Published Sep 10, 2019
Why 'A Final Unity' is the Perfect 'Star Trek' Gaming Experience
The classic TNG game nails it by sticking to the core of what makes 'Trek' so special.
By Mike Chen
The beauty of Star Trek is that it works in any format, any genre. This has been proven across all media, from the noir holodeck adventures of Dixon Hill, to Star Trek-as-political thriller in The Undiscovered Country, to the action blockbuster Kelvin timeline films.
But at its core, Star Trek is about relationships, diplomacy, and thoughtful solutions in the face of impossible situations. And though Trek video games have existed for decades and spanned genres from strategy to shooter, one game stands above the rest as the purest example of this: Star Trek: The Next Generation - A Final Unity. In A Final Unity, the player assumes control of the entire 1701-D crew for something comes as close to an episode (or multi-part episode) as possible.
A History Of Trek Gaming
It took time — decades, in fact — for technology to evolve to a point where A Final Unity was even possible, starting with the first Star Trek gaming experience in 1971: a Battleship-style game played by using punchcards. This set the standard for Star Trek gaming throughout the 1970s and 1980s; though computing power improved the functional experience, turn-based ship-to-ship combat was the consistent core of titles. In fact, many of the releases were simply upgraded and adapted versions of the original punchcard design.
However, ask people what they associate most with Star Trek and the answer is often it's characters and relationships. Kirk and Spock, Picard and Data, Janeway and Seven of Nine, the camaraderie among the Discovery crew all linger far longer than discussions about ship-to-ship combat or space exploration. The 1980s saw a few attempts to replicate this, with interactive fiction titles such as The Kobayashi Alternative and The Promethean Prophecy.
During this era, adventure titles by Sierra Online and LucasArts (AKA Lucasfilm Games) dominated PC gaming. Simon & Schuster Interactive tried to apply this formula with The Rebel Universe (now browser playable), which combined strategic ship combat with away team adventures. However, it wasn’t until 1992 that design ambition matched technical execution.
Interplay’s Star Trek: 25th Anniversary succeeded where The Rebel Universe failed, allowing for a lengthy interactive adventure that finally allowed players to get in the boots of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy as they worked, explored, and solved problems together. This set the stage for a new standard of Trek gaming. The next release, though, took everything that worked and boldly went (yeah, I said it) to further heights.
A Final Unity
In 1995, Spectrum Holobyte released Star Trek: The Next Generation — A Final Unity. Building upon the formula that worked so well in 25th Anniversary and the console-exclusive TNG adventure game Future's Past, A Final Unity pulled out all the stops in crafting the ultimate interactive 1701-D adventure, complete with full voiceover by the entire cast. With a story overseen by Trek veteran Naren Shakar and a staff including Nebula-nominated author Stephen Goldin, A Final Unity plays out like a multi-part episode of TNG, with the eventual universe-at-risk stakes reminiscent of the most effective season finales. The cold open, rendered in cutting-edge-for-1995 CG, starts with a captain's log from Patrick Stewart. A seemingly innocent distress call leads to a mystery regarding an ancient artifact; over the course of the next 15 hours, the story twists and turns across multiple planets with franchise hallmarks Vulcans and Romulans alongside a new alien species known as the Chodak, ultimately in pursuit of the reality-bending Unity Device.
Gameplay for A Final Unity splits time between the bridge of the Enterprise and on planet for away missions. Starting off on the bridge, players have access to various consoles and departments, though the bulk of bridge time is spent communicating with other vessels and/or Starfleet while handling real-time ship combat -- a role that you can assign to Worf, which is often the best solution because it’s clunky and difficult. This does feel fitting for a Star Trek game, though, as visceral action is often more apart of other franchises.
Away missions are when the game truly feels like an interactive episode. One tangible way A Final Unity is better than 25th Anniversary is its away team selection. While 25th Anniversary locked you into a crew of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and literally disposable redshirts, A Final Unity gives you the freedom to create your own TNG away team (depending on your difficulty setting, it can recommend team selection for you). Like seminal adventure title Maniac Mansion, each character comes with different abilities. For example, Data's android strength may be necessary to overcome an obstacle while Geordi's visor capabilities may detect things a normal tricorder scan will not. With the ability to beam up to the Enterprise at any time, swapping away team crew is easy, giving players the ability to think like a captain planning for the best solution.
Puzzles are a mix of diplomatic conversations and traditional adventure game puzzle solving — as in "which character can manipulate which object to use there." For those new to adventure games, this may induce some frustration, though hint guides and walkthrough can help expedite solutions. When it matters, though, it’s pure Star Trek — like the best episodes, resolution comes not with combat, but with thinking like a Starfleet’s finest. In fact, the final puzzle is a Q-worthy morality test — a fitting way to put give the player Picard’s perspective.
The Future of Trek Gaming
Since A Final Unity, Star Trek games have returned to primarily focus on ship combat and exploration. Bridge Crew has taken to VR to simulate the bridge, though with live multiplayer interactions, making it a social experience as you work as a team. Star Trek Online puts you in the shoes of a Starfleet officer on a ship, tasked with specific roles but also in charge of exploring the galaxy and solving conflicts, sometimes with phaser rifle.
Those are fine experiences, but they don’t truly showcase the heart of Star Trek the way A Final Unity did. But perhaps the future of Trek gaming lies in the path trailblazed by another franchise: The Walking Dead.
The adventure game genre retreated into a niche experience in the 2000s, but Telltale Games (staffed by 1990s Lucasarts veterans) reinvigorated and modernized the experience by using genre staples such as dialogue trees and puzzle solving with new innovations such as quicktime events and branching storylines with permanent ripple effects.
This model has been utilized in a few different ways, with big-budget productions (Until Dawn) and smaller critical darlings (Life is Strange). The throughline, no matter the production value, is an emphasis on story, character, and player agency. In theory, something like A Final Unity would be possible for this modern format. Of course, modern gaming thrives with quality voice acting, and that could provide plenty of new opportunities for Star Trek to explore beyond existing canon. Imagine a Titan-based narrative adventure, one with voice work by Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis that utilizes established series screenwriters.
Doing such a project would fit right into the current plan to expand Star Trek's footprint on the modern entertainment landscape, all while providing cost-effective ways to extend franchise narrative with established characters. But regardless of when in the canon (or which timeline) such a project takes place, it will only succeed if it remains true to Star Trek by combining relationships, dignity, science, diplomacy, and heart. And if they need to find a perfect model for that — or just a fun way to prepare for Star Trek: Picard — then it's a good thing that A Final Unity is available to play via Abandonware and DOS emulation.
Mike Chen (he/him) writes a lot, from novels (HERE AND NOW AND THEN and A BEGINNING AT THE END) to geek stuff (Tor, The Mary Sue) to a former life as an NHL writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @mikechenwriter.