I was very lucky to be able to attend the GDC this year, and see the best that this industry has to offer. I must admit, however, that I was unable to explore as much as I probably should have. I was practically chained to the IGF pavilion, playing the games and talking to the creators about said games. It was great, and I will be doing my best to cover every game, or at least give them a mention, in my coming Impressions. Today, we will cover four games in one post, starting with the wildly successful FTL, and going from there into Super Space____, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, and Spaceteam. Space. Spacey Space Space. Also, a great deal of CapsLock, as the other common thread for this article is SCREAMING.
FTL is a game that (hopefully) needs no introduction. After a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, FTL has gone on to become a critical darling and favorite of many people. While I certainly feel that any game that has so much praised lavished on it is deserving of the most critical scrutiny, FTL really is a total package of a game. It doesn't miss any of the important beats of the intended experience, the FIRE PHOTON TORPEDOES RAISE SHIELDS FIX THAT ENGINE OH GOD THEY HAVE ION CANNONS kind of crazed frenzy. It is the most complex of the four games, though by no means the most intense. It does have the most lasting session length, with a full traversal of it's randomized star maps taking around a couple hours, give or take. Now, one common thread in all of these games is the chaotic flailing of a spaceship's crew on the verge of annihilation. Note that this does not mean violent death by laser, but also just running into large rocks, or depending on the game, some other, crazier death. However, FTL is surprisingly limited in this regard. When playing the game, the vast majority of deaths will most likely be related to ship-to-ship combat. This is not necessarily to the games detriment, as it establishes at the outset that you are on the run from a hostile military through hostile and pirate filled space; combat is inevitable, very likely, and very well fleshed mechanically.
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is an animal of another color entirely. While FTL draws a lot from the larger scale of shows like Star Trek and Firefly, managing a crew of anywhere from one to half a dozen, LiDS is about a couple. It is a two-person cooperative game, which at this point is limited to an arcade style survival mode, though there may be more to come later. It also is very combat focused, but since you have to manually drive the ship everywhere in this one (however unrealistic that may be), planets and asteroids are much more dangerous. It is a simpler game; when I asked the creators, the mental collective of Asteroid Base, what their inspiration was for this game, they responded with asingle scene from Star Wars: A New Hope. It's definitely a shorter experience at present, with an ever increasing , rather than FTL's series of rising dread as your ship slowly deteriorates, battle to battle. It makes up for this through its coop, and the furious ranting at one another that this produces. Playing with my own partner in crime, it was a harrowing experience, which can be briefly summarized as QUICK SHOOT THAT ONE I'LL DRIVE OH GOD THE SHIELDS ARE ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE SHIP SHITSHIT FIRE THE BIG LASER NO THE BIG YELLOW LASER GODDAMIT WE HIT A PLANET WE NEED THEIR LOVE TO LIVE and so on. The game neatly abstracts the usual scifi technobabble into a cute, easy on the eyes visual shorthand. The shields are blue, the ships wheel (yeah, spaceship with a wheel) and engine are orange, the guns are red, and your health is hearts. You get more health by finding planets, shooting all the bad guys on them, and the remaining inhabitants give you hearts as thanks. Your spaceship runs on love, and the evil space aliens are out to explode you. It's lovably simplistic, like your favorite picture book as a kid, and can hold that same cute and simplistic dramatic tension. It makes you hate and appreciate the other player, unlike some other game.
Super Space ____ is that game. That game that you love, it makes you happy after you are done playing it, but goddamn it makes you hate the other schmucks you are playing with. It is some far distant descendant of Asteroids, but with your engines replaced by three people with guns of their own to shoot. It is a chaotic ballet of spinning geometry, every player desperately shooting in all directions, trying to either score points or keep the construction they are tethered to from colliding with the many instant death surfaces that you are trapped with. It is nail biting just trying to not die, and when there are three other idiots all trying to do the same thing, with everything happening too fast to talk, you hate every other person you play with for actively sabotaging the whole operation, because we wouldn't have run into that wall unless you were too busy trying to up your score and I KNOW IT WAS YOU MARK YOU WERE THE BLUE GUN AND YOU HAD THE HIGH SCORE BECAUSE YOU DIDN'T THINK THE GIANT BLOCK ABOUT TO SMASH US WAS MORE IMPORTANT GRAAARGARGHAARH. This fosters and makes fun the experience of too many cooks in the kitchen, with everybody trying to do their own thing and failing because even in space we aren't completely in a vacuum.
Now, one thing that all of these games have in common is the screaming, the yelps and cries of desperation and fun. All of these games cause them, but Spaceteam makes them the central mechanic. As an Iphone/Ipad game, it is probably the most fun I have ever had with an Idevice, and certainly the most fun multiplayer game nominated for anything this year. Yeah, it really is that fun. It is fairly simple. Every level, every player gets a crazy control panel, and orders. Those orders might be for you, or for your compatriots. They have basically the same thing on their screens; crazy control panel, crazy orders. What ensues is a shouting match of frenzied, crazy orders to one another. SET THE FLUX ANNIHILATOR TO 4! ASTEROIDS, EVERYBODY SHAKE! ENGAGE THE GRAVITOFIELD! PUT THE COFFEE ON! Yeah, there are straight gag buttons and switches. It is SO MUCH FUN. I played it three times, just because. It was equally fun every time. Such cannot be said about most games.
The one common maxim about space is that it is, in fact, rather large. So it seems strange that so many of the space games, especially the four I spoke about above, share so many elements. They are all about a crew surviving, often on the skin of their teeth. But this concept has so much meat to it, and meat so wonderfully juicy to we aficionados, that each time we come back to it, we find something different to focus on. Ship survival in LiDS and FTL, the friction of friends messing up in Super Space ____ and Spaceteam, FTL and Spaceteam both running from imminent annihilation, the shooting galleries in Super Space____ and LiDS, there are just so many mechanical variables, things to include and focus on, that each game feels fresh and interesting compared to the others.
As the indie space in particular grows, we are starting to see a lot of accumulation in variations on a theme. Now, while a cynic could see this as a bad thing, as the loss of originality in the art, I think that it means really good things. These ideas are built off of the same foundation, but being so different, show the potential and diversity within the genre and the medium. There is a lot more unexplored potential here, and we are just starting to really venture artistically. Space is a very big place, and we have a lot yet left to find.