Text in spaaaace: FTL, Out There, Voyageur

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Comments: 9   (latest 2 days later)

Tagged: reviews, ruminations, procedural content, out there, interactive fiction, text, voyageur, if, ftl

Bruno Dias's space-text-RPG Voyageur was released this week. I spent a bunch of time playing it, which reminded me that I'd just spent a bunch of time playing Out There, and a bunch more time last month playing FTL. Three games about flying through space -- a randomized construction of space, with many hazards between you and your (distant) goals.

Let me start by describing each game. If you're familiar with all of them, skip on ahead to the comparing and contrasting. :)

Voyageur is prominently tagged as "procedural". That is, every planet you land on is described by a little paragraph:

The spaceport district you land on is busy, and surrounded on all sides by endless cityscape. You hurry along the roads past a group of threatening-looking locals. Crimson political graffiti is sprayed across the walls, although you don't understand the context of the slogans. Trash piles up on the roads, sometimes collected by sullen-looking recycler drones.

The sentences and details within them are randomized, based on a set of general stats about the planet. (Urbanized/agricultural/industrial, terraformed/desert/iceball, and so on.) The markets are loaded up with randomized goods ("high-grade computers", "cheap whisky", "curious gold ore", etc). And each planet might have one or more special features: religious centers, alien satellites, universities.

What you do: travel, trade, try to accumulate enough money to keep going. Long-term goals involve accumulating enough special items to make life-changing science-fictional discoveries.

The solar systems in Out There are also randomly generated, but without the detail of Voyageur. Each one has basic stats (rocky, gas giant, or habitable; high-resource or low-resource), but the only distinguishing marks are special events which might pop up:

The gravitational waves in this area have played havoc on my equipment. I fiddled around and some of it is working again, but the rest is completely out of order. What a mess--

These text paragraphs are not procedurally generated; they're selected from a large database, effectively a library of micro-sci-fi stories. On the other hand, the effects can be randomized. In the above example, a couple of your ship's systems are randomly selected to take damage.

What you do: travel, mine, try to gather enough resources to keep going. Long-range goals involve reaching various distant points on the map, where life-changing science-fictional discoveries are hidden.

Finally, we have FTL, which is much less textual; you spend most of your time fighting hostile starships. Small textual encounters are frequent:

A Rebel captain appears on the screen. "I thought we had been doomed to backwater assignments. This is my chance to get back in Command's good graces! Charge the weapons!"

Some of these offer choices (trade with a smuggler or attack him?); others, as in this example, are simply announcements (time for a fight!). In either case, you spend much less time reading text than you spend on the action (combat, upgrading your ship, etc).

What you do: travel, upgrade your weapons, try to gather enough money to survive the fights. The long-term goal, which is presented up front, is to reach the final sector and defeat the Big Boss Rebel Flagship.

Each game offers short textual riffs, but the texture of the texts is quite different.

Out There has a mix of practical snippets (like the one about gravitational damage) with diary entries, philosophical musings, and high-concept sci-fi encounters. The voice is distinctive, personal, and wry; it's delightfully reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem's old Star Diaries.

(To be sure, as @mossdogmusic reminds me on Twitter, it's also reminiscent of a sci-fi era when Our Hero was likely to be A Dude, with women absent from the story or purely decorative.)

The content of Out There's texts can be boiled down to "you gained fuel", "you lost oxygen", "you took damage", or "cut scene!" Nonetheless, I always read them, because the writing is so sharp and the mood so well-sustained.

FTL's texts are mostly practical, with a sprinkling of scenic description. Because the game is so focused on combat mechanics, I quickly found myself skipping the description. All that matter is whether I'm in a fight, whether I found a new weapon, whether intruders have teleported on board. And most of that information comes from the game's visual displays, not from the text. (If the ship is on fire, I can see fire alarms going off!)

There's one hilarious exception. One story encounter starts (as many do) by describing the local planet and its moons; but then it goes on to ask (on the next page) how many moons the planet has! If you got into the habit of skipping the descriptive paragraphs, you will have no idea, even though it just told you. The first time this happened, I laughed out loud, and kept at least a quarter of an eye on the descriptive text thereafter.

Finally we have Voyageur. The procedural structure means that Voyageur's planetary descriptions are endlessly varied. The same is true for many of the ad-hoc events, like "attend a local religious ceremony". There are also long-term plot sequences; the events in these sequences are not randomized, but you only encounter each once per play-through, so they don't become repetitive.

Despite the variety, I found the procedural texts to be flat; I stopped reading them almost immediately. It's not that the detail was boring. Rather, it was irrelevant to my goals. Nothing you find in a planetary description aids you in your travels. Maybe you're on a planet of rich tourists, where you can sell imported booze for a profit; but you'll see that fact in the market screen. If the planet has a fungus jungle, you'll want to explore it, but that fact will be highlighted with an "explore" action button. The travel screen lets you glean the underlying stats of planets before you travel to them, and that's important -- but it also means that you arrive already knowing that stuff.

So there's our comparison. FTL's texts are peripheral; you play it for the starship combat. Voyageur has a well-implemented algorithmic text engine, which is technically fascinating but not meaningful in play. Out There has the best writing, and so it's the game where I wind up actually reading the textual output.

Yes, I love procedural generation. In fact I just reposted a software toy which is nothing but generated room descriptions! No goals, no mechanics. And maybe that's as flat as Voyageur's planets. I can't make that comparison from the inside.

(I might suggest that the lack of mechanics in My Secret Hideout means you are not distracted. You're not rushing off to the market or fungus-jungle as you are in Voyageur. But then, maybe you just stop playing My Secret Hideout entirely.)

So, Out There is the text game in which I bother reading the text. That makes it my favorite game, right?

Nope nope. Let me talk about pacing.

The pacing of FTL is great. It's got lots of moving parts, so of course you can argue about the tuning of this bit or that bit. But you've got the right combination of challenge and stuff to strive for.

When you start your FTL game, you've got an underpowered ship with wimpy weapons, but you're fighting a stream of even wimpier ships. If you are careful, you'll beat them. Of course I'm not talking about your first game; you've got a learning curve. But once you know the mechanics, you win fights and collect money and resources.

The question is how much damage you avoid taking. The less damage you take, the more money you can save for weapons upgrades. Money means you can improve your ship. The opportunities to improve your ship are randomized; you might not find a store that sells that sweet cloaking device, but you'll find a store that sells something. Or if not, you can at least blow the money on better shields. (Like I said, a lot of moving parts.)

Naturally, the enemies get tougher as you move through the game. If you're below the difficulty curve, something eventually kills you. If you stay above the curve, you run into the Rebel Flagship at the end, which is a sharp uptick in the curve and probably kills you -- that's why it's the boss. It takes many runs through the game to finally win, but that's fine, because it's a fun challenge from start to finish. Even fighting the early "easy" ships, you can't slack; you have to win with minimum damage to save on repair bills.

So FTL is fun to play and replay. This is not news; it's a classic.

The pacing of Out There is very different. You start in an underpowered ship with wimpy engines. (No weapons, it's not a fighting game.) But the universe is already tough. If you can't gather enough fuel, you run out of fuel and die. If you can't find oxygen often enough, you run out of oxygen and die. Your ship is constantly breaking down, so you need metal and other elements to repair it, or else -- you know.

As you go, you discover plans for better technologies: improved FTL drives, sensors, and so on. But this is not fun, because you can't use them! You haven't found the exotic elements needed to build that tech. Hunting exotics takes fuel and oxygen you can't spare. Or if you do, the elements take up cargo space that you could be using to carry reserve fuel and oxygen. Or if by a stroke of mad luck you have both the plans and the necessary elements, then building the device also takes up cargo space -- same result.

As far as I can tell, the only way to play Out There is to keep restarting and dying until you find an alien ship with more cargo space. (There are a fair number of abandoned ships in the galaxy, but hunting them requires improved sensor tech, which you can't afford to build -- see above. So you just have to stumble across one.)

Once you have a larger ship, you can hold onto enough resources that tech upgrades become a strategy rather than an empty promise. At that point you're "really" playing the game. But you're still spending most of your time making inventory-juggling decisions. And not even strategic decisions like "keep this hafnium for a better FTL drive, or gold for a better telescope?" No, it's usually boring decisions like "Did I remember to feed my hydrogen to the drive before I scooped new hydrogen?"

(Because if you forget to feed the drive, then you have no free cargo space to store the new hydrogen, and you've wasted a scoop action. Wasting a scoop action can mean the difference between survival and death. That's the kind of game this is.)

I have enjoyed the lucky play-throughs of Out There, but the unlucky majority involve skating down the bare edge of survival, juggling inventory, until you die.

So, now, Voyageur.

My first Voyageur run felt very bare-edge-of-survival. I was short on money, but I bought some goods and hauled them to the next star for a small profit. Then I did it again. Then pirates caught me and stole my cargo; I was nearly wiped out. But I got lucky! A university paid me for my travel notes, so I was able to buy more cargo. Then -- pirates caught me again. I was broke, I ran out of fuel, and that was it for that game.

(This was the first release of Voyageur. The 1.1.1 patch added a gambling option if you run out of fuel and money, so you have a chance to move on. But it's still possible to "die".)

So, after one game, I decided Voyageur was another Out There. Nice text, a lot of potential, but fundamentally frustrating.

But was that really true? Second game: I hauled enough goods to have a decent money reserve. I discovered that there are a lot of random opportunities to make a bit of cash as you fly. The university thing was just one of them. There are more in some parts of the galaxy than in others, but if you keep flying you can expect to keep finding them.

It turns out that my first session was very bad luck. Most games, you'll quickly collect enough money to ensure survival. (Pirates may steal one shipment, but most runs are successful; cargo-hauling is strongly net-positive.)

In fact, I rapidly ran into the opposite problem: I had so much money that there was nothing left to spend it on! Cargo-hauling became pointless. I was just jumping from planet to planet, taking in the sights. It didn't take long to try all the common ad-hoc event opportunities. And then there was nothing left to do.

Now, this too was something of a mistake. There are long-term goals in Voyageur. Some even require enough money that you have to start caring about income again. The problem is, you can't really work at these long-term goals. They all derive from events that pop up on random planets; and you have to find a lot of them. You can skew the odds by targeting particular kinds of planets, but it still feels like progress is being dribbled out by a random number generator.

Thus, the typical Voyageur run-through is a whole lot of planet-hopping, mostly at random, with no danger or challenge. Ignoring all the nice generated text along the way. Eventually you have enough stuff to trigger an ending. There is a nice variety of endings available, but reaching them all is tedious.

Okay, that is a lot of design whingeing. How do I put these ideas together? What is my perfect text-RPG-in-spaaaace?

...I retract that last question. (Because if I had an answer, I'd be writing it.) Instead, I want to think about the games that Out There and Voyageur could be.

(We take for granted that FTL is already the best FTL.)

Out There just needs less inventory juggling. Honestly, if it just let you park your hydrogen outside the ship for a minute while you fed the engines and juggled the cargo, that would make the game 50% less annoying.

It'd be even better if the cargo system were smarter. Maybe have separate storage for bulk elements (hydrogen, oxygen, iron), exotic elements (hafnium, platinum, gold) and ship systems (technologies). Yes, the current system is brutally simple and I admire that. But having all these resources compete for space is a problem.

You'd still need to do some tuning to ensure that tech upgrades were always visible on the horizon. Something in hand, something better to work for. Make that the bread and butter of the game, with resource-mining as the low-level time-management task and the scripted encounters as the icing on the cake. That would work out great. (Except that I have just been sent to metaphor hell.)

Voyageur is tougher. It's built on the Fallen London engine, and with much of the same design sensibility. But it doesn't have FL's long ladder of "farm X, trade X for Y, trade Y for Z, ...." Market goods are just money; special items are either money (at the right dealer) or a component of one of the endings. You never get medium-term goals.

I feel like Voyageur has the beginning and ending of the game I want, but no middle. Obviously that's a design judgement; you could just as well say that I'm calling for grind for the sake of grind. But... I think I want grind for the sake of showing off the game's charms. I want intermediate trades that depend on the details of the planet. I want to trawl the markets for unique items relevant to my mission.

One possible way to extend the game: add crew actions. Currently, you can collect crew members who aid you, but they're mostly reactive. You get travel bonuses or better combat outcomes. Sometimes a crew member gets cranky, and then you can get negative outcomes. But you never have an option to "go out for a drink with the engineer", or whatever.

It would be neat if there were a slew of such options -- on the crew page, which is out of the way and doesn't invite lawnmowering. Say these options are always available, but usually uninteresting. (Again, not worth lawnmowering on every planet.) But your engineer is particularly fond of dance clubs on high-tech desert worlds. So if you're on such a world, and you notice phat beats coming from a nearby alley, you can go to the crew page and select that option. You'd either be advancing personal goals (shipboard romance) or intermediate stages in long-term plot threads (scouring a particular junkyard for unique items).

The point, obviously, is to add some "middle" and give the player a reason to keep an eye on the planet texts. (Remember the moons in FTL?)

To be clear, this is just my take on the game. I know the author has his own development plans. This blog post says that "more midgame content and more things to do with your money" are in train. We're all on the same page; I'm just spinning ideas about how to do it.

My conclusion, after all those words, is that I appreciate good text but I demand good game mechanics. Maybe that's a surprise. I think of good text as hard, but then I think of good mechanics as hard too. (Just a programmer at heart, me.)

The broad genre of "fly spaceship, find things" is a long-time favorite of mine. I played Sundog on the Apple 2 as a kid. However, most of these games wind up relying on combat models which don't catch my interest. (FTL got lucky with me, or I got lucky with it.) I keep an eye out for the story-oriented ones, which is how I came across Out There. Are there others?

Actually, speaking of Sundog -- there was a textual sci-fi story game a couple years back called Sun Dogs. I remember it as being under-populated, but take a look if Voyageur interested you.

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