Space Haven

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4 years 6 months
Submitted by SuperSayu on Fri, 03/22/2019 - 11:47

I've taken the step of backing another space sandbox--it seems I just can't help myself--but from the first I saw of the project I've had reservations. I can't properly judge until release, and can't even give preliminary feedback until I play it, which won't happen for a good month, but I wanted to talk about why I feel immediately cautious about their pitch.

I suppose the easiest way to start is with a thousand-foot view of my interpretation of game design. I would categorize games into two basic categories, ones that exist only to test or prove a set of game mechanics (such as for example Pong, Tetris, Pac-Man, etc), and ones that make use of game mechanics to deliver some other payload (typically story). Granted there is some middle ground in a case where a game that could have only been mechanical moves more towards the story side, such as Terraria; in that game you are a survivalist with no story hooks, but there is enough theming and characterization of the world that you can't really say it's all mechanical. For my purposes here, I think you can generally nudge any game onto one side of the fence or the other, and please understand it is not a value judgement, just a gross characterization.

Categorically, you can put almost any sandbox into the first category, and almost any RPG into the latter. Open-world RPGs and survivalist RPGs, both of which sort of blend the two, will be on one side or the other depending on whether the payload that they're delivering is the point, or whether they seem to be focusing on the mechanical play aspects of the project. The fact that these category of games cannot be categorized as a genre is actually kind of a sticking point, and it's kind of why I don't like the pitch for Space Haven. There are games which promise a payload but focus on the mechanics, and games which promise mechanics but spend more work on the payload.

In the case of Space Haven, I think it's pretty clearly a "Category 1" game--mechanics over payload. But the pitch includes a lot of things that sound "payload-y" like "Deep Characterization" and "Characters aren't robots" and "Missions" and "Factions". Many of these things are describing mechanics in a way that makes them sound like they game is going to deliver story, when a more careful review of the pitch suggests that isn't even on their radar. They intend to add content, but a story would guide the experience, and would create a requirement for emotional state that a sandbox game generally doesn't provide.

"Emotional state" is a term I use in my perpetually-upcoming essay on Starbound, and my use of it here requires a brief explanation. If "game state" is the data in your savefile that tells you where you are in terms of inventory, game progress, and so on, "emotional state" is game data that describes what you've accomplished that meaningfully changes the world. For instance, the pitch for Space Haven describes you having a relationship level with factions across space. That is, at least on the face of it, emotional state; however, the question of whether or not it's meaningful comes down to how much impact that has on the state of the game universe. In, for example, the game Space Pirates and Zombies (SPaZ), in any given star system you might have positive or negative relationships with the two warring human factions, "UTA" and "Civilian", and that influences whether you can buy from shops and so on... but if you choose to become a homicidal maniac and kill ships on one side or the other, it doesn't affect the game on a larger level. The plot doesn't really change if you are a pacifist or a killer, or side with one side or the other. Your own emotions impact your decisions, but the game does not amplify nor consider your emotions. It is, categorically, a sandbox with narrative elements.

Adding emotional state requires that the game have and use leverage against the player. Generally, this requires that you be given something which can be taken from you. In a role-playing game like Elder Scrolls this is common: fail a quest and an NPC might die, and some specific reward that is either unique, rare, or significantly above your normal progression level will be lost. Even if you don't know what the reward is, the now dead NPC continues to be a thing that the game notices and brings to your attention as gameplay progresses.

"The game notices" is a good summary of how you distinguish genuine emotional state from emergent emotional state. According to the pitch, Space Haven intends to rely on emergent gameplay to provide an emotional backbone to the game. So, for instance, if you don't take proper care of your NPCs, they will be unhappy, and if you do take care of them, they will instead be pleased. However, the feedback loop on "NPC is happy" tends to be very small. While they are happy, there are positive effects; while they are unhappy, there are negative effects. This often becomes less a mechanic that punishes you for bad gameplay and more one that tries to keep you occupied doing "the right thing". Procedurally generated games don't tend to have long-term effects unless they are strictly mechanical. The game may have consequences for your bad behavior, but it doesn't notice.

Perhaps the best litmus test would be whether or not you can kill some arbitrarily chosen character with impunity. If everyone is replaceable, effectively there is no payload. And that's okay; again, the point of this argument is not that games must be payload over mechanics. But I have played a lot of procedurally generated games where the clear intent was to create a game where mechanical consequences become emotional state, and I have listened to people who can create that emotional state themselves, who can find narrative in a game like (famously difficult tactical game series) X-Com. If characters can be named, and can still die, that is not an emotional payload. It certainly isn't a narrative payload, which would require specific writing and scripting for the characters that die. Until the game itself knows what it did to upset you, and becomes centered around delivering something to you, it remains a mechanical game and not a payload game.

There is more I could say, but it would diverge further from the topic. I can think of other instances where games attempt to add a payload and fail, such as the Civilization series and their focus on Great People and Wonders of the World, neither of which actually get more than an instant in the spotlight and then an ongoing mechanical bonus. The point of all of this is not that games must deliver payloads, but that oftentimes they market themselves as doing so, or put in mechanics that are clearly hoping to deliver a payload... and then fail. Space Haven raises a flag with me on that. Maybe I'll turn out to be mistaken, and maybe the devs would argue on some of my points. But having played a bunch of procedural games, I suppose I'm just itching for someone to actually combine that with a solid, meaningful campaign, one that provides something else alongside the core mechanics, such that you care about people and the universe. And, unfortunately, it doesn't immediately look like they are up to that at the moment.

I will probably come back and comment more after I get to actually play it.