Starbound

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4 years 5 months
Submitted by SuperSayu on Mon, 04/25/2016 - 01:11

Can we talk briefly about Starbound? At press time, the 1.0 update hasn't come out yet, and the news I'm reacting to is around a month old, but I just... can't stop being really stupidly upset by the blog blurb, in part because it seems to confirm something I've feared for a while: the Starbound team has no writers worth writing home about.

I... I know I'm overanalyzing. I know what I'm about to say is stupid assumptions based on literally four sentences. The problem is, I have this fear that Starbound is never going to double down on the basic mechanical premise of the game: that you are building a home in the galaxy, and taking responsibility for that home that you have built, what it is, what it could become.

Fundamentally, that gameplay still exists, because that's what the mechanics of the game give you. You build a base, whether on your ship or on a planet. You go mining and exploring to get stuff to build your base, the building stuff gets you better stuff, the better stuff lets you do more.

Here is the four sentence nonsense that I am responding to:

You are a Protector in training. The protectors belong to the Terrene Protectorate. An organisation formed on earth by humanity to protect and guide the universe towards peace. The story begins on earth, on your graduation day and quickly has you hurtling out into the stars.

... okay, let me level with you. I have my own idea about what the story of Starbound "should" be, and I will probably not be happy with almost anything else, because I am an idiot, and I am not gonna defend myself on that. So that having been accepted and set aside for a moment, let me say a couple things about these four sentences. I won't even nitpick the just awful writing of the four sentences themselves, everyone has days where you can't easily put what you want into words. But every sentence in the paragraph is stupid, individually and as a pack.

I mean, you are a fresh-out-of-school "Protector" from the "Terrene Protectorate" formed to "guide the universe" and you are headed "into the stars"?

... I am trying to write through the newfound headache that this concept is causing me. It's not going well.

There are three enormous, huge, gargantuan notes of hubris in this statement. First and most obvious, the idea that humanity--any race, even gods--can guide an entire universe is indicative of a complete failure to grasp the scale of the universe. Right there next to it is the idea that you are being sent out with no particular destination; mechanically, having no particular destination is a necessary conceit if you are doing this fool's errand on purpose, because mechanically, the entire universe looks the same to the player, at least before the 1.0 patch; I have no idea what it will look like afterwards. You can do whatever you are doing from literally anywhere.

The third note of hubris is the idea that whoever had the bright idea to "guide the universe" by sending people off with no particular agenda seems by context to be sending some poor shmuck out alone immediately after graduating whatever the hell their Protector program is. The whole point of the Protector program is that the universe is not peaceful, so of course the best idea is one barely-trained idiot, right?

I mean, I don't know what the campaign will turn out to be. There are all sorts of really amazing things they COULD do that would also, incidentally, be fulfilled by those four sentences. But when you are summarizing a story, you tend to hit the high points. The most generous interpretation of the concept is that the rest of the story follows swiftly afterwards... but...

The story consists of 8 instanced missions that take the player from overrun mining facilities to ancient temples and sunken libraries. To unlock missions you’ll be given quests which utilize many different aspects of the Starbound sandbox to send you searching for clues. Clues can be found in many different ways, from visiting towns and talking to the locals, exploring dangerous dungeons, to building colonies and completing quests. Our goal is to reward however you like to play.

All of these missions (excluding the intro) end in a unique boss fight and meeting new friends that aid in the expansion of the outpost, which is now upgraded as you progress.

"Instanced missions" in this context, if you are curious, means that they are not part of the sandbox, and in fact if the current version of the game is any guide, you can't use any of your sandbox tools there, only weapons. So to summarize, in this sandbox game, you go to a series of out-of-the-sandbox places to beat up random enemies (murder: guiding the universe towards peace since the big bang, thank you Protectorate) so that some new friends (this seems to confirm the idea that they sent you alone, no mention of old friends, you know, from home) can improve their out-of-the-sandbox outpost?

At the start I said that what I had hoped for from Starbound was that they would "double down on the basic mechanical premise." In context, that means that whatever the hell you do, it's part of the world or worlds that you are a shepherd for; maybe bosses that are attacking your home or friendly colonies, or a battle fleet has wandered in and you engage in ship-to-ship combat with them. You know, the idea is that the world changes based on what you do. That's the point of a sandbox: it's made of sand. You can make a sand castle, but if you put it in the wrong place, some day the tides will roll in and wipe it out. If a bully comes by, it only takes a swing of the foot to scatter all your hard work back to the beach.

In my estimation the idea of setting up a story where you're supposed to matter (like being trained to guide the entire fucking universe by some idiots who apparently are keen to throw your life away) is antithetical to the basic premise of a galactic sandbox. A good sandbox game can turn a nobody into a king, but when you are essentially saying "You will go from a prince to a king"--from a student Protector to, well, I guess you could just say a lower-case-p protector?--then you have hobbled the story tremendously. There is no arc, you just stumbled and got back on your feet.

I think it would have been far better to just have left the protagonist a no-name, an unneeded wanderer, maybe even a criminal, who becomes important through their actions. Or doesn't become important; again, sandbox. If your job is to be a Protector and you go dicking off to make a giant farm, aren't you a failure at the job you were trained for? But if you are a space-hobo with a derelict ship who makes the biggest damn farm anyone's ever seen, that's impressive, even if you don't actually save the universe from whatever. "Reward however you like to play" my ass.

I have written elsewhere about what I think Starbound ought to be--not on this blog, I don't think, and I will come back to that another time. But for now, it is late, and my thoughts are scattered. The point is, I feel like I am going to be disappointed, and it is all about the leadership, the writing and direction of the game. The mechanics of it are fun, the programming seems solid, and they do a lot of interesting things, but the direction is just not right.