Supreme Commander

Another trailer of this has just been released, mixing some new game footage with an interview with Chris Taylor. Taylor’s one of those virtuoso game designers: all zeal and vision; and it’s always a pleasure to hear him talk. He has Quentin Tarrantino’s characteristic spluttering urgency in trying to describe all the cool things he wants to tell you about as quickly as he’s thinking of them. I got an absolutely wonderful but almost entirely useless interview with him at a party in Beverly Hills a few weeks before E3, in which he spent around half the time trying to explain the hydraulics of the system by which the leader of the Cybrans – a brain in a jar – could move around his tank of preservative by thought alone. I guess a brain in a jar does everything by thought alone. But it was as hard as ever not to share his enthusiasm.

The other reason you should watch this is that I’m still convinced it’s going to be the best thing ever. Chris says it’s hard to go back to limited-zoom RTS’s after being able to back all the way up to see the full map in SupCom – he’s putting it lightly. I’ve had a headache (manifested in my middle finger) from banging my cranium against that glass ceiling ever since first seeing the game. I’m a particular fan of the long-game, in general – I play out every important phase of DEFCON in real-time, much to the ennui of my opponents, and I’m always straining against the interface of a game to put my plans into action. That’s been most of the challenge of the RTS for a long time – synchronising assaults, tending to the progress of your base and telling it what to build next, exploring the map click-by-click with your forward groups. All three of those things can be defined from moment one here, which is a brave move. What if those were the fun? DEFCON succeeds by doing the opposite – automating less, forcing you be a frontline general by doing everything yourself. But SupCom’s usability enhancements are doing something equally appealing: promoting you. A Supreme Commander cares not for caretaking work. The interface between you and the game world is now a lieutenant in your army: you tell it what you need doing, and it takes care of the particulars. It flatters you somewhat by assuming you have higher things on your mind, grander schemes.

I came late to Total Annihilation, only playing it properly when it was already ancient. What’s almost as striking as its brilliance is how little it has influenced since – the RTS took nothing from its sublime formula, ignored every innovation except its least interesting one: 3D terrain. Playing it now is like uncovering an alien artifact that fell to Earth long ago – you can’t ignore how old it is, but that doesn’t explain how it can be so far in advance of everything we’ve done so far.

4 Replies to “Supreme Commander”

  1. Brother! Someone else whom I “know” gets TA!…though I bought it on release, got in embarrassing fourteen-year-old forum flamewars with Dark Reign 2 fans, and played it on my poor choking 16MB P90 :) It really is puzzling that people still haven’t implemented so many of the innovations it left lying around, ten years later; I’ve barely been able to play an RTS since. Homeworld‘s story and reasonable attempt at command tools pulled me through, and if you haven’t played Battlezone it’s brilliant and has the same “useful assistant” feel to its interface and AI – albeit in a vastly different tactical setting.

    I feel this is at least a bit related. Games as “lead users” for computer-human interface advancement:

  2. I just ran across your comments on Quartertothree thanks to a Google gang slightly aglay. I’m sorry to hear that the game’s still a Tier 3 race like TA’s Bertha dynamic, but I think I still prefer that to the lack of power, size or subtlety in most games. For the experts the answer is that he should’ve been hurting too much to get the killer tech before you could react, and for cheerful incompetents like me, it simply doesn’t matter.

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