Its November 10th 2004, the Iraqi city of Mosul has gone under Curfew due to attacks by rebels, an Islamic school in the Netherlands is lit aflame, President Bush nominates a new secretary General all while irregularities are being reported in the vote count. The film version of “The Polar Express” is released, delighting children and weirding adults out with the strange hollow and lifeless eyes of its characters. Two days later “Finding Neverland” is released, about JM Barrie's creation of Peter Pan and Neverland, and at the same time “Seed of Chucky” is released which everyone just tries to forget existed. Eminem tops the charts with “Just Lose It” followed by Nelly and Tim McGraw collaborating for some reason, and Maroon 5 right behind with a song which is definitely about every single woman listening to it. Meanwhile on the internet, Decipher Games uploads a PDF to their website of version 1.1 of their introduction to the WARS universe.
While undoubtedly there was a 1.0 version of this document uploaded, and probably at a much earlier date, we're going to cut to the future here for a moment. WARS: the Trading Card Game has already been released, so has a good chunk of fiction based in the Science Fiction Universe its based in, and some of the soundtrack. Heck, there is a podcast running all about the game. Things are in full swing as far as the release of WARS goes, so its telling that this document is updated a little over a month after the game launches on October 6th, and then never gets touched again. Despite there being a whole 'nother set of cards released for the game later, despite there being more fiction to change the course of the story, despite the Roleplaying Game not being anywhere close to existing, this is the last we see of the introductory document, one month after the game's launch. Call me a pessimist, but since I'm looking at this ten years down the line: this isn't a good sign.
Where did we go wrong? After all there was so much promise here, and there is still so much more to be released, but only a month into the game there are cracks a forming. But we'll cover how the game came about next time-- instead lets look at how they introduce the game's story to us, before we look at how they worked on it.
The first thing we see is of course some really brilliant art by Kieran Yanner. Of course, we don't actually know that's his name right now, but really that is a fantastic drawing. You could use that as a movie poster practically: its laid out like one certainly, the design is pretty obviously intended to make us think of a movie. It isn't like the art of a cover of a book, designed to draw us into the pages underneath, instead the art is supposed to make us ask questions about world that this art inhabits. At the front of the drawing we ee a white man looking up, drawing our own eyes up with him, towards a composite of a man with a gun with strange armor that seems to be blending into his clothes, a black woman with white hair and ample cleavage that is all that remains of a torso she has hollowed out and replaced with metal and lights. Behind them are what must be aliens, one of them is kind of fish like, and the other has its back to us ( though lower in the picture you can see another one of its kind facingu us, its body glowing as it charges) and what looks like a floating mask or face in a computor. There are also two figures in differing armors shooting at unseen assailants, and below them all a world spins, as red fighter planes, presumably spaceships, zoom out from their ankles. Who are these people? What are the WARS they are fighting? We turn the page to find out more and...
“This is a Matter of Life and Death”
We've been looking at this website, we know very well the name of the first short story in the setting is called “A Matter of Life and Death”, but that just sounded like a cool title. Is it actually a reference to something? So we check and... Yes it is, apparently it is a reference to a book called “the Gateless Gate” (which is actually a bad translation of the title, but hush on that for now) made up of 48 kuans, sort of like Zen Buddhist Parables, each one a nugget of ponderance, thought, and wisdom. That's pretty bold, to start your setting off with a quote like that. Actually, its a quite a lot bold. Will this be a space adventure or a philosophy course?
We skim through the rest of the packet, and find that there are other quotes accredited to Wu-men kuan, but its strange... They seem kind of out of place? Like they are referencing something we're supposed to be in on. The creators don't expect us to read that whole book do they? And what is it referencing anyways?
We read on. Ah! The Mumon Rift, the big hole in reality the aliens come through, the Mumon Rift is “The Gateless Gate” it all fits in together... But its all tied in with that book of kuans? Regardless, we press on.
The document details a brief timeline of the history of the setting, from the CGC taking over every nation on Earth without a shot by simply being that powerful and big of a company, to the Mumon rift opening up. It then goes on to detail every faction in the universe, give a handy pronunciation guide for some of the stranger terms in the setting (which will be forgotten by a large amount of players), and explain a few important things in sidebars, like the mysterious element Traginium, or what Kizen are. Its all a bit brief, but its supposed to be. After all, this document is meant to be an overview not a piece of entertainment. If we wanted that, we'd go read the short stories, which we undoubtedly will, but for now we have this as it is.
While the text of this documents is pretty dry (it is after all informative rather than meant purely for entertainment) its hard to come out of reading it without getting a sense of just how weird the WARS setting is. I mean, quoting an ancient manuscript of zen kuans is certainly out of the ordinary for a mass market card game, even if the quotes are cherry picked, and despite the clear Star Wars inspiration in the setting, it also isn't anything like Star Wars. On the surface there is sure: they're both set during a war in space with giant spaceships, aliens, and people with super powers, but that really is where the similarities end. The Kizen, our superpowered friends who should be the setting's Jedi have no organization of their own. They are instead more like the X-Men: individuals who are both very powerful, and yet somewhat ostracized from society because of it. The Space Samurai and Wild West elements of the Mavericks and Gongen might strike you as paralleling the influences George Lucas had to make Star Wars, until it becomes clear that the Mavericks have more to do with Cyberpunk and Firelfly, and the Gongen more to do with Anime than the source material George Lucas had in mind. Indeed, one might have expected the game to have much more similarity between the setting to drive people towards it, a simple rip off of Star Wars that anyone could recognize at face value as being exactly that. Its not hard to imagine an alternate universe where Decipher had chosen that route and the boxes of WARS had shipped with cloaked figures with “plasma swords” practically winking at passers by. But they didn't do that, instead WARS became something stranger and far more interesting than what it should have been, not merely a Star Wars Rip Off at all.
Indeed, its easy to argue at this point that the problem with WARS is it is too out there, and that it should have been much more like Star Wars, and that is an argument we'll return to at a later time. But the fact remains that what we got was fairly distinct. The future of WARS is not just our future, but a very specific version of our future, one that comes with its own history that we will eventually start running into the same way that Star Trek did.
In the episode of the Original Series Star Trek Episode “Space Seed” we learn that Earth had massive “Eugenics Wars” in the 1990's that were devastating, and killed millions of people led by genetically engineered soldiers. This sets Star Trek on an interesting plan of existence, in that while it is clearly the future of a Earth, it isn't actually the future of the Earth we are living on in a present where there was not a giant war that devastated the Earth in the 90's. This leaves Star Trek in a weird limbo, after all it must be our future, the future of us living on Earth right now, for it to have the impact the creators intended, but it also cannot abandon the strange elements of its own mythology which contradict our own. Star Trek in a sense is an entire TV show about an alternate history of Earth that diverges from our own, and that we can still relate to. This is very similar to WARS, which is defined by a massive chain-linked nuclear meltdown across all of Asia leading to a mass exodus to Mars, which will within our lifetimes become the “Space-Seed” of WARS in all likely hood.
This however isn't a fault, as Star Trek has shown this sort of alternate history isn't an issue. People are smart and can fairly easily figure out that “oh, that is part of the premise of this world, and its different than our own in this way, and different in another.” What it does do is place WARS in the realm of Star Trek, rather than Star Wars. WARS isn't set in some far off galaxy with strange rules and cultures, its right here where we live, but in the future and a bit off. But WARS is a rip off of Star Wars, its means to take Star Wars and provide fertile ground for ripping off Star Wars long into the future, but its aligned itself with Star Trek.
The Setting Introduction itself is a fairly peaceful thing to. Sure, the Earth gets taken over by corporations, but there isn't a war over it. Mars revolts and becomes Gongen, but the war is just one very decisive battle, and doesn't take very long. The Quay blew up the Shi's sun, and both of them slaughtered their way into having a place to stick around, but they're still willing to negotiate. All in all, despite the name WARS, the wars in WARS are hardly the most interesting thing going on, and aren't emphasized in the setting's history that deeply. Actually, despite anyone's gripes about Gongen or Earth being too authoritarian, their societies have apparently kept relative peace for literally centuries, fighting off pirate gangs, but with internal conflicts pretty much at a standstill.
The universe of WARS actually sounds like a pretty nice place to live up until the aliens appear and mess everything up, you could get a time share on Gongen or Earth and set yourself up for peaceful relaxation. Even after the Mumon Rift opens, there isn't so much out right war as heavy skirmishing, and if you don't live on the outer rim you're probably still pretty safe.
What an interesting place.
Though it still probably shouldn't be called “WARS”, its a fascinating setting, and one worth exploring. Its ten times more interesting than the copy-pasted Star Wars ripoff everyone thought it would be, and that people still try to claim it is. Its a rich, well thought out, deep place with cultures that while easily described with cliches, transcend those stereotypes upon any delving down into the fabric of the place.
This it he Universe of WARS, a place of adventure, and a place we'll be examining over the coming weeks. But first, we have to go back in time, and see why the setting had to be made in the first place.