Bug War: Exile and the Shivans
The imagery and themes surrounding the Shivans (not so much the Shivan ships or organisms themselves, that's just aesthetics) are the secret sauce that makes FreeSpace a special game, distinct from many, many other shooty shooty bang bang military space operas that came before and after, especially in the space sim genre. This style of setting and storytelling has traditionally pushed a narrative and worldview where the universe exists for the taking by humans, who must overcome various forms of Scary Dogmatic Aliens or similarly scary and dogmatic human factions to become worthy of being a true space empire of rugged space frontiersmen. Wing Commander plays this narrative 100% straight, but FreeSpace? Not so much, and I think the fact that FreeSpace not only deviates from but actively condemns such a view of space exploration (a subject I keep meaning to write an essay about), through things like the Ancient monologues, the futility and pointlessness of the Terran-Vasudan War, and all the mythological and theological imagery surrounding the Shivans, etc. Consider Capella in the light of all that religious Great Destroyer stuff. The Shivans rolled up to Capella with 80 juggernauts and hundreds if not thousands of warships, blew Capella up, let the GTVA run away and hide, and walked away victorious. For all the GTVA or Sol knows, they could have 800 or 80,000 or n+1 more juggernauts. They are seemingly timeless and limitless. If they are not divine, they might as well be. Killing them only costs them time, and they have ages beyond measure. Sure, the Sol factions might not know that, but the narrative should. But the game takes the ORS' position completely for granted to such a degree that it feels like propaganda for itself.
Because that's really what's at the heart of Exile--this propagandistic, bombastic, Independence Day/Starship Troopers (the book, since it lacks self-awareness) crassness that creeps, in sometimes quite insidious ways, into nearly every aspect of the campaign. FreeSpace's Terrans were often morally ambiguous, sometimes cruel, but Exile puts you into that sadism, and normalizes it, and makes it feel like there is no possible alternative. The Shivans aren't half as awesome and terrifying as they are in FS2 or even Inferno, they're just bugs, splatters on your canopy. The support ship urges you on to kill some Shivans with a joy that seems absurd for someone who could be killed by Shivans in an instant with no possibility of self-defense. After the genuinely scary and fun battles of the first few missions, the Shivans slowly settle into their preferred tactic in Exile: throwing wings of bombers onesie-twosie at ship formations while you order your wing to cover you while you zip from one end of the convoy to the other like a murderous ping-pong ball. They can keep this up for five, six, seven minutes at a stretch. The early missions were long--too long--but they had a lot more choreographed story setpieces and tricky warship setups instead of long stretches of bombergrind, and they had the shock annihilation of the entire Sol system as their backdrop, so they never felt like the Shivans were stupid. The presentation of the ORS as vaguely fascistic butchers and the EF as overtly fascistic butchers, who exhibit none of the wonder, fear, and curiosity seen in the original games and, from their emotions and behavior, seem only vaguely aware that Sol has been destroyed and they're running for their lives. It's almost like a big violent vacation, and Terran characters refuse to learn any lessons or draw any meaning from what is going on, because they're only here for the explosions, or they are Fives and have had their brain surgically removed and replaced with a database of cute precocious kid tropes.
The Terran-on-Terran conflicts are much the same way--the Warhammer 40k Effect where brutal, stupid, vainglorious soldiers are made into heroes by the alternative being "savages" who kill people
to collect Blood for the Blood God and Skulls for the Skull Throne because they "have no conscience" and will just as soon impale you as shake your hand. The giant slaughter aboard the civilian liner is narrated by marines who mostly report how many people they're killing. However corny those radio interjections might be in Blue Planet, it's all worth it if it prevents the senseless, preventable massacre (why not pay ransom? Make political concessions to EF nationals? Release prisoners? Just take your L and go home? You don't have to do this!) of 800 people from sounding like . The EF and ORS' former war is meaningless no matter how many layers of lore you have because the characters and factions have no consciousness of history. Two interchangeable Terran armies-possessing-states with similar-looking ships, similar weapons and tactics, and a uniform culture of paranoia, patriotism, and casual brutality. It could easily be a story told by the EF and almost exactly the same things would happen except that the ratio of Earth to Rim ships would be reversed and the ranks would not be a constant source of narm in every conversation (and of course all these people are ~*motivated*~ and love to stand on ceremony so the master-bation is nearly constant).
Playing Exile, especially during the really "edgy" scenes, to be frank, gives me some seriously creepy space-fascist vibes. If it were a novel series in the actual FreeSpace universe, it would probably top Sirius', Regulus', and Polaris' bestseller lists of 2366. Endorsed by the Neo-Terran Office for the Preservation of Terran Culture for its display of firm Terran courage, duty, and martial values. In fact it's making wheels turn in my head as to how to portray Boschism in Legion, so as for research it seems like my playthrough has been successful in a different sort of way. It also reminds me of how Twist of Fate delivered a very similar feeling, with all its Zod this and Zod that and dragging a 14-year war out to 26 straight years of grinding stalemate leading to the GTD Hades showing up with 71 turrets and glassing Vasuda Prime. If I had finished it, it would have been at least as bad as this, because problems like this are not things you can overcome with better models or tighter mission balancing or more complex scripting. It's a matter of mindset, of wanting the thrill of "dark" content and massive amounts of stuff blowing up without the responsibility, watching Hard Men make Hard Decisions, which are rarely hard except for the extras whose planets get glassed, and nobody cares what they think, anyway. Besides, whether or not your mother or your wife (women in Exile are a walk-on Amazon brigade wing and queer people are a cheap joke about Laporte and Simms that smashes through the fourth wall like the Kool-Aid Man--I wish they hadn't bothered) or your peers or society approves, their voices aren't what counts. Your fleetmaster, shipmaster, wingmaster, and various other people up the chain of command are the ones who make decisions. Jailers of a million hypersleep captives, living out a meaningless charade of fighting an unbeatable enemy to as close as forever as you can get before the last ship blows. People who try to disrupt this obviously barbaric and futile despotism are evil sociopaths with scary black fighters who say "no seriously WE'RE GOING TO KILL THESE PEOPLE if you do not listen to us" and Fleetmaster says "yolo im gonna **** u up either way" and ensures that his will will become reality, no matter how many people die (but it's their fault anyway).
They should envy the dead. They should have some idea of the gravity of what they've lost and how much danger they in. They don't. They don't care. They seem like the sort of person who would make a casual joke about al-Churi not knowing if he can pray towards Mecca anymore, and al-Churi seems like the sort of empty stereotype who would be genuinely amused by that and not just holding back his disgust with polite laughter. Leaving Behind: Shivanation Force, where the faithful will be redeemed after seven years of Nahema/Nephilim pincer respawns. I think it should be seen up to "Crossing the Red Sea" for its sheer scale, spectacle, ships that give big deck guns their FreeSpace due, and missions that make good use of turret artillery and its differences vs. Shivan beams. But it's too long and taxing, even in one act, to casually ingest and impossible to take seriously as a drama. Why shouldn't the Shivans win? If there was ever a defect-strategy hegemon, it's the two regional powers and their huge death fleets, with a fascist Earth thinking it's treading its similarly fascist Rim counterpart under its victorious heel, but really only setting the stage for years of horrible civil war and genocidal atrocities. If the Ancients were guilty, these guys sure as hell are.
Against this hellish and pointless war, in a system with enough resources for two GTVAs put together, where both sides could probably go home tomorrow and still sustain themselves but one's gotta be on top, the merciful Great Destroyers offer rest. A dreamless, fearless, profound sleep where you will never again wonder when the death squads will come knocking. Just gaze into the red light and you will be released F R O M Y O U R M O L E C U L A R B O N D S - -