Tripping The Dark Fantastic.

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Escape Velocity and Escape Velocity Nova
Space-faring game 1996/2002 both developed by Ambrosia Software


In the mornings, early before school, I used to creep downstairs and turn on my parent’s old Apple Mac. It was an ugly old thing of a 1996 vintage, a time when a nicotine shade of cream screamed of the heights of computer technology . After it had run through its five minute boot up sequence I would click through to my object—Escape Velocity. There has never been a game that has taken me away to another place so completely as Escape Velocity. It presented a world of possibility, an almost endless expanse of black space in which to project my imagination. I had no elite, I was born too late for that, and Free-Space passed me by, but Escape Velocity was there to fill the void.

I wonder sometimes if there is some special effect that space-faring games, especially those with an open structure, have on a young mind. It seems to me that that space of infinite freedom and possibility is perfectly calibrated to take an overactive imagination and have it fill those voids to the brim with adventure. In this piece I should like to tell you a little about Escape Velocity, to explore why it was so important to me and to explain why it can no longer hold my interest.

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Escape Velocity is a very simple game. It is a top down, 2D, space-trading and exploration game. The game begins with the player as the proud owner of a brand spanking new shuttlecraft. The shuttlecraft is possibly the worst spaceship in the history of videogame spaceships. It is not fast, nor is it maneuverable. It cannot take a punch and lord knows it cannot give one out either. It is the definition of a sitting duck, and it is all one has to start off with.

Alone, friendless and stuck with a map full of blank spaces, the game asks you to climb the ladder towards something resembling success. One starts on the way by shutting passengers here and there, picking contracts up at different planets. This is a natural way to start exploring the universe, darting hither and thither through unknown spaces on route to planets one has never heard of before.

Entering a new system is always a gamble, especially in one’s tinny little shuttle. There is a radar screen on the UI, but without any special upgrades, all it shows is the position of stellar bodies and ships in the system. Without a full star map most jumps to a new system are blind. It might be a peaceful core system, or a system on the lawless fringes full of pirates, or worse, a system totally devoid of all life. There are chains of such systems in Escape Velocity. They are empty, visited only by those who are passing through and often frequented by weird creatures or other dangerous sorts. These are desert roads, and they can be traps for travelers who do not know them, or who are unprepared for the challenges that they bring. Run out of fuel here and one is left either to slowly accrue fuel via one’s solar panels or ram scoops (if one has thought to buy any). Either that or beg for the mercy of strangers.

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For the longest time one pads tentatively through the star speckled darkness, fearing the dread klaxon sound of a hostile ship locking weapons on one’s fragile shuttle. Upgrades cost hard currency, and investing in upgrades for the, objectively terrible, shuttle puts one  at intolerable distance from the dream of owning something with actual weapons and shields.

Passing square one, ferrying enough passengers and minor cargo around to actually be able to afford a new ship takes a while. However, it does mean that the first real ship that one buys is almost always a complete revelation. It is a shame to see the beat up old shuttle disappear, but the feeling of slipping into a ship that is actually worth a damn is fantastic. The first ship I bought was a “clipper” a dapper little blue and white ship which comes equipped with rocket pods and some proton guns. From then on out, I murdered every pirate I could feasibly defeat.

Fights in these lower tier of ship are short and brutal affairs. Locking on and flying hell for leather at the enemy, unleashing whatever fearsome armory one has accrued, while attempting to dodge the barrage coming from the other direction. Small ships can generally carry quite a few guns, but lack the shields and armor to be able to take in what they give out. The capacity to do great violence to one’s enemies is completely liberating when it first becomes a possibility.

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The objective is rarely to actually destroy the enemy ship—flaming wreckage contains nothing of interest. Instead, the best thing to do with pirates is to beat the ever loving hell out of them until their ship is floating helpless in space. At this point they can be boarded and relieved of any cargo, fuel and credits.

Through these inaugural, brutal, journeys EV slowly lulls the player into comfort with its universe and central mechanical conceits. One never feels quite a part of that universe, it is too mechanical and obviously randomized. It ticks away quietly like a clock in the background, its motions providing a sense of place. One gets a sense of who the factions are by noticing which ships are firing at each other (and which ships are liable to fire at one’s own little boat). As time passes, one’s small ship gives way to something of a medium size and little by little you trick out your succession of starships into a fearsome battlecrusier.

The Escape Velocity games never really give any guidance on where to go or what to do. They plop the player down in the middle of a carefully constructed universe and ask that one makes one’s own way around. In almost every system, in the original Escape Velocity at least, there is a planet or two with a punny or referential name. Most of these sailed right over the top of my head when I was younger. A couple of lines of flavor text and a single image represent these places when one lands. When I was younger I found these planets incredibly enigmatic and atmospheric places. I would concoct stories about the kind of people who lived there, what they did and ate.

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Of course, a man cannot live on flavor text alone and there are real stories to follow in Escape Velocity. They start, as most good stories do, in the pub. Every planet has a spaceport bar where the player can go to gamble, hire escort pilots and drink. In these spaceport bars there is a small chance that the player will trigger an event which will set them along a quest line.

These can be simple and somewhat pedestrian. For instance one might come across some scientists who want to be ferried out to some dangerous part of space, one might get involved in a bar fight and make friends with some dark stranger or one might meet a bounty hunter who needs some or other pirate dead. However, there is also the possibility of getting sucked into something much more interesting. In the original Escape Velocity there were two main “factions”, the Rebels and the Federation.  Every once in a while, stopped in a spaceport bar one would come across a shady sort in a corner. This shady sort would ask you to run some cargo for them. Take the cargo to the defined place, take one’s payment and one might get asked back to do it again. It slowly becomes clear that what one is ferrying is something of vital importance to Rebel or Confederate spies.

These quests are lightly described. Often all one has to go on is the few panels of text which introduce the mission and the description of the quest in the logbook. However, as the missions go on and start becoming more interesting than simply ferrying cargo hither and thither, they really get the hooks in to the imagination. This is especially so in Escape Velocity Nova, where there are not just two different factions, but around eight all told. Each of these factions not only has a series of missions and some signature ships, and technologies available only through their quest lines. All of these interactions are communicated by text only, and they are all the better for it.

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The game lets the player’s imagination fill the gaps in how the world is presented. The benefit of prose, as a medium, is that it draws almost entirely on the reader’s own imagination. Consequently the reader can imagine events in a way which aligns with their own aesthetic preferences. Contrast this with something like the X series’ godawful voice acting and cut scenes. Deep Silver’s attempt to breathe life into X2’s storyline via cutscenes killed the game’s story stone dead for me, taking a world of magisterial vastness and reducing it to a ridiculous 3D puppet show. It must be said that the story beats in EV rarely rise above the level of standard sci-fi schlock. Most revolve around one of the factions coming to realize that the player is the most special of all snowflakes and is therefore the possessor of some or other “great destiny”. However, these simple stories feel like so much more because they are not communicated in a way that their corniness is on screen for all to see. They are a private show, just for the player.

EV’s storylines feel like a succession of secrets being unfolded to a diligent player willing to look in dark corners; they are a reward, not something shoved in one’s face. They are also easily ignored without missing out on a huge portion of the game. However one climbs the ladder, with or without the leg-up that the quest lines provide, one will eventually reach a wonderful plateau where the game really comes alive.

There will be a time where one has a ship that one knows, equipped with all the toys that one really enjoys playing with. This ship will be the first which really gives one a sense of ownership, and flying it makes one feel like an avenging spirit loosed upon the universe. One knows the systems now, how ships fly and how to defeat them. The void welcomes one in, and the game suddenly unfolds its possibilities.

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At least it does for a while, or I used to find that it did. Far sooner than one thinks, the quest lines end. Usually by the end of the quest line, whatever ship one currently possesses is entirely bedecked with all manner of powerful upgrades. There is no force in the game that can possibly harm one anymore. After a, usually short, final battle mission there is no more. The player is left to their own devices in a world which no longer cares. The random machinery of pointless violence churns on but no more quest lines can be stared after one of the main ones has been completed. All the dark corners of spaceport bars which used to be pregnant with possibility and adventure now lie deserted. There is nothing more to buy, and no real point in selling anything.
When I was young the universe and its stochastic background noise was enough. I would fly from planet to planet in my bird of prey, destroying anyone foolish enough to get in my way. I used to be able to fill in the vast blank spaces with my own imagination, weaving my own stories as I went. I would explore and see what the edges of the universe had to offer in the way of secrets and stories. I would ponder the oddities of faraway planets and battle pirates in deep space. I didn’t need any greater goal leaning over my shoulder and pointing out where to go next, because I would make my own. However, I have seen those things now. I have visited that country and I can no longer return.

Escape Velocity will always have a place in my heart. I know now however, after trying to go back, it has a place there because it is a part of my childhood not part of my future. I get the same warm feelings playing it now as I used to, but they sit disconnected from the action onscreen. I wanted to go back to the time when I was happiest. when I could dream of strange worlds and enter into them without worrying about things like questions of characterization or theme. The resurgence of space games in recent years suggests to me that I am not the only one who wants to explore a universe in the way I used to. With them come endless arguments about what is the best new space-faring sim. What permeates all of these discussions, in my experience, is a sense of something lost and empty. A feeling that there used to be games which filled space to the brim with possibility. Do Elite Dangerous or No Man’s Sky feel empty because they are, or do they feel that way because those of us in the core audience have lost the imagination that used to fire up these places? The empty vistas of space were never that full or alive. We made them because we could dream about them in a way that we cannot do now, because we are trying to re-live a past that is gone. Those warm memories which accompany the loading screen come crowding in from a distant time, not experiences forged anew.

Perhaps it is unfair to say that we have lost the capacity to dream. Perhaps the problem is that we simply know how everything works now. I have a couple of much older friends who are really into pen and paper roleplaying games. The games they play are the same games that they played when they were kids, but now of course they play them with different people. The experience never seems to satisfy them. There is always some problem with the way we young people play, or some adventure from years ago where the series of gameplay events happened, but better and bigger. The games they play have almost the exact same mechanics of the games they have always played. Almost nothing ever happens which has not happened a million times before. Their games have forced them to become disjointed in time. They are not exploring a set of new and novel places, they are re-treading a well mapped landscape. That landscape is full of memories for them but its monuments are already named and its history is carved in stone. They cannot forget all of the things that they have done, and they cannot see those vistas anew again.

They, and I, must move on, and map out some other new place.


Tripping The Dark Fantastic.

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