IF Comp 2019: Skybreak!

skybreakSkybreak! (William Dooling, ADRIFT) is a CRPG-ish science-fantasy space adventure. As a wandering adventurer, you will fly to dozens of systems and spend only a little time on each before moving on.

There’s actually quite a few examples of this sort of thing in the general IF space: Voyageur, Out There, Superluminal Vagrant Twin, Sunless SkiesSkybreak particularly reminded me of Voyageur in that they both have random navigation: in Voyageur your drive can only take you towards the galactic core, but you have slight influence over your route. In Skybreak you can’t steer at all, but you can revisit places, and you can only take one action each time you land. (Sometimes that action leads to further choices, but you’re always on a brief visit.)

Many moons ago I wrote this about Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home:

SF treats space as a rational quantity to be managed in some way or another: an ocean to chart, a frontier to advance, an empire to administrate. In Heliopause, space is the Great Forest of Arthurian knight-errant and Grimm fairytale, or the ocean of the Odyssey: anything might be encountered there, but you won’t be able to plot it on a map.

Skybreak does, in fact, have a map among its copious out-of-game supplements, but it’s not very useful and the principle holds. It’s unequivocally science fantasy – you will use Occultism as much as Gunnery – and it has a general scent of belatedness and Old Weird about its style. There’s are mysterious towers and lost civilisations and not-quite-alive things and elves and just a lot of good naming. Your soul definitively exists, and various menaces will steal bits of it. In a very Fallen London vein, a lot of the resources you collect are various kind of story or secret, rendered in the abstract as resources, and scientific data figures as just another flavour of those. Your spaceship is the narrator, and it loves you. So this contains a lot of what you’d expect in a generic Space Adventure, but it is very clearly not confining itself to that.

Skybreak is not shy about letting you know that this is going to be A Lot Of Game from the outset. The game begins with a multi-stage character-creation process. There is a sixteen-page manual, heaving with more information than anyone’s going to be able to retain on one reading. Its basic design – a floating-modules, roll-a-random-encounter kind of deal – is one that inherently requires a large amount of Content to work in the first place. There are a lot of different systems at work – as well as the stats and the resources and the special skills (which I always immediately forgot about), there’s a reputation system and combat and apparently you can fall in love (alas, I was never given the opportunity).

Character creation is not, by the standards of a trad TTRPG, a hugely complicated or lengthy process: if you look at the character sheet and consider it as a character sheet, it’s pretty simple. I’ve played storygames with denser character sheets. But context matters a lot! Having a ton of stats and skills in a tabletop game isn’t a big issue because the content can be crafted around them after the fact. In a computer game, content has to be made for all of the possibilities – well, OK, sure, I’ve played plenty of CRPGs where you go ‘sure, I’ll put a couple of points into Lore(Nature) and Fisherdwarfship, that fits with the character I want’, and then those skills get used once in the entire game and cost as much as the (completely indispensable) Heal skill. But that’s bad and you shouldn’t do it. So: a big list of skills is a promise of content that’s both very extensive and reasonably balanced. (If you read the manual, it strongly recommends at least +2 in two of the following skills: Survival, Technology, Gunnery, or Strength, which I didn’t notice until way too late.)

Character-creation does do a good job of offering an initial sketch of what the universe looks like, though: a lot of the evocative power of lists is at work here.

skybreakclasses

The biggest problem with all of this is that this is using an unadorned parser-IF system, and so the game’s output is a single stream of text. The download comes with a printable character sheet, and I don’t think this is meant as a joke: you’ll want to be able to refer to this information regularly. This might be a clue that this game could use a better way of displaying information. In particular, I constantly wanted to check my inventory to see if I had the resources necessary for a particular challenge – your inventory changes a lot more often than your skills – and, because the inventory is formatted as a vertical list with every possible resource listed, it takes up more than one screen of text (and scrolls your choice menu way up off the page). Often, I’d just guess rather than dealing with that. There are a too many resources to hold in memory, and you won’t necessarily be able to focus on grinding one resource for one task, so being able to reference them is a big deal. It’s particularly difficult to remember whether you’ve got some Forbidden Lore, Forgotten Lore or Foretold Lore.

This is particularly an issue for a game which is designed to reward long-term play: I didn’t get used to the UI jank over time, and indeed I got more frustrated at how it was slowing down my learning of the game’s systems.

So: as an experience this would have been hugely improved by a UI that managed player information more smoothly – which, in practice, would probably mean a platform other than ADRIFT, so that seems unlikely to happen. But its mode of interaction is almost entirely menu-based, so being based on a parser platform really isn’t doing it a lot of favours.

The space combat system, too, is a bit opaque unless you go and read the manual; it’s not super-clear even then, and every fight feels a little bit too long. And once you’ve got your ship beaten up it’s hard to get it fixed – you can’t do the usual RPG-fuckup thing of hurrying back to a safe haven after you get your ass kicked, you just have to wait and hope that you randomly appear at a place with a starport. There’s also a tendency to get long runs of uninhabited systems; I’m not sure whether this is just because the game has a well-considered balance between common, routine content (uninhabited systems where you mine and do scans) and rarer, more detailed stuff (major populated planets), or whether the navigation is more structured than it initially looks, and leads to you wandering around empty zones.

The writing is capable, although with so much Stuff it varies quite a lot in effectiveness and tone. A lot of the time it’s going for a generic mode – these are events that you’re going to be repeating – and sometimes this comes through a little too hard:

You successfully make the journey, though your limbs are weary and your bones ache.

It is truly far better to travel than to arrive. After the journey is complete, you look back on it in wonder and amazement. Did you really accomplish that? How incredible. You have a new tale of adventure to tell.

When you do get highly unique content, it can sometime come with a lot of text – a page or so – and this is a bit of an abrupt gear-shift.

I encountered a fairly small handful of bugs: in particular, when an event makes you travel to a new part of space, the menu for the new system sometimes doesn’t display correctly.

It isn’t really possible to do more than scratch the surface of this within the comp’s time limit; by the end of that time, I had quit prematurely once and died a couple of times, each time only at the beginning of working on my character’s objectives. There are a lot more character builds to explore; I need to develop better ways of not dying. There’s clearly a ton of longer-arc content that I haven’t got to grips with, and lots of elements I haven’t had the resources to explore. Either in character terms or in worldbuilding, I didn’t really get my teeth into any narrative arcs so much as random adventure and a lot of atmosphere.

An impressive (and somewhat intimidating) piece of work, not being shown off to best effect. 8.

This entry was posted in cyoa, interactive fiction, parser-based, review and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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