IF Comp 2017: Transient Skies

transkiesTransient Skies (dgtziea) is a Twine space-exploration game.

My initial impressions were not good. There’s a fairly substantial chunk of intro, and it’s aiming at a tone that it doesn’t entirely manage to hit.

You were sitting at the edge of the cliffside where you’d spent so many nights — weeks now — deep in contemplation, when you noticed Doranin, your village elder, was beside you.

How long has she been there? She nods to you, then the sky.

“Go, child,” She intones. “Apply. You are brave. Resourceful. Curious. Diplomatic. You will get in. You will get a ship. And you will go, go away from this world.”

“But the village, our people…” you protest, but even you could hear the weakness in your voice.

Doranin shakes her head. “The village doesn’t matter. None of us matter.”

And she sweeps her hand outwards, at the glittering stars and the expanse of neon-green sky in front of the both of you. “What matters is out there; out there is where we would’ve belonged, if things had been different. There is nothing for us down here, least of all each other. We band together to survive, but our true purpose is to expand outwards.”

There’s an awkward tense shift in this, but the main thing is that as dialogue it’s trying for earnest high drama, but ends up feeling wooden. Later on the dialogue will largely be in a galactic lingua franca that presumably nobody speaks as a first language, so it makes sense when that comes across stiffly, but this is just… a very stock scene, infelicitously delivered. It rings false. You don’t get to be village elder by saying shit like ‘There is nothing for us down here, least of all each other.’ I’m struggling to imagine the youth who can deliver lines like ‘but the village, our people…’ and I’ve just played a Save the Village plot.

Once you get past the intro, it looks very much like a procedural-generation exploration game:

transient

There have been a number of space-exploration games like this in the IF sphere over the past few years – Out There, Voyageur, Superluminal Vagrant Twin; out in the wider games world there’s No Man’s Sky. The basic premise is well-explored; to make it compelling, you have to do something with it.

It’s difficult to say what Transient Skies’ thing is. It has a regular cycle of play – explore a planet, scan stuff for information, find and retrieve resources, sell them for fuel and equipment upgrades. There isn’t a lot of choice in the basic cycle: there are four regular options (explore, fight, trade, survive) but at any given time only one of them is a useful option. You choose Explore until your energy runs out, Fight if an aggressive animal appears, click on everything that might be a resource. Then you trade away everything that’s possible, and repeat. The only significant choice in the cycle is whether you spend money on ship upgrades.

And that low-choice central cycle would be OK if it was in service to some other goal: but the mid-game is really heavily focused on the cycle itself, on exploring a bunch of not-very-distinct planets and collecting stuff from them.

It uses some procedurally-generated content, and what there is OK, but it’s pretty light: that ‘elongated beast with quivering protrusions on its neck’ in the example above is about the greatest extent of it. It’s an adornment of the base cycle, not a point of interest in its own right. In between exploration sections, you get elements of backstory: the protagonist cares about their people (who are threatened by something, possibly a disease) and has a difficult relationship with the Main Galactic Explorer People, but all of this is kept so carefully nonspecific that it feels like a narrative justification for something else rather than a narrative purpose.

In the late game, I got shot down over a planet, which shifts the game into a more adventure-gamey survival kind of mode – although, again, there’s a very linear through-line of progression and not a very strong sense of either exploration or physical danger to be survived. There’s a bit where you realise you’ve run out of oxygen – but there’s been almost no mention of this as a threat previously, and you’d think that’d be something constantly on your mind; instead, when you pull your helmet off in desperation and realise that, surprise, the atmosphere’s breathable – it’s more of a shrug moment than anything.

What it comes down to, I think, is that the prose and storytelling are very workmanlike; they do the job required of them, but all of it is the kind of story or prose you’d put in because your structure requires it rather than because it’s the Cool Thing, and when it has to do heavy lifting – as in the intro – it falls short. There are things in the story that have potential – the galactic language with explicit mood signifiers, for instance – but they don’t ever develop into something richer than a first-pass idea. It feels as though it’s struggling to find its voice: at a couple of points I felt as though it was aiming at a Choice of Games-ish thing about defining the protagonist and their concerns, and that this might be why it’s so vague about the protagonist and their culture of origin. But there aren’t all that many opportunities to define the character, and some of the choices I did get felt basically inconsistent with other themes of the story.

At other times it seemed like it wanted to be cultural sci-fi about alien contact, or epic sci-fi about the delicate politics of vastly influential galactic institutions, or rip-roaring lasers-and-shields military sci-fi, or reflective personal stuff about the isolation of cosmic distance – but it never entirely clicks with any of these themes, and keeps moving on to the next thing. Mechanically, it’s the same issue – it’s got the skeleton of a procedural explore-and-trade game, but not there’s not enough there for it to be satisfying as one.

I get the urge to try to make your game do everything – particularly where the subject-matter kind of encourages it. And there’s obviously been quite a lot of work put into this. But without a clear central idea, it ends up being all bun and no burger.

I think that’s probably a 4.

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