The Designer's Notebook: A Perfect Short Game
September 15, 2004
What does it mean to say that a game is "perfect"? We often assume that perfection means that whatever we're talking about is better than anything else, that all other things of its kind are inferior. And in that case, it's risky to describe anything as perfect, because other people will probably disagree on grounds of personal taste if nothing else. If they like something else better, they'll say the game cannot be perfect, because if it were, they would like it. Perfection, in common parlance, includes being universally approved of.
But I want to discuss a perfect game using a slightly different interpretation of the word. The first definition of "perfect" in my American Heritage Dictionary is, "Lacking nothing essential to the whole; complete of its nature or kind." Definition four is, "Completely suited to a particular purpose or situation." Under those terms, I think that Tetris is a perfect twitch game, for reasons that should be pretty obvious: you can neither add, nor take away, anything from Tetris' gameplay without disturbing its elegant simplicity -- even if there are other games you would prefer to play. But it's not Tetris that I want to discuss in this column.
I've been a juror for the Independent Games Festival a couple of times now, and having looked at a heck of a lot of small games, there's only one that I continue to play. Among the finalists in the 2003 IGF was a short-duration space exploration and combat game called Strange Adventures in Infinite Space.
Strange Adventures in Infinite Space (hereafter SAIS) is made by Digital Eel, a group that consists of only three people: Iikka Keränen, of Quake level fame; Rich Carlson, formerly of Looking Glass and Ion Storm; and Bill "Phosphorous" Sears, a "real media" artist with a longstanding interest in games. Since it came out, SAIS has earned a devoted cult following and a number of accolades. There's now a small but active mod community as well, and Digital Eel claims that it's working on a sequel. The game has also been ported to the Mac, Palm, and Pocket PC. You can download a demo or buy a copy -- for only $15! -- at http://digital-eel.com/sais/.
A view of the ship-to-ship combat in SAIS.
One thing to note is that SAIS doesn't depend on high technology for its appeal. It only requires a 350 MHz Pentium 2 and DirectX 6. The graphics are intentionally retro: low-resolution and 256-color. It's a 2D game, and -- like Lemmings or Tetris -- would not be improved by making it 3D. The audio, too, is 8-bit mono. None of this hurts it a bit. SAIS is a tour-de-force not of the programmer's craft, but of the game designer's.
The object of Strange Adventures in Infinite Space is to explore a region of space and collect useful items along the way, by flying from star to star in a spaceship. This idea is hardly new, of course; but what sets the game apart is the imagination and elegance with which it is realized. From start to finish, the entire game takes about 10 or 15 minutes. Every time you play, the types and locations of the things you find are randomized, so each experience is different. What's more, there's a lot more stuff in the game than you can find in any one playing, so even after having played it a couple of dozen times, there's still a good chance of discovering something new.
When you finally return home with your cargo, you get a point score for the value of the stuff that you've picked up. You must accomplish your mission within ten game years or pay a whopping penalty for being late. Traveling takes time, and is made trickier by the fact that some regions of space are filled with nebulae that slow your spacecraft down. As you go, you are treated to vivid descriptions of the places you're visiting, as well as a wide variety of beautiful, mysterious, funny, or dangerous random events.
It's not all exploration by any means, however. Some star systems are already in the possession of aliens, most of them fairly hostile. Whenever you visit a star system in which your sensors detect alien spacecraft, you have the choice to stay and find out who they are, or run away. Sometimes they turn out to be aggressive and you have to fight; at others, they want to trade with you or even sign up as mercenaries to help you out. When you get into a fight, the game switches to its other gameplay mode, and combat takes place between the ships. I'll describe that in more detail later on.
The things that you find on a planet fall into three categories: artifacts, life forms, and upgrades to your starship's systems. You can exchange these for other things with your friendly neighborhood traders, and thereby improve your ship's speed and combat capabilities. Another nice little detail is that you get a (reduced) point score even if you die, so you don't feel your time was wasted.
SAIS includes a couple of Twinkie Denial Conditions, but, remarkably, they don't harm it. There's no way to save the game, for example, but because it's so short, it doesn't really matter. You also have to learn things by trial-and-error, something that I normally hate. Fortunately, making a mistake rarely kills you. Is an Ion Impulsor Thruster faster than a Fusion Tube Thruster? The only way to find out is to try it and see -- which seems reasonable, given that both are unknown objects you discover along the way. This is part of what gives the game its replayability.
(The Pocket PC version of the game, alas, contains two more Twinkie Denial Conditions that are completely unacceptable. One, it speeds up on faster PDAs to the point that it's unplayable, and two, it includes a random event that will kill you instantly and without warning. Why anybody thought this would improve the game, I can't imagine. I should add that the Pocket PC version was not done by Digital Eel, but a different company.)
Being divided into two gameplay modes, exploration and combat, the game's challenges naturally break down along those lines as well. In exploration mode, the primary challenge is the Traveling Salesman Problem -- figure out how to visit every star in the minimum amount of time -- compounded by the fact that there are nebulae and black holes in the way, and you may need to avoid inhabited systems until your ship is strong enough to fight with.
In combat mode, the challenge is simply to survive and defeat your enemies, although you have the option of running away if you're getting beaten up too badly (provided that your maneuvering thrusters are faster than the enemy's!). The combat user interface is a model of elegant simplicity. Your weapons auto-aim and auto-fire whenever there's an enemy in range, and you don't have to worry about running out of energy or ammunition. All you have to do is steer your ship and those of your allies if you have any. Point to where you want to go, or who you want to attack, and click. It's that easy. You can set the speed at which combat takes place, and even pause it while you plan your tactics. The graphics and sounds for this mode, while distinctly arcade-like, are suitably frenzied and cacophonous when you get about 10 different ships involved.
Another excellent thing about SAIS is that the difficulty level is settable in both modes. At the beginning of the game you can choose star maps with larger or smaller nebulae, changing the difficulty of exploration, and you can choose to encounter larger or smaller numbers of enemies, which changes the difficulty of combat. These decisions require only a moment, but they offer the player great flexibility
The sounds in the game are delightful -- again, for their creativity, not their technology. Rich, evocative, and obviously chosen with care, the noises made by all the weapons, starship engines, sensor arrays, aliens, and mysterious artifacts are a perfect match for their associated object. My particular favorites are the space whales, vast gentle beings that bring good luck and make a deep, sonorous call.
Because SAIS is randomized every time you play it, obviously it doesn't have a conventional storyline. What it does have, however, is a game world that gives you tantalizing glimpses of a story that might once have happened there. Every time you find an artifact, you get a little information about its background, and these details seem to be, if not coherent, certainly related. Who is Eledra, and why did Lord Fomax want to assassinate her? How could Prince Arcturus still be called "young" if he was at least 105 years old? (The behavior of the Melodium Conograph yields a clue.)
The game is also full of amusing references and homages to other science fiction. Among the items you can find are the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and an A.E. van Vogt novel first published in 1934. Now, only a couple of columns ago I railed against games that deliberately break your suspension of disbelief by referring to real-world things in the game-world story; but you don't suspend disbelief while playing SAIS. Instead, you take what comes, whether it's funny, imaginative, picturesque, or just plain strange.
And strange it is. The game is well-named. Here's the description of a plasma worm, one of the many types of alien life-forms you can pick up along the way:
A weird energy creature native to starship systems and core temporal logic circuitry. A plasma worm eats troublesome stray probability eidolons and is classed as a very helpful temporal parasite.
This peculiar thing is useless, as far as I can tell -- unlike some other items it doesn't change the gameplay -- but it's amusingly odd. SAIS is full of intentionally goofy bits of quasi-technical terminology, rather like Dr. Who. And just to add to the fun, Plasmaworm is the name of Digital Eel's first-ever game.
So why do I think Strange Adventures in Infinite Space is perfect? First, because it's so easy to play. No keyboard commands to learn; it's all done with the mouse. Second, SAIS offers incredible replayability and, at $15, is the best value for money of anything I've seen in years. The graphics and sounds are charmingly retro while still being ideal for its purpose. The gameplay is beautifully balanced, and with its combination of planning and tactics, it has its roots all the way back in Super Star Trek, the BASIC game that us old-timers grew up on. At the same time, it's exciting: you get a real white-knuckle ride when you show up at a new star system and find yourself badly outnumbered by a flotilla of Garthan bullyboys. The writing is clever, funny, and bizarrely original. Best of all, it doesn't require a huge investment of time, and it rewards you quickly and ungrudgingly. (With so many games, it takes 15 minutes to install them, then half an hour to set your options and see the introduction, then 15 minutes of tutorial, and another half an hour or so before anything really interesting starts to happen. By that time, you could have played SAIS five or six times in a row.)
A star map of Sector Prime, AKA the "Purple Void". This 7.5 parsec area includes black holes, novae, star flares, nebulae, and various knick-knacks.
What qualities does SAIS exemplify that we can learn from? Here are a few:
Interface design and play balance are the twin gods of short-duration gameplay. When you don't have a high-end graphics card and a multimillion-dollar art budget to impress the players with, you have to do it with raw playability. That means a user interface that does exactly what the player expects it to, and a perfectly balanced game.
It rewards observation. Although SAIS may seem like a straightforward shoot-'em-up in combat mode, if you pay attention, you'll discover that different alien races have different tactics, and their spaceships have different vulnerabilities. Over time, you can learn to exploit these qualities. This is another feature that extends its replayability.
Variety is the spice of life. SAIS offers loads of starship systems, aliens, and mysterious artifacts to enjoy. But you don't have to play through hours and hours of rather dull material in order to encounter something new; you're encountering new things all the time. And when you've seen it all, you can download a free mod and see a lot more.
We don't need numbers to have fun. Despite offering many types of weapons and engines, SAIS avoids the confusing muddle of numbers that characterize most RPGs and a good many strategy games too. Instead, you get a visceral understanding of your gear through experimentation. It doesn't take very long watching a Particle Vortex Cannon in action to see why it's a highly prized item. About the only numbers in the game are the distances between the stars, and your final score at the end. Even the trading process is managed without them.
Text is funnier than pictures. This was one of the great strengths of the old adventure games, both graphical and text-based: they were genuinely funny. How many modern 3D games make you laugh out loud? They can't; they're too busy rendering polygons. SAIS eschews fancy graphics in favor of highly amusing descriptions. I still don't know quite what a Fuzzy Lummox looks like… but I smile every time I catch one.
It seems to me that SAIS is a perfect example of Trip Hawkins' old maxim: simple, hot, and deep. Simple because it's easy to learn and play. Hot because it's exciting. Deep because there's always more to discover. Strange Adventures in Infinite Space is not genre-busting and it's not groundbreaking technologically. Rather, it takes a very old idea and breathes new life into it through great creativity and flawless gameplay.
My hat is off to the guys at Digital Eel. They've created a perfect short game.