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

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