Kirk and Spock had it easy. Out there, in the cold expanse of the final frontier. Drawn together as they explored strange new worlds and new civilizations. Just the two of them, after that red-shirted extra dies horribly within the first 10 minutes – alone, miles away from home, free to “boldly go” wherever they wanted.
Fans of the series know, of course, that their love would never be. Kirk was too busy seducing green-skinned women and climbing mountains, and Spock was occupied with the full-time task of being half-Vulcan: the mind-melds, the nerve pinches, the immaculately tweezed eyebrows. But their friendship nonetheless inspired a wave of fanfiction, collected in zines like 1967’s Spockanalia, much of which had a very different take on the matter.
One of the liberating aspects of fanfiction is its removal from canon and continuity – often fanfiction deals with idealized dream scenarios, playing out in ways that original stories did not or could not. And so the intrepid cast of the Enterprise boldly went someplace else entirely: to the forefront of “slash” or “shipping” stories, fanfiction that deals with pairing characters up in relationships that did not occur within the host work.
But videogame canon is not necessarily as straightforward as that of text and video – there might not be one ending, but several, plotted out within a field of possibility. Sometimes this breaks down with a primarily “good” end atop a series of failed outcomes. Other times this range serves as a morality play, where systematized moral choices in game are rewarded or punished accordingly.
And sometimes it lets your characters hook up.
It’s this matchmaking spirit that dominates Star Ocean: Second Story, a cult JRPG developed by tri-Ace that takes the “shipping” sensibility to new heights. The Star Ocean line of games combines science fiction with the more conventional fantasy stock of RPGs. It drew partial inspiration from Star Trek, which may help explain some of its shared heritage of intergalactic hook-ups. When Second Story was released, it was billed as “the most vast RPG experience ever” with “over 80 possible endings” to unlock, though in reality there were a lot more – or a lot less – depending on your perspective.
What the game actually had was thousands of permutations of over 80 short scenes, with most depicting a relationship between two player characters as they paired off after the final boss. Only a select few are shown upon the game’s completion, requiring a series of exhaustive play-throughs to see them all. Between your choice of one of two protagonists and an assortment of 10 secondary characters, some of whom are mutually exclusive or available to only one main character, this lends itself to quite a bit of variation. Would your blue-haired heroine snuggle up to the dashing three-eyed alien archaeologist? Or maybe that luckless swordsman with the dragons fused to his shoulders would wind up with the plucky pointy-eared newspaper reporter? Weirder than the characters themselves are the matches that could spring forth between them. I know love is blind, but did anyone think to ask what the children might look like?
As an RPG with an exhaustive amount of detail, Second Story is replete with a variety of complicated game systems, and retains a staggering amount of depth even now, a decade after its original release. But at the time, many of the excesses of JRPGs were still new and added to its mystique as a larger-than-life phenomenon. With a massive plot, a ridiculously high level cap and personal skills leveled through use, Second Story‘s method of handling character relations through a system of “emotional levels,” in which character relationships are micromanaged through varying levels of both “friendship points” and “relationship points,” might seem like more of the same. But surprisingly, a large amount of the game’s considerable depth was bent towards the central purpose of playing matchmaker.
There is the unlockable audio bank, which showcases all the voice acting you’ve encountered in the game – some of which is only available if you ratchet up a character’s emotion towards another, then off him or her in a climactic battle, producing melodramatic wails of surprise from your surviving characters. The relationship system informs gameplay, granting a surviving character a burst of superhuman strength at the sight of a fallen comrade or lover. The A.I. is even programmed to protect and cast beneficial spells on preferred targets, turning combat into one ongoing popularity contest. And then there is the “Private Action” system, in which a party may split up when visiting a town, leading to the possibility of short cut scenes depicting certain characters as they get to know each other better.
In this manner, the raw elements that shape character relationships are put in players’ hands. Whether it’s to sort out RPG staples like strategy and healing priority or to rustle out a batch of specific endings, Second Story skews towards a dating sim, with consequences not only on the gameplay but on the narrative itself. Different pairings lead to different encounters, each given treatment as a potential possibility at the game’s outcome. Instead of seeing one central romance through to its inevitable conclusion, any characters, no matter how oddly they match up, could be brought together. The game gives players the building blocks of fiction, the tools to decide what will and will not happen within the context of the story – but it’s a very specialized sort of fiction, similar to the “shipping” of fanfiction.
It’s a common philosophy in game design that if anything can be broken down into a system, rewarding successes and punishing failures, it can be turned into a game. And with Second Story, we see exactly that philosophy at work. In a game where anybody could end up with anybody, fanfiction’s impulse towards shipping becomes systematized: Any pair of characters may become canonized with an ending cut scene so long as you nurture their budding friendship or romance. The very act of playing the game with these endings in mind is an act of fanfiction. Find the right cut scenes, nurture the right atmosphere on the battlefield, and the course of the story bends toward a predetermined and idealized ending. In “shipping” fanfiction, relationships are often proffered as the most logical conclusion to the story, cases of “true love” evident within subtext but never realized for various reasons. Sometimes, then, “shipping” serves to replace a seemingly false ending with a true one, more consistent with character behavior and narrative arc. This approach to storytelling has a primacy within Second Story: Change the “ship,” change the story.
For all its claims to expansiveness, though, there are certain restrictions to Star Ocean‘s relationship roulette. Most notably, and in contrast to a large chunk of fanfiction, it’s strictly a hetero affair. No amount of bromantic moments can spur your male characters past the realm of space-buds toward “the Love Which Has No Name But Several Websites That I Stumbled Upon While Writing This Article.” Same deal for the lady-types. Second Story remains light years behind the narrative brilliance of Mass Effect‘s “alien lesbians in space” moment, no doubt to the chagrin of alien lesbian aficionados the world over. And then there are times when the game’s devotion to a fanfiction sensibility comes across as a shade on the literal side. One of the best ways to foster sentiment between your party members is a skill-system called “publishing,” where characters write stories and share them with their party members. So while fanfiction offers a “fictional” treatment of otherwise canonized properties, Second Story takes this one step further, proffering a fiction for fanfiction fans about fans of fiction.
But while this relationship system pales in comparison to the sprawling matrices of player control found within some of this generation’s RPGs, Second Story still serves as a benchmark in gaming’s consideration of two major aspects of narrative. The first is simply a matter of scale: In its mix-and-match ending system, possible permutations of endings count well into the thousands. A rough estimate holds that the game requires six play-throughs to even see each short ending, which could be taken by a completionist as a worthy challenge or a lost cause, depending on their degree of masochism. This multiplicity of endings further places the game in the same line as the galaxies it inhabits: vast, unconquerable and maybe a little terrifying. And then there is the matter of canonicity: Removed from any linear notion of storyline and existing in a space where all relationships are equally viable, this drive towards fanfiction becomes legitimized, existing within, rather than outside of, a core work.
All these questions, from canon to the role of the author and viewer, are still being sorted out. But looking at Second Story‘s fanfiction sensibility does much to explain why things were so simple for Kirk and Spock. Often, it was just the two of them floating around out there, with all the time in the world to discuss their growing space-feelings. With all of Second Story‘s cast nursing secret crushes over the course of the game, you see how quickly things can get out of hand, moving well beyond the familiar territory of the tried and true “love triangle.” This might very well serve as a title for a possible sequel – doesn’t “Star Ocean: Love Dodecagon” have a certain ring to it?
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where he works on his Star Trek/Road to Avonlea crossover fanfic. He’s thinking of calling it “Green Skin at Green Gables.” He blogs at kingandrook.com.