PCPP Interview: Ice Caves of Europa
Ice Caves of Europa is out now on Steam, and we have a chat to the game’s local creator - CONOR O’KANE - about the inspirations, and challenges, of being a politically-minded indie developer in Australia.
PCPP: In a time when there’s a vocal minority that calls for politics to be left out of games, Ice Caves of Europa seems to put them front and center – why do you think that’s important?
Conor: If games are to be taken seriously as a mature medium, there needs to be games that are more than just entertainment. Game design is just like any other creative pursuit such as writing, painting, or directing. In film for example, there’s room for actionpacked summer blockbusters with little plot but lots of explosions, as well as thoughtful ‘indie’ films that deal with important or difficult topics. The same should be true of games - however, game designers often come under pressure to not make their games controversial or political.
One source of this pressure is from publishers. Even when a game is clearly dealing with a political issue (such as Far Cry 5’s attempt to show the impact of Christian gun-hoarding cults in rural America) the publisher will typically steer the game away from depicting real-world events or groups, and insist that it is not an attempt to convey any one political point of view. A publisher’s aim is to make money, so it is not in the publisher’s interest to release a game that depicts a section of the population as evil or hypocritical if they want that very same group to buy their game.
Another group strongly resistant to political messages in games are the group known as Gamergate. The idea that games
can be enjoyed and made by anyone is, for some reason, horrifying to them. Their tactic of harassing anyone who produces games with protagonists that aren’t straight white males, or who even questions the current state of minority representation in games, clearly shows their underlying motives.
One of the scientists in Ice Caves of Europa is an Indian woman who wears a sari, because I found this scene of Indian scientists celebrating their 2014 Mars mission so striking: www.bbc.com/news/world-asia
india-29357472. This completely breaks the stereotype of what a scientist looks like, which I think is important, because it allows anyone playing the game to realise “I could be a scientist too”, even if they don’t conform to society’s expectations of what scientists look like.
So, with this game I wanted to explore issues society will face as new technologies emerge. I think the real power of science-fiction is to take questions we’re facing now, or about to face in the near future, and examine the consequences of possible decisions we might make.
As an example, Verne - the artificial intelligence sent to explore Europa in the game - objects to having his memories overwritten. The humans who created him still treat him like their property or software, despite him being self-aware. It’s easy to think objectively about a question when you transfer it into a science fiction setting: should the robot be given human rights if he’s self-aware - yes that sounds reasonable, particularly if he’s asking for those rights. But people rarely stop to consider such questions in everyday life: should an animal such as a gorilla, who is clearly self-aware and can communicate, be given rights? Should a refugee arriving in your country have the same rights as a citizen? Is a society where women have fewer rights than men something we should tolerate? Any situation where a sentient robot had fewer rights than a human would seem obviously unfair to most people, but many people are quite content to see real humans suffer and have their rights removed because those humans are a different race, nationality or gender.
The industry is well supported with a variety of grants available from Creative Victoria and Film Victoria
in your game – what are some of the exact inspirations for Ice Caves? And what inspires you about them?
Much of what we know about Europa is due to the Galileo spacecraft, which NASA launched in 1989. The data it collected provided evidence for the liquid ocean beneath the surface of Europa and it took many stunning photographs of the fractured surface. However, two new missions - Europa Clipper and the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer - are set to launch in the 2020s and unlike Galileo, which was mainly tasked with studying Jupiter, these missions will focus on Europa and the other moons. They will have much higher-resolution cameras capable of discerning small details on the surface and it may even be possible for them to fly through plumes of liquid water erupting from the surface of Europa and thus take a sample of the ocean below.
One of the most inspiring planetary exploration missions, for me, has to be the Mars Curiosity Rover. Its photographs of the surface of Mars show it to be a fascinating, dynamic place with an amazing mixture of ancient geological features like volcanoes and rivervalleys, but also modern erosion and weather effects. When you have a human-scale rover wandering around the surface of another world, it seems much more real and personal than a satellite photograph. It makes that world feel like a place we could really visit ourselves one day.
Ice Caves of Europa features a mission that lands on Europa shortly after a comet impact cracks open the crust, allowing it to explore beneath the surface. A lander mission to Europa isn’t practical with current technology (or budgets), but part of the appeal of a video game is doing things you couldn’t do in real life. I ask every Australian indie dev this one, but what are some of the unique challenges of being an indie dev in Australia, and how do you overcome them?
Actually I find Australia to be a great location to be an indie dev, and Melbourne in particular. There’s a thriving community of developers who meet up regularly to compare their work and get feedback. The industry is well supported with a variety of grants available from Creative Victoria and Film Victoria, and while there aren’t as many large studios as there were ten years ago, there is a huge proliferation of smaller studios doing mobile, VR and indie development. The high cost of living and high salaries (compared to outsourcing work - which is very common in game development) make running a studio in Australia expensive, but I think the pool of talented graduates and industry experts makes up for that.
Thanks for your time! If you want to check out Ice Caves of Europa for yourself, you can read our review on page 46, and find it on the Steam store.
WHO CONOR O’KANE WHERE IO NORMAL WHY ICE CAVES OF EUROPA Real science and hardware informs a lot of the technology