
They both had a shot at Spaceteam. They both did pretty well. Spaceteam is a baptism of fire for people who can’t read very well because the words onscreen are a) randomly-generated b) time-sensitive and c) nonsense, for the most part. No-one present knew what an Eigengauge was, for example, but we knew that it should be pushed to 7 to stop us crashing into the sun.
(Some of the words are not random, and these are excellent – there are panels labelled “DOCUMENTS” and a big red button underneath them marked “SHRED,” a button marked “IGNORE” underneath the phrase “THAT THING BEHIND US” and many more which I won’t spoil by talking about them. They are perfect spikes of humour, of set-ups and punchlines and timing and tone, delivered by untrained players in the midst of the confusion)
Jonah would get halfway through a word – something like “Gigablaster” – and trip over his own feet, shouting out “Engage the Giga-bluw-schen-wak-schum” or some other stream of frustrated filler sounds, but the other players got it. They start to reach Sector 5 or 6 with regularity, each Sector representing a minute or so of frantic play. I’d never seen children learn to read massively strange words so fast and so enthusiastically. My brother-in-law suggests that it could be used to teach reading, and I make a note to steal his idea.
We have been drinking, and many of the family members are in bed upstairs or at home in other parts of the country, and we sit in on the sofa talking. Beth, my brother-in-law’s wife and a tireless, devoted nurse, suggests that we play Spaceteam again.
Spaceteam could not have existed before now; it’s a marriage of ubiquitous wifi coverage, prevalent smartphone ownership and the ability to distribute mobile software for free via reliable centralised channels. It is possible to sit in a house and go from no Spaceteam to peak Spaceteam in around three minutes and no money from a standing start. There’s no board to set up and no console to unpack or boot up, no rituals to enact, no tedious admin phase.
Beth is very competitive. She has already asked my wife how many Sectors we managed to traverse when she and I played together, and I can see her working out how to reach more. She formulates quiet strategies to succeed and offers feedback to the rest of the crew.
“There’s no “I” in Spaceteam,” I say.
“There’s a “ME” in Spaceteam,” she responds, on cue.
I go and get us some beers and we crack them open and start playing; we struggle with the house’s shoddy wifi connection and frequent signal failures and the fact that we’re trying to achieve an already complex goal slightly drunk. Our beers sit on the table in front of us, untouched, until we reach the Hyperspace jump – the end of each level – and lunge forward, taking great victory gulps, before slamming them back down and getting back into the action with new control panels and fractionally poorer reflexes. But we play and we shout and we crash into that sun over and over.
It’s not a drinking game by a long shot, but we make it into one.
I hear several days later from my brother-in-law that she has taken to sitting with an iPad and an iPhone next to each other, both running Spaceteam, and plays alone on two devices as a sort of “practice” mode. I like to think it stops other people getting in her way.
Throughout Christmas the talk in the house is of Spaceteam, of this wonderful new game everyone is downloading and playing sat in the study to be nearer the router. Text messages are sent around in the days after encouraging people to “engage Prosecco” and “set table” and, at the end of it all, “disengage feet” as they sit down in front of the TV. Almost every member of the family plays with varying regularity and enthusiasm. We’ve not played a lot of it since; there’s not a lot to get, and if anyone’s not playing Spaceteam, they pretty much have to leave the room. I have had my fair share of awkward, too-loud conversations at parties with someone else who is not currently trying to outrun an exploding star, and it’s less fun than it could be.
It’s a simple game, of course, mechanically – there are no combos to master, no maps to memorise, no optimal levelling strategies. It is specifically built to give you around ten minutes of screaming fun before your ship explodes and you can either give up or play again. But it’s perfect, for that, for that short burst of entertainment. It brings people together – gamers and non-gamers, young and old – in a way that I’ve not seen since the Wii. And you feel a hell of a lot less stupid playing it than you do waggling those white remote controllers around, let me tell you.
My wife and I are some of the last to leave the house as the holiday comes to a close; we are going for proper Christmas dinner elsewhere, in a tiny flat in Crawley with our best friend where we will butter a turkey with goose fat and play a game of Pathfinder where one of the characters was four malevolent crows in a fighter costume. As we stand in the hallway putting on coats, my brother-in-law’s wife grabs his hand and approaches us and says – “Hey. Let’s never forget. Together, we were… a Spaceteam. High five!”
We attempt a four-way high-five. I fail to look at what I’m doing and accidentally slap her hard in the eye. Apt.