Giving ground control to Major Tom
Survival games aren’t generally known for their sunny outlooks. Most have their moments of levity, of course, but the struggle to maintain existence in the face of fierce opposition – both natural and otherwise – is rarely a cheerful one. Astroneer, then, is something of an anomaly: it’s a game with a sense of boundless optimism that might seem unlikely in the circumstances it presents, and yet is wholly befitting of the pioneering spirit it espouses.
In truth, staying alive is not your chief concern on these procedurally generated planets. You have a job to do, after all. “You’re part of a group of explorers who are looking for rare and valuable resources,” Paul Pepera, of developer System Era, tells us. “Once you land, it’s up to you to start your base of operations and gather the basic [materials] that allow you to survive. Eventually you’ll be able to craft complex equipment, which will enable you to go even farther and get harder-to-find resources.” If the core gameplay loop is familiar, there’s a wildcard in the form of a large handheld device that gives your astronaut the power to deform terrain. The process is intuitive and satisfyingly tactile, with audio effects that sound less like a noisy excavator carving through chunks of rock, and more like an ASMR video of someone shifting around on a soft, yielding leather sofa. With gentle pops as objects are unearthed and the light crackle of surface grit tumbling into the hole, the process of digging is a remarkably pleasurable sensation. A good job, too, since you’ll be doing quite a bit of it.
For Pepera and fellow artist Adam Bromell, this mechanic emerged organically
from early art projects. After years producing complex and detailed designs for blockbusters including Assassin’s Creed Unity and Splinter
Cell: Blacklist, Bromell in particular had enjoyed the comparatively fast pace of iteration with low-poly 3D art. “I decided to do some space[-themed] stuff because I was really into space exploration,” he tells us. “I was inspired by what NASA was doing, and watching Chris Hadfield on the ISS.” He sent a mockup to Pepera, and the two began to bounce ideas off one another, falling in love with the fantasy of being an astronaut alone on a distant planet. The simple style made sense from a practical point of view, too. “It’s just been four of us for a while,” Pepera says, “so we wanted an art style that was achievable with a very small team. This polygonal, geometric look to the game is striking, but it also [lets] Adam and I quickly hammer out content for it, as opposed to something that’s more triple-A realistic.”
As he put together this early concept, Bromell found an unlikely inspiration in the very tools he was using to make the image. He’d been using 3D sculpting and painting tool Mudbox to create the terrain for the astronaut to stand on, when, as he puts it, “a lightbulb suddenly went off”. What if, he wondered, the player could interact with the gameworld in the same way he was doing? Even before the studio had an engine up and running, it had an engaging central hook.
So, yes, just as you can burrow beneath the surface of the planet, or even tunnel through hills and mountains, you can use your deformation hardware to build objects – from makeshift bridges spanning chasms to temporary walls around your base’s most vital equipment to protect it from sudden sand squalls. And if your rover vehicle should ever get stuck in a hole, it’s a simple process to fashion a ramp and drive out of trouble. The idea is to inject a little more creativity into problem solving, to give players a range of possibilities to tackle any given conundrum, but also to afford them the room to simply mess around. “It’s almost literally a sandbox!” Bromell laughs.
There are, of course, limitations to this power. As in any good survival game, careful resource management is essential. You’ll require a regular supply of energy for your deformation tool and for your vehicle, otherwise you risk getting stranded away from base. Dying isn’t quite the penalty it might be in other survival games, but you still have to face consequences for your mistakes. “Imagine you’ve gone on a two-night expedition and you’ve brought a rover with you that has enough power for those two days,” Bromell says. “If you’re in a cave spelunking, say, and you happen to die down there, then you’ve lost everything that was down there with you. But in terms of brutality, it’s more Minecraft than DayZ.”
For the game’s Early Access debut, at least, there will be a fourplayer co-operative mode, which should allow efficient teams to progress much quicker, assuming they can resist the temptation to keep sculpting rock phalluses. “Imagine you’re playing with a friend, and they’re deforming the terrain while you’re building a solar panel that will help power them so they can keep working,” Pepera explains, citing precisely the blend of ingenuity and strong teamwork with which this small team has carved out a beguiling and personable debut.
“I was inspired by what NASA was doing, and watching Chris Hadfield on the ISS”
Astroneer’s deformation tech is being refined all the time. Since the build System Era showed off at GDC, it now looks more chiselled and natural
Developer/ publisher System Era Format PC Origin US, Canada Release 2016
TOP There will be an upgrade tree, Pepera explains. “You’ll [unlock] more powerful deformation tools – you can slap one on the rover and drive around and deform at the same time.”
ABOVE Certain modules that use nuclear fission will have to be buried underground
Though plant life isn’t generally a cause for concern, Bromell suggests that the flora might not always be friendly should you disturb its habitat
A smart drag-and-drop interface lets you see what you’re carrying in your Astroneer’s pack at a glance, and allows you to access items quickly