Tuesday, 22 July 2014

What I'm Playing: OUT THERE

Moving house and not having an internet connection has put something of a dent in my proposed fortnight month-long series of blogs. But that's all done with now, which means we're back on track with our look at mobile games and what makes them tick – and hopefully less of the maudlin introspection that has frequented the subtext of this blog for the past six months.

Now, onward with the games blogging!

Out There Logo
Out There is, essentially, a modern update of the choose-your-own-adventure book. You know:
You are an astronaut stranded out in space, alone. Through the viewscreen, you see a constellation of stars. Do you pilot your ship to the YELLOW DWARF or the distant NEUTRON STAR?
The similarities are most obvious in the chunks of text the game displays when you arrive at each new star system, a sort of randomised captain's log. Some of these provide a bit of flavour (“99 alien races and not one looks like a pretty girl. Damn you, Captain Kirk”). Or they might unexpectedly damage your ship's hull, or dump a bounty of desperately-needed supplies in your cargo bay. Or they might hand you another decision:
You encounter a giant alien pyramid. Do you FLY INTO ITS DARK HEART or FLEE LIKE A COWARD?
Out There 4

The remaining majority of Out There is compromised of basic resource management. Each star is orbited by a handful of planets, broken down into three types: rocky planets which can mined for minerals to repair your hull or build new equipment; gas giants which can be probed to extract fuel; and, best of all, the oxygen-rich Garden Planets inhabited by alien lifeforms.

Even here, though, the simple binary choices the game presents – do you go to one planet, or all of them in sequence, or just switch on the hyperdrive and continue on to the next star – and the often unexpected consequences of those decisions still retain that same choose-your-own-adventure feeling.

The key difference is that when you do inevitably make a mistake, when the fuel runs out leaving you stranded orbiting a planet that you have single-handedly exhausted of its natural resources, there's no option of cheatily flicking back to the last time things were okay and trying to work out where you went wrong. It's back to page one.
Out There 2

This might sound familiar if you've read my last blog on Hoplite. At its heart, Out There is another roguelike. A slightly peculiar one, admittedly, stretching that 'like' to its elastic limit, but built around the same two vital components: a randomly-generated word to explore and a start-the-game-all-over-again fail state.

The most obvious roguelike(-like-like) comparison is FTL, which also put you in the seat of a spaceship captain, but Out There lacks that game's focus on combat and crew. FTL evokes Star Trek or Star Wars or Firefly. Playing Out There feels more like... actually, I'm not sure there is a completely accurate film comparison for Out There, and that's wonderful.

In Out There, you come in peace. Your encounters with aliens don't end in violence, but in conversation, in the standardised gibberish spoken by the various races spread across its universe. Each time you come across an alien, they ask a question. Whether you answer correctly or accidentally threaten genocide, this will add a new chunk of language – just one or two words – to your arsenal, so that you have a better chance of understanding and saying or doing the right thing next time.

This is the game at its most brilliant. In general, games' most successful verbs are either 'look' or 'kill' but, by approaching language as a mechanical puzzle, Out There makes 'talk' into a viable alternative. More, for my money, than any Bioware RPG or Lucasarts point-and-click adventure ever really managed.

The writing – not always perfect, but packed with giant warships chucking moons at one another, planets baked to caramel, and other pulpy sci-fi ideas – is the tractor beam that pulls you through Out There's weaker parts.

Out There 3
Those weaker parts being the actual traditional 'game' bits of Out There. The resource management is basic, right up until it's frustrating.

Basic because the game is built around a mindless core loop: arrive at a planet, choose a drilling intensity out of 10, use the collected resources to top up the fuel, hull and oxygen bars, and move onto the next. And it doesn't take long to figure out that 7/10 is the correct level of drilling, producing the highest yield with little chance of breaking your equipment.

Frustrating because every ship is slightly too small to hold everything you're likely to want. 'Inventory Tetris' can be a greatly satisfying sub-game, but there's no way of knowing what you'll need or collect next, and there are too many limits on when you're allowed to use or move around the contents to free up space without having to chuck them out into the void.
Out There 1

So, Out There is an unusual thing for me: a game made attractive almost exclusively by the way it's written.

The stories I tend to remember from games are the ones I authored myself, out of the unexpected way two parts of a system rubbed against another or from a scattered series of incidental environmental clues.

The irony of 'choose your own adventure' was always that you did no such thing. The reader/played followed a firmly set path, with the only real deviation in mistakes and subsequent backtracking.

There is a specific story waiting for you in Out There, with set twists and turns. But that took me a few dozen plays to even uncover, and it lets you tell your own story in the margins. The strange adventures of a space captain, stranded and going slowly insane.
Out There 6
The text vignettes that make up this side story are shuffled with each playthrough, but what makes them really special is the context. Each event takes on a new weight when you know you haven't got the resources to repair any of the damage that giant snowball did to your hull; or when you encounter a dozen disastrously ruined ex-civilisations, one after the other; when a conversation with an alien rewards you with a block of omnipotent Omega which can be transmogrified into the fuel you need to make it to the next star along; or...

This is unexpectedly powerful stuff, especially if you can give Out There an unbroken half-hour session. It's much more of a long-term investment than Hoplite's 10-minute dips below the earth, and coming back to your virtual bookmark a day or two later, none of it makes any sense.
You hold this game up to your face, explore its facets. Some shine brighter than others, but you have a feeling that without these, the whole just wouldn't hold together. 
If you decide to PICK OFF the dull elements, then turn to a proper text adventure instead.
If you think you'd rather PLAY SOMETHING with a bit more meat to its strategy, then why not check out this new FTL Advanced Edition expansion written by Chris Avellone?
I'm indecisive. I put the book down,  forever unanswered. Choose your own conclusion.
Out There 5

Other games what I've been playing:

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.