Space Exploration: Serpens Sector - Notes on an eventual resurrection

David Stark / Zarkonnen
7 Feb 2017, 9:40 a.m.

I've been ill over the last few days, probably as an inevitable consequence of doing so many events in January. So I've been playing a fair amount of Sunless Sea, a great game if you're ill, because it's quite soothing in a "dark sea filled with monsters" kind of way.

And as always when I play Sunless Sea, my thoughts turn back to Space Exploration: Serpens Sector, my old game project that got backburnered hard when Airships: Conquer the Skies took off. The two games are in the same "go from port to port in your ship and do stuff" genre, after all.

Now you might think that when I say that SE:SS is on the back-burner, that's really me being unwilling to say that the project is dead. It's true that its most recent implementation attempt - the second one - is dead. But the ideas don't just go away, after all. For example, my next major project which I have occasionally hinted at, the one with the flying saucers, first got started more than 15 years ago, when I made a first attempt at writing it in REALbasic on my antediluvian Mac.

Playing Sunless Sea has given me a number of ideas for fixing problems that long plagued the design of SE:SS. Not necessarily in the sense of copying it directly, but in that playing more games in a genre can give you better perspectives.

One major pain point in SE:SS has always been fuel management. Technically, you should make sure to have enough fuel to return home to base at the end. But this is in direct contradiction to the player's desire to explore one more place, and another, and another. Players would near-inevitably strand themselves far from home, getting a bad ending despite all their exploits.

This is closely linked to the other major pain point: players wanted the game to go on for much longer. SE:SS started out as a clone of the original Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, which let you explore space in your coffee break. But it quickly piled on complexity, characters, storylines. Forcing the player to go home, out of fuel, with half the map still unexplored, made them desperately unhappy.

The solution? Don't do that then. Instead of aiming for 10-30 minute playthroughs, aim for 10-30 hours, like Sunless Sea. Instead of being tight with fuel, be liberal, or even abolish it entirely.

But wait. What about Sunless Skies? Isn't that "Sunless Sea in Space", taking up the place where SE:SS would conceivably slot in?

Not really. I mean, I'm very much looking forward to Sunless Skies, and had to stop myself from backing its Kickstarter at the highest, "help us design the content", tier. But they would still be quite different games, both in terms of theme and mechanics.

Sunless Skies is a Weird Victorian adventure set in what other settings have called the Aether, infused with the lore-heavy writing of the setting, focused on storytelling but relatively unconcerned with game mechanics. Its topics are in the grand tradition of weird British alternate worlds. As Failbetter state: "Our influences include: the science fiction of H G Wells and C S Lewis, the planetary romances of Leigh Brackett, Art Nouveau, Event Horizon, trains."

SE:SS is - would be - more about early space opera and classic SF. Where a particular storyline in Sunless Skies might make you feel like you're reading something by Neil Gaiman, an encounter in SE:SS would feel more like one of the good episodes in original Star Trek, the ones where the ship or crew are in peril and the characters must wrestle with their own beliefs and fears to resolve the situation.

In particular, there are three ways in which I think the design of SE:SS can outshine Failbetter Games' offering. This is not to say that SE:SS would be strictly better, or more complex, but that it has a different focus.

  1. Crew Interaction For all of its focus on writing compelling characters, Sunless Sea weirdly misses out on having them interact with each other, or offer comment. Your ship is full of weird, unusual people, yet they never talk to each other or have an opinion on your actions. In SE:SS, your crew's personalities and beliefs are very important. They may agree or disagree with your actions, sometimes strongly. They argue with each other, offer suggestions and pleas. They can develop in multiple directions depending on your handling of them.
  2. Peril Events This is the name I've just made up for the kind of event in a game based on text-based choices where you are in a particular worsening situation that needs to be resolved. Maybe your ship is being attacked by robot spiders. Maybe time is running out to find a cure for a strange virus. Maybe the next murder will happen on a Sunday night, as always, and there are so many possible avenues of investigation. As the event unfolds, you are given multiple options to make progress, some higher-risk than others. This kind of game-within-a-game is very enjoyable if done right, and Sunless Sea does it a little bit, but there's so much more that can be done in this space.
  3. Recombination The big downside of story-driven games is that once you've played them, you've seen them. You know what choices to take to get the outcomes you want, and you know from the first line of a text how the rest of the story will go. But if a story, an encounter, can be assembled out of multiple fragments, the recombinations keep things fresh. This can be as simple as having multiple stories that start the same way to keep the reader guessing. Is there a warning buoy orbiting this planet because it's actually dangerous, or to keep out looters? Is this alien tomb harmless or full of monsters? It can also be as complex as assembling a scenario out of parts. A shipwreck: what kind of ship, what did it carry, why was it wrecked? A colony: who lives there, what is their secret, what peril are they in?

It's these ideas, which I continue to poke at, which make SE:SS a back-burner project rather than a truly dead one. So, one day, years from now? We will see.