Writing Starsector

The next update will add strong narrative RPG elements to Starsector, among other things.

I feel no small amount of trepidation because this is both a change and it is a particular story about particular characters in a way the pure sandbox certainly isn’t. This necessarily constrains your – the player’s – experience of the game-fantasy and the meta-game fantasy of an “unfinished game” which has the potential to become everyone’s dreams in a free-floating quantum state… until you see it for real and it turns out it isn’t quite what you dreamed.

I suppose this seems like an awfully negative way to start off; this is what I mean about trepidation. And I am legitimately excited about sharing more of the world of Starsector, letting players dive in a bit closer and get a feel for what it’s like for people that live in this world. Find out what they think, find out a bit more about why movers and shakers move like they do. If I may say so, I think we’ve done some pretty good work!

The written wordcount has already exceeded the minimum definition for a novel (50k) a few times over by now. I’ve attempted Nanowrimo a few times in the past and always choked almost instantly. My experience writing Starsector has been a stark contrast – the words just flow! It seems so obvious, most of the time, what comes next, what feels right to be said. I suspect part of it is the constraint of the medium focusing creativity, but it may also perhaps be the very clear connection to an audience (that’s y’all out there!). A novel feels a bit like a bunch of words floating out  in (ha) space. A game, however, has a player. They must actively engage and progress. I know a player is committed in a way a reader isn’t. (Which probably isn’t at all true; people read books, after all. I’ve even read one or two in my day.)

Whatever it is, maybe I can’t rationalize it. But something works here for me in a way that hasn’t elsewhere. I’ll take it.

Let’s get to the nuts and bolts of this.

We’ve had to deal with certain constraints and design problems while adding written content to Starsector. Some of these are faced by all games which use writing, some are particular to the context of Starsector. I am not going to talk about any specific narrative beats or plot details, but I will talk about how the narrative is structured, so from a certain point of view one could derive meta-spoilers from this blog post. I think the most pure and magical way to experience Starsector would be with no foreknowledge of any of this, so I’ll give you fair warning now: if you don’t want to know anything, stop reading.

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A True and Accurate History of the Persean Sector

Rise and shine, sleeper.

So you’ve just been hauled out of cryosleep, your quiet journey through space interrupted after a couple hundred cycles drifting along to a Better Place.

Sorry, and welcome to the Persean Sector! You’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

It may seem like a bit of a mess, but you should count your lucky stars: you haven’t been carved up for spare parts by some pirate! On a related note, you are going to need credits to put toward interest on the Recovery Installment Plan which has already been attached to your genecode, so let’s introduce the thought that you may indeed wish to sell a kidney, most of your liver, or a surprising amount of skin with very little harm to normal biological function – provided you pass the rad screening, of course. You don’t have to answer now, we’ll give you a bit to think it over.

In the meantime, we’ve prepared a little primer to help catch you up on what’s been going on in the local volume. Your eye movements will trigger text navigation so you don’t have to move your variably atrophied limbs – hope you didn’t go with the cheap model cryotank! Sit back, and please pay attention. We have good statistics which demonstrate that a steady grounding in the present historical context helps cryo-recovered subjects re-integrate with society in 78.3% of cases.

hulk

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Building Better Worlds

No, not terraforming; world-building! You know, like writing and content implementation.

In the upcoming Starsector 0.8x patch we’ve added at least one* new faction and expanded the number of hand-scripted star systems in the Sector by a significant though not quite finalized number. Alex has of course obliquely described how he has expanded the number of procedurally generated star systems from zero in the currently available build to potentially a whole bunch in the upcoming patch. This does much to embiggen the world of Starsector! My part in this has focused mostly on the hand-scripted Core Worlds, the centers of human civilization, industry, and conflict within the volume of the Persean Sector.

I’ll talk a bit about the creative process as well as design considerations that go into creating this content. We’ll cover some old star systems, some new star systems, the Persean League just a tiny bit, and whatever tangents that come up.

(*Hedging how I word this because the truth of the matter is a touch complex.)

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A Starsector Reading List

As you might imagine, I’ve been busy cooking up some new star systems and worlds to visit in Starsector.

Which brings to mind that for some time now I’ve wanted to share a few of the science fiction novels I feel relate to how I approach the world of Starsector creatively. Reviewing my list of novels, I find some common themes: dark settings where terrible things happen (or have happened); they are often about distinct factions with differing philosophies coming into conflict; they’re set in “used” worlds filled with ruins, ancient and often misunderstood technology, scratches and dents and rust and rubble and history. And of course they’re space operas with the battles and pew-pew lasers and that lot. Just like Starsector! Such is what I aspire to, at least. Let’s begin!

starsector_art3

(The art, by the way, is just some stuff I’m working on for Starsector, nothing to do with the books.)

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Ships & Stories

When I was first drawing up spaceships for Starsector we determined what to make based mostly on what felt right according to the conceit of idealized WW2-era naval combat in space. Obviously we needed a big battleship (the Onslaught), cheap swarming fighters (the Talon), a nimble frigate (the Wolf), and a giant carrier (the Astral), etc. The roles and variations of ships pretty much suggest themselves, and the form follows their function. If it’s a battleship, it should look like its tough and packs a heck of a punch. I’ve certainly drawn a few ships without a hard plan upfront but even then I’m always thinking about what kind of role the ship in question is going to play in the game.

It’s just the way I work: Form necessarily reflects function, to my mind. The visual logic of a game should have internal consistency whether it has much relation to real-life realism or not, but it can at least point to real-life aesthetic references for the feeling or idea, if not actual function. So if you sit back and consider what a battleship would really look like in space, it’d probably look like nothing because the display scale would make it a dot that says “Space Battleship” next to it, or as soon as combat began it’d be immediately destroyed by lasers or relativistic kill vehicles or something because it’s a big dumb target — but all hope is not lost! Our game sprite can make visual reference to a 20th century naval warship because my goal is to convey the feeling of battleship to people who have been trained to believe that a battleship looks a certain way, not to create a hyper-realistic near-future space combat simulation. (More on this in the “Ship Design & The Onslaught” post from back in 2010.)

Right, so this is how development of Starsector’s ships has progressed and the big gaps in fleet lineup have been largely filled in. Again, this process largely took place without need for any kind of overarching plan, though occasionally Alex would say “hey, we need a frigate that does this“, or we might talk it over and try something experimental in terms of gameplay. Some experiments worked, some were modified a bit from what was first imagined– phase ships for example — and others never really took off at all, eg. munition ships. But that said, the large part of fleet combat roles is fleshed out; Now is a matter more of filling in small gaps that exist, diversifying existing roles to support the game’s setting and ‘landscape of player progression’. Still, the experiments are lots of fun! (More on this with the Monitor.)

Now I’m taking on more of a role in writing setting & backstory for Starsector. When drawing a ship I’ll think not only of the gameplay function but of the narrative role it fulfills; The possibilities are absolutely fascinating! A simple sprite can, given appropriate text, suggest an awful lot about the universe it exists within and it can draw connections to other ships, factions, places, history, and all of that to emotional responses from the player as they decide how they feel about the ships, factions, and places in the universe of Starsector. Each piece becomes something far greater than the sum of its parts when this all operates together (and I love this part of game development).

Okay, that’s enough rambling: I’ll show off some new ships, discuss their envisioned role in gameplay (which we recognize, dear players, is not necessarily how you’re going to use them), then a bit about how their backstory fits together with the rest of Starsector.

 

Cerberus

superhoundThis one is easy: Everyone loves the Hound so why not build a bigger Hound? And that about explains everything you need to know. (The working title for sprite was, naturally, “superhound.psd”. )

As for drawing, I’ve been tending toward more curved plating and slightly subtler shading. I’m trying to get away from having too much “greeble noise” covering ships so that the overall form doesn’t devolve into so much pixel noise, and so it gets more of a chance to make itself seen. This should result in a ship that’s more visibly identifiable at a glance and it ought to look better when scaled down or zoomed out rather than drawn at pixel-perfect resolution, as is often the case for ships in Starsector. You can still see the Hound parts used as a base for the image, however ( … and man is it ever just a brick of a ship!)

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