Games For 2008: Space Siege

By Alec Meer on January 15th, 2008 at 7:01 pm.

SPACE CHUMS!

Gas Powered Games make mechanical games. Games where story and character are entirely secondary concerns to the underlying weights and balances: Supreme Commander and Dungeon Siege are creations of honed function, not form. These are games that do not understand this human thing you call ‘love.’

It’s a very deliberate methodology, and one to celebrate. It’s quite the rarity these days, a time of graphical plenty, wherein cheap-to-make in-engine cutscenes see so many games overwhelmed by their own self-indulgent, exposition-choked narratives. At least someone’s still aware that you’ve paid your money to play a game.

With Space Siege though, everything changes.

I suspect GPG are aware that, if they are to become a developer of legend, they do need to try their hand at complex, branching storytelling as well as at classical mechanics and interface design. And properly, as opposed to Supreme Commander’s perfunctory and tiresome talking-head mission briefings, or the fantasy saga archetypes draped so loosely around the Dungeon Siege games. Space Siege is the first time a GPG game isn’t just about you versus the machine (or a machine-like online opponent), but also about you versus your own conscience.

In including moral dilemmas and a fleshed-out, single central character, Space Siege is a bold, even risky departure for Chris Taylor and co, who until now have favoured games played out on a sometimes large and always impersonal stage. It’s a significant change in methodology: the tin man is about to get his heart. If Taylor’s big talk about this sci-fi RPG holds true, perhaps this could be GPG’s Bioshock – as in, the game that transforms a respected developer into a revered one.

In the event that it doesn’t, and this turns out to be just a reskinned Dungeon Siege, let’s just be thankful we’re getting a major RPG that isn’t, for once, spawned from any of the Bioware/Obisidian/Bethesda tri-loins. After all the speculation that Oblivion would lead to a roleplaying resurgence, last year ended up being miserably quiet on that front. Sure, a fair few people loved the Witcher and the Neverwinter Nights 2 addon, but both were largely preaching to the converted. A chummy, broadly accessible RPG like Space Siege could do this neglected genre a lot of favours.

SPACE SCORPIONS!

It’s hard not to see echoes of Bioshock’s effective marketing in the one truly meaty bit of information revealed about Space Siege so far. It’s the game’s central moral dilemma – whether your grizzled starship trooper character (named the rather less grizzled ‘Seth’) eases his passage through the game with cyborg upgrades, or if he remains resolutely human. There’s talk of losing humanity as you fit Borgian kit to him, thus cutting off certain game options. On the other hand, keeping the mods to a minimum will make the game significantly tougher. Sure, it lacks the raw shock factor of choosing to save or kill little girls, but it’s a similar decision – convenience versus Doing The Right Thing.

Or is it the right thing? There’ll be an as-yet-unspecified pay-off should you manage to remain entirely human, but we don’t know yet whether it’ll be an entirely positive turn of events. Perhaps it’ll incite some of the fury surrounding Bioshock’s controversially binary treatment of its key dilemma – I know I’ll be a bit miffed if I’m judged to somehow be inhuman or evil just ‘cos I fancied shooting lasers from my eyes.

As well as having a narrative with purpose, the large, semi-autonomous parties of Dungeon Siege are dropped in favour of focusing on one character (and his upgradeable robo-sidekick). This should mean one of DS’s key frustrations is lost – no more desperately trying to keep track of multiple inventories and abilities as loot drops in a bewildering, shiny torrent. Taylor’s pretty upfront about the ways Dungeon Siege went wrong, so it’ll be fascinating to discover how he thinks the formula can be improved upon, while still feeling like a Siege game. Though Space will be more tactical than the comparatively braindead wall of sustained violence seen in the Dungeons, Gas Powered are promising a game that’s equally accessible.

SPACE SETH!

And there’s not a trace of Tolkien to it. Between this and Fallout 3 (and, if you’re comfortable roping in a third man from consoleland, Mass Effect), there seems to be a quiet push to take the RPG away from its traditional environs of forests and elves and leather armour, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly twat space-goblins in the face. I try to remain objective and not unduly excited about this prospective shift (because god only knows there’s at least as much dodgy sci-fi as there is dodgy fantasy), but I really am very tired of forests and elves and leather armour. Hurrah for space, and all the weird-ass aliens and robots who sail in her.

That said, the screenshots released so far don’t bode well for a great-looking game. Generally I’d rather my space adventures were prettier than this, but that’s really not going to matter if the roleplaying and storytelling pays off. What kind of locations we’re going to see are anyone’s guess at the moment – hopefully we’ll be planet-hopping with wild abandon, and not stuck in the grim corridors of these screenshots. Narrow indoor walkways don’t really scream “space”, after all.

So is this a concerted attempt by GPG to restore some of the prestige eroded a little by the workmanlike Dungeon Siege 2 and the mainstream inaccessibility of Supreme Commander, or just a cheerfully pop game for pop’s sake? I’d say both. Regardless, between this and the super-exciting Demigod, 2008 could be the year Gas Powered Games go huge.

On the back of yesterday’s buyout of Big Huge Games by THQ, it’s worth noting that GPG are one of increasingly few long-standing, PC-centric studios to remain independent. In the last few years, they’ve put out games through Microsoft, 2K and THQ – three publishers infamous for absorbing successful devs into their monstrous bellies, and Space Siege publisher Sega has also demonstrated such tendencies. Somehow, Gas Powered still stand on their own feet. For an independent developer to be putting out two high profile and hugely varied games in such climes in pretty damned spectacular. It’s three games, if you include the upcoming second Supreme Commander expansion. Four, if you include the just-confirmed a likely-sounding Dungeon Siege 3. Blimey. Let’s hear it for the little guy.

For more HARD FACTS about Space Siege, here’s a show’n'tell from last week’s CES (cut cruelly into two halves):

Part the second:

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34 Comments »

  1. Flint says:

    I also love it how RPG games are stepping out of the fantasy square, but at the same time I would wish that a sci-fi setting wouldn’t necessarily mean dark corridors in space. Judging by these screens, that seems to be the Achilles heel of this game so far. Hopefully the entire game won’t be spent in dull gray corridors…

    Not really drooling over this, but it’s one of those “gotta check out at least the demo when one comes out” games.

  2. Phil says:

    This, for me, is game difficulty done right – by all means take the ‘ninja dog’ option to get to the end credits, just don’t be surprised if you become soulless monster in doing so.

    I’m not sure about Seth’s appearance though – looks a bit 2003.

  3. Chis says:

    Gas Powered Games make mechanical games. Games where story and character are entirely secondary concerns to the underlying weights and balances: Supreme Commander and Dungeon Siege are creations of honed function, not form. These are games that do not understand this human thing you call ‘love.’

    The sad thing is, there are very few commercial developers that do the opposite to this. (*Cries for Troika and Looking Glass Studios*)

  4. someone says:

    I don’t understand this mechanic. Why put a feature in a game and then try to encourage the player not to use it? Whats the point of that? Its doesn’t make the game any more fun and it doesn’t make the game next gen. It is just weird.

  5. ryan in exile says:

    hey where is the snarky gt italicized comment?

  6. fluffy bunny says:

    It’s cool that GPG are going to try self-publishing Demigod. I hope it goes well for them.

  7. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Is that an eerie Kieron clone in the bottom left in the first CES video, or the man himself?

    I’m pretty much lukewarm towards this game. I quite like the central hook, but there is precious little else that appeals to me thus far.

  8. I_still_love_Okami says:

    Could we please all refrain from using the N word? And by that I mean nextgen. It’s just a stupid and pointless marketing phrase coined by the evil people from console land!

  9. steve says:

    Dungeon Siege 3 isn’t confirmed. From that linked interview: “Dungeon Siege 3 is being talked about, nothing’s final.”

  10. chaedwards says:

    The Geneforge series of rpgs by Spiderweb Software already use a similar concept: you can use canisters of metal goo that rearrange your DNA and make you stronger and more skillful, but the goo affects you mentally as well, making you more aloof and less empathetic. Great games if you don’t mind primitive graphics.

  11. Arnulf says:

    Heh, the mule is now a robodog?

    Okay, I admit it, wasn’t funny. Actually I kind of liked Dungeon Siege. I played Diablo II/LoD longer and harder, but Dungeon Siege was kind of paid leave from D2.

    But I go with someone‘s comment here: why put something in and then declare, but if you don’t use it you’ll be better off in the end. Why talk about it upfront before the game is finished?

    I have an idea, I want to elaborate a bit on that… Let’s say a developer makes an MMO, let’s call it The City. You can be a trader, a scribe, be an honourable citizen, join a guild, engage in politics, or just craft stuff. You know like tanners, smithies, that kind of thing. And everything is advertized like this.

    Developer shows the usual stuff, screenshots of the venue, costumes, female and male versions of dignitaries (I looked that word up). You know it.

    But what nobody knows, the real game is under that surface. There is a kind of undercity. Not a place, but a meta-place in the game. You can be a thief, a cutpurse, an assassin, a spy in a foreign guild!

    Nobody talks about it, but it’s there. I wonder if this can be pulled off somehow. Beta tests and so on… must be really hard to manage. The tendencies for game developers today is to talk about the great features long before they release the games.

    Just a thought.

  12. darkripper says:

    I’m the only one spotting huge similarities with what we know of Too Human?

  13. unclebulgaria says:

    Flint> Actually, it would be nice to have a bright, open game instead. I got fairly bored with Ravenholm in HL2, mainly because I found the constant darkness fairly depressing. Took forever, doing about 20 minutes at a time.

    Something like Far Cry but without the corridors. Christ, it’s winter in the UK, why do I want to run around a dark corridor? Just Cause, there was a game!

  14. Jae Armstrong says:

    I don’t understand this mechanic. Why put a feature in a game and then try to encourage the player not to use it? Whats the point of that?

    Are you serious?

    Well, here’s an article on opportunity cost, a definition of choice and… actually, I can’t find a relevant article on game design.

    But, essentially, it adds more depth to the game in the form of more valid game states- valid as in non-suboptimal. Technically, while a drawback-less mechanic would also (if still optional) add more game-states, we have to take into account that, on the whole, players are min/maxing souless bastards with essentially perfect information (the internet), and unless they’re attempting to challenge themselves, roleplay, or are simply ignorant, they’re going to simply ignore suboptimal states.

    And yes, fuck the next gen label. The XBOX360 has been out for TWO ENTIRE YEARS, people. And we’re still knee-deep in the same old shit.

  15. Indagator says:

    Personally, I’d like to see a concept where the player is offered an opportunity early in the game to augment their character through some addictive agent: drugs, souls, whatever fits the setting. The idea would be that the character is significantly stronger and has access to upgraded skills, items, and areas, but will get more and more addicted as they level up. If the player can’t feed the addiction then the character will gradually get weaker until eventually dying. The only way to stop the process would be some sort of irrevocable event that severely weakens (cripples?) the character.

    In addition to all the interesting moral dilemmas you can create from that situation (how do you finance your addiction?), there would also be a change in how the game plays: Do you hurry through and beat the game before your addiction becomes to great to bear, or “get clean” and face the tougher baddies at a significant disadvantage?

    Of course, this would only work if the juiced character had significant advantages compared to the unjuiced version, such that it wouldn’t be easy to dismiss the choice out of hand.

  16. Nallen says:

    He said ‘interactive movie’

    Woe is me.

  17. Arathain says:

    I love the idea of having to choose between power and humanity. In any game where there is a moral choice I always wish choosing the ‘good’ option would sometimes make the game harder, rather than each option being equal. I want a moral choice that means something.

  18. malkav11 says:

    The good choice has actually traditionally been the easy one. Games like Baldur’s Gate and Fallout confront you with lost opportunities and additional, hard fighting to be done if you go evil. It wasn’t really until KOTOR that we got an equal evil path.

    And I’m not sure how a reskinned Dungeon Siege would bring about any sort of RPG renaissance – the Dungeon Siege games certainly never did.

  19. The Unshaven says:

    I initially read “upgradeable robot sidekick” as “unspeakable robot sidekick.”

    I am obscurely disappointed.

    - The Unshaven.

  20. Cavalcadeofcats says:

    darkripper: Yeah, that was the first thing I thought of too. Frankly, I’m much more excited about Too Human than this… presuming that Too Human is ever actually released.

  21. Garth says:

    “The only way to stop the process would be some sort of irrevocable event that severely weakens (cripples?) the character.”

    The problem with this is, getting through 75% of the game only to learn that you’re totally, and in every way fucked will turn people away in droves.

    If it simply weakens the character, then it would be too easy to overcome.

    I don’t disagree with the idea in general, but you have to consider that it’s a game, and games need to be fun.

  22. Flint says:

    Maybe I’m just a poor player who loves easiness but I’d be sorta meh if I had to go through the torture of ignoring the equivalent a lovely skill development system and going through a (significantly) harder difficulty just to get the more or less good ending. It sounds more like those ridiculous self-made challenges like “finish Metroid Prime without any upgrades” etc.

    Hopefully the non-cyborg path also offers some sort of a skill/upgrade system. Possibly weaker but it would still be better than the feeling of missing out on all the fun just so you can save the world in the very end.

  23. King Awesome says:

    Also why is everyone automatically assuming that not taking the cyborgian upgrades is the good ending?
    For instance, taking the assumption that robotic upgrades do somehow make you lose the loosely defined concept of humanity, surely it is more selfless and good to subsume yourself into the role a more powerful protector. The selfish and more evil player would hold onto his own hummanity in order to protect himself and thereby damn the people he could have saved with those robotic upgrades.

    What a jerk.

    then of course there is the assumption that if I have a robotic arm I am somehow now less ‘human’ (Obviously not in a biological sense) that seems a trifle high handed towards those war vetrans who have found new life from replacing lost body parts with prosthetics, and those who have had their hearts supported by pace makers.

    I’d like to see you all proven wrong and the good ending being the upgraded robotic path (why not a morality helper microchip that encourages you towards the good decision with shots of adrenaline?). Meanwhile the selfish player who ignores upgrades hoping for a payoff at the end is rewarded with a death toll of all the people he could have saved.

  24. Krupo says:

    Bwa-ha-ha – did anyone see the Dell ad at the end of part 2, where they ‘legally guarantee’ that all Space Siege features will work on the Dell XPS systems? That amuses me.

  25. Krupo says:

    btw @ Flint – the non-cyborg path involves upgrading your robo-mule with features instead of you, so you totally do get your human cake and get to eat your robo cake too, from what I’ve read earlier.

  26. Phil says:

    If popular culture has taught us anything its that cyborgs inevitably loose their humanity, go kill crazy, are finally redeemed by the power of love and sacrifice themselves in the final act – it’s the way it got to be. For the purposes of this arguement I am classifying the first Terminator/robocop/the millon dollar man/etc as ‘tin-men’ rather than cyborgs.

  27. Optimaximal says:

    Why do either of them (the endings) need to be intrinsically good or bad? A good situation would be to have the player interpret his actions and the responses he gets.

    Go the cybernetic route and the game’s significantly easier, only the main character is branded an outcast by humanity, but finds resolve with other modified humans on another planet or something.

    Stay human and the game is harder, but he might access easier quests that wouldn’t have been handed too him if he had a robotic face. He can also go home…

  28. derFeef says:

    I liked shadowgrounds, maybe this could be good too. I think I´ll miss the party members from dungeon siege. At least I digg the scifi plot more.

  29. Jonathan says:

    All I can see is Kierons bald spot.

  30. Kieron Gillen says:

    If it’s only a spot, it’s not me.

    KG

  31. Tim says:

    I actually loved the first dungeon seige. It’s was suitably indulgently generic, but refined. Who on earth decided to make a movie of it though?

    If this matches the first DS in terms of sheer playability and prettiness (for it’s time), I’ll enjoy it. If it’s closer to the second, I wont bother. Maybe it just wasn’t pretty enough..

    Actually I think the reason I didn’t like DS2 was that at the start I didn’t get to start as Farmboy or Farmgirl. I really liked how absurd it was that I’d start by picking up are rake, then end by saving the kingdom. DS1 should have been a dry parody. I guess it was really.

    I recall DS1 being famous for having virtually no load screens. You literally hacked and slashed your way from the farm to the castle. That was great. Definitely the big hassle was the inventory, every now and then I’d have to leave small armories on the side of the road.

  32. Yhancik says:

    I’m not yet totally convinced… and I can’t put the finger on what disturbs me, aside from what some people already said about the cyborg way being regarded as “bad”.

    I think, in some, way that I don’t easily consider the “loss of humanity” as problematic, because I’ve played and enjoyed tons of games where the character had no (need for/signs of) humanity. And the humanity is in me anyway, you can’t take it away.
    I believe it can be done, but it would need to go deeper than a binary choice. I’m just afraid that this whole “moral dilemmas” is a kind of new trend.

    “Now with 50% more moral dilemmas”

  33. SenatorPalpatine says:

    I think the game may well be cool, but the guy who talked annoyed me, especially with his “OMG DELL IS TEH BEST” at the end. You make the games, not sell the computers. Whatever though, we’ll see how htis game turns out.

  34. Thomas Lawrence says:

    Agreed with all the people tired of binary moral dilemmas.

    Here’s how you make a game about moral choice, ok? You make complicated situations in which a number of different people want mutually incompatible things, and then you put the player in a position to decide the outcome, and then once the choice is made, you show the results – and then YOU DON’T JUDGE THE RESULTS.

    Seriously, by popping up (+1 EVil POINTS!) after the choice you negate practically all the work you put into making the choice interesting.