Narrative in 0.96 aka Movie Night With David

I’d like to take a moment to talk about the development of narratives in the last update, and maybe in the game in general. I should note: this is a process post, not a lore-dump. So this is about how I went about coming up with these ideas and implementing them, not what Baikal Daud’s favorite flavor of ice cream is. More on anti-lore later. But yeah, I’m dying to talk about all of this but I have to play it fairly close to my chest to avoid spoiling what we’ve got in mind for the long game.

Two things first.

1. As anyone who’s written creative fiction knows, it’s terrifying to work on something for over a year and then show it off to who-knows how many thousands of people all at once. Especially in a field you’re not really ‘proven’ in (though, uh, arguably this feeling was far more pronounced with the introduction of the Galatia missions. There, yes, I was legitimately freaking out a bit. This time, much more confident and comfortable.

… Nonetheless, not everyone is going to like what you do. But I’ve been in games for, what, almost 15 years? And shipped at least one trainwreck. C’est la Vie! Regardless: You’ve all been very kind.

2. And: I know you guys want narrative payoff for the hanging plot threads at the end of Galatia, for the Gates, and now for the fate of the Church and Askonia. And I want to give them to you! But we have to do it when we have the mechanics in place to do it right. I know that sucks to hear, but I think playing the long-game will pay off. (- I think the narrative slow-burn that eg. Andor did was really, really smart because the payoff was fantastic. I have no idea how Disney executives approved that show and let them get away with what they did.)

Oh yeah, this is going to have spoilers for v0.96 story missions. You’ve been warned!

Passage to Volturn

Yes, this is an easter egg. Disney, don’t read this.

Will it tie into anything else? Maybe a little, I dunno. It’s important to leave yourself narrative opportunities that can be picked up later, or not. You can see this in lots of good serialized media, whether games or TV. (Is Andy Serkis coming back to Andor? He could, or could not. They left themselves an opportunity; very smart. At its worst, however, this teasing turns into plots that are all hook and no payoff; they end up feeling like there was no plan at all. Like, oh, Lost? And any number of JJ Abrams productions; ahem.)

Jethro, the Knight Errant

This mission wasn’t in the plan. I had intended to just introduce the character of Jethro at the end of the Shrines mission and leave him be as someone connected to Jaspis.

But then I had An Idea inspired by a movie which I won’t name (because it’d be a spoiler for where I think he could end up)(and.. isn’t even really in the content of the mission at all, except for some vibes. So don’t bother guessing). Right, so: I had to pivot the character introduction into its own whole mission sequence. At first, it was just “go to Chalcedon and pick up Jethro”. But then I had another idea inspired by another movie.

Run the clip: Lawrence of Arabia meets Sherif Ali

(Man, a whole minute of watching a camel walk toward the scene! Build-up! What a great movie.)

This is totally where I got the vibes of Sedge’s introduction. I mean, Omar Sharif’s character is actually nothing like Sedge, but it’s all in that first impression he makes on Lawrence – and the viewer.

Moving along, there’s a pretty obvious set-up with Jaspis to do something like with Baird in the “I need a hammer” dialog. When I was writing that, originally, it was the player character who was to be the “hammer”. But then I was like no, that sucks. We already did this exact same thing with Baird and we have enough old ladies bossing the player around while telling them they’re important for changing the course of history blah blah blah.

I cannot express enough how much I loathe power fantasies played straight. They’re so boring; they suck; you can get that tripe from any stupid game. So: Jaspis doesn’t think you’re The One at all – she thinks it’s Jethro. Except he doesn’t agree!

‘Course it all makes a lot more sense if he gets to do something cool after all of this setup, and we’re not there yet, are we. And maybe it doesn’t happen – it’s a plot thread, where it ends could be different from what I intended a year ago; and I should be open to the player radically affecting that outcome. (Because now that there are a bunch of different missions in the game, they don’t have to play as ‘safe’ as Galatia did – it should be possible to lock yourself out of opportunities by making decisions which change the course of a character – and the fate of the Sector.

You can just straight-up murder Sedge. This was me being like, well, why not? Let’s show the player we’re willing to cut a narrative thread once in a while. (This can get very expensive in terms of development time if you have to plot out a situation like “what if the player shoots Baird – but still wants the Gates mission to happen?” – like, yeah, something plausible could be concocted, but it’s a ton of work that is, besides, retreading old narrative ground. Would it be good for the game? Maybe not.)

… And I mean, we’re still doing the power fantasy. But pretending not to? At least?)

One more comment: it was observed to me that the Luddic Church is medieval. That is, as an institution, it fills in a lot more space in its society than we are used to thinking about for a/the Church in our contemporary societies. This made a lot of it click, for me. (And makes it quite clear that I’m halfway to writing a medieval-fantasy adventure when we’re in the realm of the Church; it’s a fun mood to hit with care and deliberation within the space of, well, a space scifi game.)


Alex left a TODO for me while I was working on Shrines, and I didn’t really process it and just said something to the effect of “Yeah, yeah, leave some notes in the Rules file and I’ll fill in the text when I have time”. Then – lots of time later – I’d wrapped up Shrines and Usurpers and was feeling very good about myself. I thought I’d just knock out the rest of my TODO list real quick and actually looked at what I needed to do and discovered just how deep this content went.

Ohhh noooo, this is an actual whole story? ALEX!!!

Anyway, it’s fine. I’m fine. How are you?

There was a first take with Sentinel that was like three paragraphs and no choices, no unique art or characters. I recall Alex saying “this feels underbaked?”. So I said, “Alright Mosolov, if that’s how you want to play, I’m going to make this WEIRD.

So I did. And even then, I had to hold myself back because you could write a whole novel about Sentinel and not be finished. (And why, I ask myself, should it be so compelling? I think it’s due to all the build-up and investment we’ve done in laying out the setting background. What does the Hegemony mean, what did the XIVth mean, what does AI mean, and the AI Wars, and how do the stories people tell themselves change over time? And what happens when isolated threads of self-told stories from the same source run into each other?

Not that we got too deep into that, but the potential is there; and it makes me excited to poke at those possibilities. (Lots of plot hooks!)

The Usurpers

The whole setting of Askonia is the first thing I wrote when Alex asked me to take on some writing duties for Starsector in, IIRC, 2014. My notes date back to then, at least, and the broad strokes haven’t changed a bit. The three “usurpers” didn’t exist as named characters, but the broad factions/themes they represented in a conflict over the fate of the Diktat did exist. I thought the mix of historical allegories was pretty obvious, though I tried to mix them up a bit. I’m not going to talk about that here.

Andrada: I realized pretty early on that he can’t be a character in this game (and players arguing over how much of a genius he is or isn’t makes this all the more clear to me). His character is more interesting as an idea that lives in everyone elses’ head rather than a character on his own. His whole point is the legend built up around him, and how he, then other people, use it to their own advantage.

With that thought in mind, let me offer a perspective: have you ever been in a toxic work environment with variously insane managers/executives who are under tons of pressure? Just extend those dynamics a bit and that’s all you need to get this story.

Similarly, have you ever witnessed someone who is very good at their job – or considered good at their job – massively mess up doing that job? It sure happens all the time, and happens throughout history, and I think examining the dynamics that surround massive failure and its fallout are absolutely fascinating.


Now what you’ve really wanted me to talk about is probably Dolos Macario, right?

The core inspiration will probably be really obvious once you know it, but first: I wanted this character to be an absolute scumbag; totally evil, untrustworthy, a villain. He’s running the fascist secret police, he’s a bad dude. At the same time, it isn’t fun to write that. It can get really brutal and grimdark, and while I think that’s artistically legitimate, it’s not where I want to put my headspace while writing for this game.

(And heck, maybe the character shouldn’t be fun. I worry about this.)

At the risk of invoking a piece of media that Did It Better, here’s Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds.

(And what an amazing scene; describe it on paper and it seems so simple, but it is so tense and every shot so intentional. Brilliant work; Christoph Waltz has irresistible charisma.)

— Anyway, Macario isn’t Landa, but I wanted the sense of a weird, evil guy who is having fun in his weird, evil job.

(And with apologies, I did base his portrait in part on George Orwell for a sense of totalitarian irony.)

Kanta & Cydonia

Speaking of evil, Kanta and Cydonia are fun to write. Not particularly political, just off-the-wall over-the-top space opera inhumanity. What whacky hijinks will they get up to next? It could be basically anything!

(And come to think of it, I think these two characters are pretty much lifted wholesale out of Alastair Reynolds’ novel Absolution Gap. Read the starting bit with Queen Jasmina and Grelier and a touch of Quaiche, and that’s basically them; oops. Major props to Reynolds for how he writes weird doctor characters; I swear, every book he does, there’s going to be a weird doctor. We love his weird doctors.)

Come to think of it even more, the medieval church scifi setting vibes probably owe quite a bit to this novel as well (to say nothing of Hyperion et al). Say what you will about the plot making sense in the grand scheme of things; who cares, the weird vibes are off-the-charts.

To bring this all back around, it feels like giving the Church and Diktat a bit more depth worked out pretty well, and we’ve got a bunch more interesting characters to play with. I’m happy with that. (I know the League needs some love, but we’ll get there when we get there.)

Both Alex and I are eager to bring some… explosive? … conclusions to the various narrative threads we’ve been building up over the years and we’re going to work very hard to make sure they hit like a Hammer when they hit.

Comment thread here.

(PS. Didn’t have a place for it in the post, but I’d totally cast Shohreh Aghdashloo aka Chrisjen Avasarala in The Expanse as Baird.)

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