...And all the men and women merely players.
A blog about the state of gaming and technology

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Gaming Made Me - Starflight

This is an article in the vein of Rock, Paper, Shotgun's "Gaming Made Me" series, in which famous journalists and developers talk about the games that had formative influences on them as young players. The game that sticks most in my memory is Starflight, from Binary Systems.

When I was a young teenager, my uncle gave me the most important present of my life. His law office was upgrading their PCs, and he shipped me an old 286/33 that had been replaced.  Previous to this, all my interactions with computers had been Apples or Macs at school, or the shared family Mac Plus (also a generous gift from my uncle).

Suddenly, computing wasn’t moving a mouse around and the occasional terrifying bomb icon - it was a prompt with a blinking cursor: C:\>  And most importantly, it was all mine. I could do whatever I wanted, presuming I figured out how. I could install my own software. I could - and did - ruin important system files, and somehow figure out how to restore them.  With just a smattering of knowledge, a vast gulf opened between me and everyone else I knew - suddenly, I “knew computers”. With my arcane incantations and my knowledge of artifacts and words of power, I had entered the priesthood of the Computer People.

But of course messing around with DOS could only entertain me so far - one reason I was sure PCs were superior to Macs (a much-discussed topic at that time in my life) was that then, as now, the gaming ecosystem for PCs was wild and wonderful, much more interesting than the few tepid options for the Mac.

I purchased two games at roughly the same time - I don’t remember if it was actually the same day, but let’s say it was. They are so intertwined in my PC gaming experience, and in the effect they had upon my sensibilities as a gamer and a developer was profound, and very much related.  At the time, however, I’m sure I chose those two games partly based on the box art, but also largely because they had the all-important “Hercules Graphics Supported” text. Being a PC gamer then, as now, was about being acutely aware of your system specs and the particular capabilities of your graphics hardware.  One of these games was Ultima VI, and the other was Starflight.

StarFlight started the player out as a little black-and-orange man with a too-big helmet, walking around a doughnut-shaped space station.  Here you could, apparently, buy and sell things, hire crew, and launch your ship into the deep black (and orange) of space.  And doing that was like stepping into Powers of Ten - there was your ship in a star system, with several planets to land on. Each of them was a fully-realized world, upon which your ship could set down anywhere and begin exploring and exploiting.  If you pointed your ship out beyond the final planet in the system, though, you found yourself in a galaxy of hundreds of stars, each with up to ten planets orbiting it, and each of those with continents and seas, mountains and minerals, and sometimes ruins or alien life.  The vast scale of this place was staggering - even more so when one realized it fit on two 5.25” floppy disks.

A universe that size meant one could never hope to explore it all, and yet it begged to be explored. Aside from the ship upgrades tantalizing the player in the space station, there was no motivation given to your little spaceman other than the call of this wild west of space.  By putting these vast numbers of planets out there to be discovered, the developers had managed to create a compelling universe that felt really *real*. It was the opposite of the Star Wars Prequel effect, where a purportedly giant galaxy shrinks to contain only a few important planets, and those with only one or two actual locations each. This was massive; mostly unimportant planets that the player would never see and never care about, but whose presence gave the game world real heft.  And, you know, you could always land and mine some precious minerals or discover some ancient artifacts to fund your ongoing exploration.

Exploring the surface of the planets was my favorite activity. For this purpose the player had a little rover vehicle. The icon looked like some sort of weird seashell, but in this you would roam the land, collecting samples of minerals just lying about, or depending on the planet finding plant or animal life, or sometimes ruins.  There were two types of ruins: ancient and modern. Modern ruins might hold artifacts or “audio” logs (rendered in text, of course, no voice acting here!) while ancient ruins could contain the most precious resource of all, fuel for your spaceship.  However, you would soon discover that the rover seemed to run on a different sort of fuel - countless times I ran out of fuel when I went beyond my range, losing not only precious mineral cargo but also needing to purchase another rover vehicle from the station. Humiliating and expensive, this soon taught me to be careful with my roaming - but also that if I remembered the coordinates, I could land later and find a new ruin where my rover had been abandoned. Another amazing detail in this era of gaming - proof that the universe remembered your actions and that you could change this place, even if it were in a minor way.

Not all exploration ended well. In fact, the universe was a dangerous place - you had to be careful to check the mass of a planet you were about to land on, or you would be crushed while descending. This taught me scientific notation, at least - there was a big difference between a planet of size 1.67 * 10^24 and 1.35 * 10^27. Or, if you made it to the surface, your rover could suffer damaging weather, or the attacks of hostile animals. If you had to leave it, you could certainly die from either of these dangers.

And in the deep of space, if you found other aliens, your ship was equipped with weapons.... When combat started, the game changed to faster action, moving your ship around to dodge incoming fire while shooting off missiles and lasers of your own.  This was a tense affair, possibly resulting in the destruction of your craft, but also offering space debris for looting. The combat wasn’t very compelling to me, though. It wasn’t something that could be planned well, mostly a matter of hammering the space bar and mashing keys, and the risks seemed to far outweigh the rewards. No, the glory of discovering new worlds and meeting new species was all I wanted.

Eventually the player would discover certain clues, learning that the galaxy was undergoing some sort of disaster slowly destroying all life, and that the key to stopping it lay in chasing down some ancient alien artifacts. This wasn’t some alien coming on your viewscreen to drop plot points in your lap, however, this was a mystery that you discovered on your own, and a trail of breadcrumbs to follow that led you through the most dangerous parts of the galaxy, into space combat and tense negotiation with alien species. You chose the pace of your own investment in the story, although the terminator line of exploding star systems was always creeping closer and closer, so don’t waste too much time...

In order to follow the clues and decipher this strange new universe, I kept a little notebook, filled with near-indecipherable handwritten notes as to the locations of key planets and important ruins on them, notes about different alien races and negotiating strategies, and fragments of lore. Gradually from this I was able to build up a rough idea of the backstory of this universe and my quest in it.  Since I failed many times in the lead-up to this quest, and since there wasn’t such a thing as multiple save files, this notebook became my way of resuming progress. I had already figured out where the Flat Device was, or that the Thrynn detested the Elowan, and would attack if I had one as my communications officer.  Slowly I gathered the required data, until I was able to defeat the threat of the Crystal Planet and save this amazing galaxy.

As I learned much later, the only feasible way for the developers of Starflight to create such an enormous universe, not to mention fitting it on a single disk, was to use a technique called “procedural generation”.  Rather than creating all the vast maps for the galaxy and the planets by hand, they used a series of repeatable mathematical formulae to build the universe for the player and seed it with all the things one could discover.

This is a powerful technique, one that’s used to great effect by Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress to achieve the same thing: a vast, believable game world that’s would be impossible to create or support by traditional means.  I have been in love with procedural generation for a long time, and most of my personal projects explore it somehow.  I also happen to think that embracing  procedural generation in some form or another is the only way forward for the games industry as a whole, faced with the exponential explosion of costs in generating high-quality content - at least, if the industry wants to create big, exciting, living worlds.

And I think it’s the mystery of Starflight’s near-infinite galaxy that keeps me creating games, and keeps me playing them. I’m always searching for something that will give me that fleeting promise of an entire living universe to explore and learn in and slowly master. Even though the mainstream industry as a whole seems to have turned less towards mystery and the celebration of player stories, and more towards heavily-authored experience and their own badly-penned narrative, I still catch glimpses here and there of that vision.


Dennis Zeitz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dennis Zeitz said...

I hope someone will make a new starflight game, with updated graphics like Starcraft II. it would be cool see how much interest there is with a Kickstarter, or something.