A lone astronaut, displaced by mysterious forces, has to make the long trek home. You gather resources and technology, upgrade your ship or trade it in for a better one, encounter weird aliens and piece together their language, gather hints about how the universe has changed while you’ve been away.
It’s got a bit more of a narrative slant than FTL; the writer and designer is JB / FibreTigre, best-known in the IF world for Ekphrasis and Works of Fiction. The protagonist has a distinctive voice, an odd mix of perky and dour. (It completely doesn’t jive with the brief voice-acting in the intro; the VO sounds like a generic stubblygruff bromerican protagonist, while the writing’s modes are existential angst and flippant humour.) It’s more mobile-friendly – less fiddly simultaeneous detail to manage. Like FTL, however, most of the immediate plot is random encounters in space, with multiple-choice responses that you mostly answer based on guesswork.
Out There Ω has roguelike death, and makes survival tough; a lot of the things that make it difficult can rarely be controlled, and others are subject to severe trade-offs. Your ship has limited cargo slots, which can be taken up by either upgrades or resources; building an upgrade always means that you have less room for resources. To build an upgrade you need the right technology (mostly granted by random events), and the right set of resources (mostly found by mining planets, which requires you to gamble fuel on the chance that the resources you need are present). Almost everything you do costs resources; you’re constantly struggling against attrition, and even major success doesn’t buy you much breathing room.
Another feature is that it’s possible for random events to just totally screw you. For instance: because jumps are analogue rather than binary, every one takes a slightly different amount of fuel. More powerful engines can make bigger jumps. But it’s also fairly common for events to teleport you to new star-systems – and sometimes they’re systems which your ship just isn’t powerful enough to get out of. In FTL, there’s always a jump you can make; and even with no time and no fuel, you can theoretically fight your way out, getting fuel off the Rebel fleet. Death in FTL is usually hot, a shitstorm of whiffed missile strikes and shipboard fires that leaves you with the sense that it could have been avoided with a little more luck or presence of mind. Death in Out There is usually cold: you’ve exhausted your resources and your options, there’s nothing more to do.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t ways that you can increase your chances; getting a sense of the odds can make your life considerably easier. But there are lots of ways in which a few bad breaks with the RNG can scupper you.
This punishing arbitrariness fuels a central theme of the game: that space is mercilessly indifferent to human life, and space travel is mostly horrible. The protagonist’s sanity is imperiled by loneliness, boredom, physical privation and depression (“Emptiness. Death. Life and intelligence are merely accidental”); he suffers from the effects of cosmic radiation; he complains about how aliens consistently fail to be sexy girls (indeed, ‘no humanoid aliens’ is a guiding principle).
Another effect of the difficulty level; when I finally found myself with a viable strategy and the luck to find the gear required for it, things suddenly got quite secure, and I swanned around the galaxy until I found a Plot Marker planet that I could actually reach. And then – info about what that particular plot thread was about, and the end.
Let’s divide the narrative into four phases for a minute:
- Initial: you have very little clue about anything.
- Early: you’ve survived for a bit, and picked up some vague clues. Certain events light up the plot-marker (ending) planets.
- Late: you have a pretty robust strategy and are insured against bad luck. You understand the alien language enough to pick up some foreshadowing.
- End: you reach a marked planet, get an explanation, and the game closes.
My sense was that the ending was kind of anticlimactic. Now, to be fair, this is a problem with many computer games. It’s also a recurring difficulty with SF contact stories that invest heavily in building up the mystique of the aliens: it’s a hard task to make the actual contact as cool as the mystery. But I think the trouble here was that the late game wasn’t narratively distinct enough from the early game; when I broke through the difficulty wall, things were much the same on the other side. There are major narrative beats available in the early game that introduce new, intriguing plot elements; it feels as though they could use some development in the late game before they get wrapped up.
So I felt that this underperformed a bit as plot goes, but it’s strong as an experiential piece. This is reinforced by atmospheric music and pretty art – particularly the planetscapes.
(Full disclosure: JB gave me a key for Out There, but I ended up buying the game at full price regardless. He picked up dinner, though.)