In Space, No One Can Hear You (Unless You Hit F5)

DaedalusJohn Carpenter’s The Thing is often praised for its grotesque animatronic body horror and isolated setting, but its best moments stem from the distrust sewn in the minds of the researchers. The titular “Thing” murders and takes the place of its victim, mimicking both appearance and voice; once MacReady and the others catch on, their working relationships are shattered and they treat each other with the same warmth as a complete stranger. As paranoia takes hold and the survivors dwindle, they take out the big knives, wildly tossing out accusations and attempting to expose the real Thing by conducting off-kilter tests.

Ever since I devoured The Thing on a banged-up TV in my teenage dwellings, I’ve been dying for any developer to come along and toss me into a similarly hopeless den of suspicion and betrayal. I had all but given up hope that anyone else would be interested in exploring the same territory until I saw Mush, a multiplayer browser game that essentially thrusts a bunch of people in a ship from FTL before trapping you with their own “Thing” for good measure. Overjoyed at the prospect of finally playing one of my childhood dream games, I immediately created an account, chose my character, and scheduled my first position onboard the Daedalus. Sadly, after spending several days with Mush, I was also infected with an ugly case of disappointment and frustration.

In Mush, the character you choose is your one and only identity. You’re never given the opportunity to stack the crew with friends or pick your lobby; the ship is always stacked with total strangers, starting from square one. This extra layer of anonymity makes it all too easy to distrust nearly everyone on board, and loosens the restraints of accountability that keep players nice and civilized. The only order in your floating coffin is imposed by whoever’s in charge, but that doesn’t stop the determined from overstepping their boundaries and tossing the delicate peace into chaos.

mush_engine_roomIndeed, the game is at its best when everyone is at each other’s throats. The bag of tricks supplied to the Mush (or a clean human looking to cause some trouble) is impressively deep, ranging from discrete, insubordinate skullduggery to all-out aggression. Shredding important documents or hiding tools are easily understood and accomplished, but craftier players can put a little more effort into their schemes, taking the crew by surprise in delightfully insidious ways. On my second voyage, the ship’s psychologist silently entered the pantry and cooked every last ration. The rations spoiled as they were left out in the open, and without nourishment, our morale slowly dropped to suicidal levels.

While disrupting the ship and thinning the crew’s ranks through player agency is exciting for Mush and human alike, inactivity is a far more efficient yet altogether boring challenge to conquer. It only makes sense that they won’t be on for the entire game—when the playtime extends over multiple, real-world days, we still have responsibilities to tackle and Z’s to catch—but after the fifth consecutive cycle passes without any peep from the player, they’ve likely abandoned the match for good. Crews are still technically functional without a few members, but missing a few key players can drive ships to instantaneous ruin. I’d much rather die from chicanery than the whims of an uncommitted newcomer.

If constant radio contact via the chat window would have been maintained, we might have scrambled to come up with a solution in time. Alas, the communication system isn’t clear on when you can or can’t receive messages, leading to moments where you make one too many steps or accidentally disobey a direct order from your captain. If you want to keep the chat tabs up-to-date (and you do if you want to play this game seriously), you must either use points to move around the ship or refresh the page. Naturally, I began hitting the F5 key like a maniac, using my own manual fix to a problem that shouldn’t exist in a talkative game.

mush_beta_bayMush also carries one of the most egregious “Free to play” systems I’ve ever witnessed, browser game or not. Without paying for their “Gold” mode, you’ll never have as many movement/action points per turn as the Gold subscribers, which makes it difficult to perform at peak condition. In case the monthly subscription wasn’t enough cash to drop on simply leveling the playing field, they also sell boosters through a vending machine. The game even lets you get to level 2 before dropping the news that you can’t level higher without the pack, and plagues your screen with an obnoxious “Join Gold Now!” ad hovering over your portrait. When the player with the biggest moneybags stands a better chance than anyone with a free account, your game is fundamentally broken.

In many ways, Mush is everything I wanted from a Thing-like game and so much more. One Mush successfully convinced the whole crew that I was the real menace by mischaracterizing my newcomer stumbles as malice. As his Wormtonguing finally united the crew against me, ghastly chills ran down my spine, continuing long after a single bullet ended my virtual life. It’s likely that there are countless player-driven stories teeming underneath the surface, waiting for the right group to make it happen. But finding that “right group” without deserters ruining everything is a crapshoot, the communication system’s baffling inability to update in real time often leads to a comedy of unfunny errors, and the payment system is absolutely rotten. I appreciate that creators need to be paid for their work, but hampering the free player’s abilities makes them a liability for the humans and easy prey for the Mush. Part of me wants to sing its praises, but until they fix the last two issues in particular, I absolutely cannot recommend it to anyone.

Disclaimer: We accepted Gold access from the developers for review purposes, but due to some technical error or oversight, we never received it.