“And here I thought indentured servitude ended in the 21st century”Material Defender, DESCENT II
Parallax Software’s Descent was one of the first games pioneering a different kind of flight sim- ‘6DOF’ or ‘Six Degrees Of Freedom’ was the central gimmick employed to garner hype and attention towards the ‘mine-sweeping’ shooter epic. But how free really are you when confined to tight corridors packed full of prowling killer drones, ready to rip your ship in half? Descent dropped us deep within the confines of not just the cavernous guts of dense mining operations, but the very inner workings of inequality itself.
It’s hardly novel to point out the prescient forward thinking vision of any piece of science fiction media. Hauntingly accurate projections of the future are found as far back as the 1800s, but what separates games like Descent or the ‘soft cyberpunk’ gadget-shooter Perfect Dark is how few degrees of separation they stand apart from the present. We may not have flying cars or orbital corporate HQs, but our daily lives remain littered with many of the tropes and traits common in the genre: the gig economy, corporate subterfuge, contract disputes, creepy executives, it’s a system manufacturing one commodity with ease above all others: Moral Hazards.
After the abrupt quiet end to the cold war, weapons manufacturing, industry, and information technology shifted apart, remaining siloed in their respective tidy domains of the global economy, often cooperating via strictly defined relationships. The idea of System Shock’s Trioptimum corporation, or DataDyne in Perfect Dark being fully established one-stop-shop designers for all your hardware needs came across as near absurdist, something only Bond Villians would think of. Liberal economics had continued to grant us market miracles, and with companies having goofy monikers that sounded like awkward noises you’d yelp out in pain, how would anyone find themselves intimidated by them? Sci-Fi had a knack for giving companies on-the-nose villainous titles that just barely skirted past the bow of suspending disbelief, despite the distinct unsettling possibility of corporate over-reach in the newspaper headlines, an idea often lampooned by games like Syndicate or critiqued in films like Robocop.
Enter PTMC- an acronym only boardroom meetings and focus testing groups could love. Bland, flavorless, devoid of Charisma- executive Samuel Dravis was emblematic of the Gen Xer distaste for their high ranking bosses: a stuffy piranha disguised as a tweed suited humorless prick, the perfect individual to feed you objectives from across a synthetic walnut table as you struggle to not fall asleep where you sit. Filling the role of ‘Material Defender’ (the title he bestows upon the nameless player) requires little to no imagination to connect with, so many of us have been on the receiving end of mind numbing bureaucratic protocol that the sympathetic response comes naturally.
Material Defender was in many ways a reflection of his time alongside his peers like Garrett from Thief, a man also motivated solely by his desire for isolation, hobby, and the necessity of making rent on his own terms. Few of that generation fully bought in or aspired to hurl themselves up the corporate ladder, instead choosing a life of modest sustainability and high time preference for their personal pursuits. For Garrett, that was thievery, for Material Defender- It’s maintaining a slick specialized hot rod starship that PTMC just so happens to have a need for in order to purge their malware infested droid problem.
The clues to the sinister implications of Dravis’s motivations are quickly lost, obfuscated in corporate vernacular, his droning voice moving full speed ahead with the verbosity an End-User Liscence Agreement would be envious of. Material Defender’s existential boredom serves to set the tone for Dravis’s inevitable betrayal, he’s just looking for a paycheck, not to get wrapped up in corporate drama. Descent is replete with cynical little potshots at the state of the corporate zeitgeist, like how the player is given the ‘optional’ objective of saving the remaining workers trapped in the mine, a clearly tongue-and-cheek jab at the disposable nature of contractors. The game treats these trapped workers as a mere accessory or power up stripped of their humanity, appealing only to your mercenary sense of reward and profit over well-being or morality.
It’s revealed quickly in the second game that Material Defender finally succumbs to the folly of his urge to rapidly eye-roll his through Dravis’s verbal terms of service, caught up in a tricky web of red tape with a cunning clause, PTMC retains mercenaries up to 72-hrs, and if they do not agree, their fees will be suspended pending litigation. Descent II’s opening intro is anything but the ticker tape parade fit for a hero, instead met with a finger pointing to contractual fine-print minutiae that obliges Material Defender return to the very mines that nearly destroyed his ship if he wants his pay, now with the added ‘perk’ of having a experimental warp drive of dubious quality strapped to it. Our protagonist bemoans his newfound status as a human guinea pig sent to the furthest reaches of space against his wishes, woefully accepting his fate as yet another gig worker in the endless void of the space economy.
Descent isn’t exactly a game about noble causes like the liberation of Mars in Red Faction (another Parallax software game, under the guise of it’s later name: Volition) from the nefarious Ultor corporation. Instead, Descent is a game about making it one more day and hopefully liberating your wallet in the process. Debts to pay, repairs to be done- it’s a theme rarely reflected outside of economy-driven space adventures like Elite: Dangerous or the newly released Mech Warrior 5. In these down-to-earth sci-fi spectacles, pragmatism regularly trounces do-gooder whimsy, ambition or moral impulses found in most heroics ground down over time by the necessity of daily maintenance. Material Defender is a glorified trucker, a last-leg delivery man dishing out hot ordinance to their destination and tying up loose logistical ends for a faceless corporation up against a faceless enemy.
The universe of descent is one strip-mined of it’s humanity in an all-too-familiar way, not unlike the corporation that published it, left as an idle scrap husk until picked clean for the rights to the Fallout Franchise later by more profitable endeavors. Innovative and memorable, Descent and Interplay continue to leave a mark on the PC landscape, and much like Material Defender at the end of Descent II- a legacy that remains adrift in space after the need for a daring innovator evaporates for the sake of profitability. It’s hard to say if we will ever see a meaningful single-player entry into the franchise again, especially with uncertainty as to whether or not the multiplayer-focused Descent: Underground by Descendent Studios will ever see daylight, itself seemingly a victim of the same corporate politics mocked with regularity by the franchise. Yet despite this, Descent’s impact will be memorable for decades to come through via fans or spiritual successors down the line.
Until then, let us at least remember it for its unbelievably underrated PSX soundtrack:
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice