Impressions: Consortium

By Adam Smith on March 19th, 2013 at 7:30 pm.

When I first saw Consortium, I wasn’t sure what to think. There was fictional science occurring, that much was clear, but to what end? A couple of weeks ago, determined to learn more about this mysterious first-person adventure/RPG, I had the opportunity to play an early build and came away filled with wisdom and excitement. Now that the project is back on Kickstarter, I shall share both. From what I’ve played, Consortium shows itself to be a tight experience, heavy on communication and choice, and riddled with the unexpected. But what exactly is it?

Consortium’s first Kickstarter attempt was a long way from reaching its goal when Interdimensional pulled the plug around the mid-way point, recognising the need for a possible change in strategy and a stronger opening fortnight. The project had failed to receive a great deal of attention and that’s at least partly because it looks like something that it isn’t. Superficially, the game resembles a space opera with RPG elements and lots of talking, similar to the Mass Effect series but without the blue aliens, or the Hollywood spit and polish.

The surface doesn’t lie but it does equivocate somewhat. Consortium does put the player in charge of a crew and various alternate future missions, but there is much more emphasis on the relationships between individual crew members, who all resemble human beings, but find variety in their voices and personalities. The writing detours around many of the sci-fi tropes that it seems to be heading straight toward, but all of that is only evident upon playing.

It’s incredibly difficult to convince a potential audience of a project’s worth when so much of the claims are based around the quality of the writing and the world-building. Samples won’t necessarily be a great deal of help, particularly when taken out of context, and strong characterisation takes time to develop throughout a story. I’ve played the first few hours and found the world instantly fascinating. It has the beginnings of a fascinating science fiction adventure, with heavy touches of mystery and meta-fiction. But let’s briefly go back to where all of this started.

Consortium began with an ARG and you can still see all of the content produced during its run, in chronological order, by popping over to Interdimensional and selecting ‘experience’. I haven’t played through the whole thing but even a quick visit reveals an enormous amount of backstory, technical lore and the same sort of slightly offbeat storytelling as seen in the game.

During the game, the player is not the commander of the ship they find themselves on, not exactly, partly because the hierarchy of the crew isn’t as precise as you might imagine, but also because the player is the player. Except in the future. You are, essentially, you; a person sitting in front of a computer connected to another world, except that the game’s conceit is that the world you connect to is real, rather than a game, and events have actual consequences in that world. You can tell other characters that your avatar, known as Bishop 6, is simply a puppet and that you’re controlling it from another time and place. Some of them seem concerned about your mental stability while others laugh it off as a joke.

Occasionally, they question you, trying to dig deeper, which is disconcerting because in those situations, the fourth wall doesn’t so much creak as turn into a window. The opening of the game is entirely peculiar. Following a tutorial that is reminiscent of System Shock 2 due to its simple physical manipulation, inventory management, functional shooting and VR training setting, Consortium drops you onto a ship and introduces you to the crew and becomes a first-person exploration and conversation simulator.

Approaching any member of the crew allows you to click on and speak to them. They’ll carry on talking if you walk away but reach a certain distance and they’ll shut up, occasionally acknowledging your lack of etiquette the next time you pass by, avoiding their gaze and pretending to be on the phone or cleaning your gun. Conversations branch based on your choices and while some are dramatic or informative, others have a brisk banality to them that makes the crew seem more convincingly alive than your usual group of gung-ho space-bastards.

They know your role but they don’t know you – you’re a replacement for the previous Bishop and everybody would like to meet you. Wait, that’s not quite right. You’re not actually a replacement Bishop, you’re a person sitting in front of a computer controlling the physical entity that is replacing the previous Bishop. It’s not a particularly complex concept but the game doesn’t let up, with constant reminders of the weird and potentially hazardous edges around the situation.

By drawing such blatant attention to the artificial nature of the whole situation, Interdimensional make the player’s role that of an intruder; there’s something voyeuristic about hitching a ride into dangerous places while knowing that you can log off and be back in the safety and squalor of your bedroom. Yes, none of it is real, but by making that a part of the fiction, the writing adds a bizarre fragility to the situation. You appear to be a hero of sorts but you’re not even actually present, so what real investment can you have when the ship hits the fan?

It’s the tension between the slightly surreal metanarrative and the densely detailed world of the ship that works so well in those opening hours. There is combat as well but it’s intended to continue the narrative rather than interrupting it, and can be avoided. Decisions and relationships build into the specifics of each encounter but, admittedly, with the current build it’s difficult to know how interesting they will become. Combat, also in first-person, lacks weight but offers considerable options, including non-lethal takedowns of various types and different tactical approaches.

The deeper qualities of combat and the broader narrative won’t become clear until more of the game is available to play, but even a limited, early build shows Consortium to be unusual and well-crafted. It won’t dazzle with spectacular graphics, but the environments and people swiftly accrue meaning as the player explores them. Their polygons and textures are far less important than their voices and design.

Consortium has more in common with The Last Express than Mass Effect, and despite the game within a game construction, the idiosyncrasies and credibly subdued emotions of the crew make interactions far more naturalistic than expected. If all goes well – and the Kickstarter is required for polish, testing and restoring cut content rather than completion – then Consortium could be a fascinating addition to the under-represented metafictional, sci-fi mystery adventure genre. It’s bewildering, in a good way, to play a game with lasers that go pew pew and a ship that looks like a giant aeroplane, and realise that it has more in common with Façade than Star Wars.

Consortium’s Kickstarter campaign is live.

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53 Comments »

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  1. phelix says:

    That lead image is in desperate need of an alt-text.

    • sabasNL says:

      Indeed. Looking at that image, I would like to refer to some movies or, more controversial, certain accidents/attacks with aeroplanes. But that would be a bit uncivilized, wouldn’t it?

      • SominiTheCommenter says:

        Just don’t Sully their name, and they have a Goose chance of landing safely.

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      Gap Gen says:

      Isn’t that a Scientology spaceship?

  2. unbias says:

    Definitely has a star trek look to it and sounds like, perhaps, they are going with a DS9 “feel” in terms of personal relationships between the crew.. Should be interesting to see if the game lives up to the promise.

  3. DickSocrates says:

    I hope I live to see the successor to the jet engine.

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      colossalstrikepackage says:

      Gotta agree here. Making a spaceship look like an A380 on steroids is far from inspired. That ship design makes me hanker for the Normandy and Serenity.

      • Triplanetary says:

        It’s not supposed to be a spaceship, so that’s kind of an apples and oranges comparison.

  4. caddyB says:

    Backed!

  5. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    Hm, this is a tricky one. Do I like the concept? Certainly. Do I have reason to believe they can make good on it? Not sure. They say they already have 75% done, and that helps, but it’s still one of the harder kickstarters to back, if only because of their high ambitions. I think that’s reflected in their funds raised to date, as well.

    One of the things that struck me immediately from the Kickstarter video was the return to the “classic” (i.e. totally cliché by now) “you can kill them or you can incapacitate them”, one of the NPCs suggesting Bishop not kill anyone while another urging him to have “no mercy”, etc. I really wish someone would find a way to approach non-lethal combat a little less hamfistedly. It’s alawys such a binary decision. You’re always given abilities or moves that can knock people out, and while they might be harder to use, their efficacy is assured and their penalties are negligable once the target is out.

    I’d love to see a game that uses the full spectrum. Some lethal weaponry isn’t always lethal (although they’ll probably require medical attention soon). Non-lethal weaponry isn’t always non-lethal. Incapacitated targets aren’t always going to stay incapacitated and may need restraining, and even restrained enemies may try to make a break for it once you’re not looking. Enemies will flee and not require attacking at all if you play your cards right. Some scenes (typically of the “misunderstanding” variety) can be resolved (temporarily or permanently) with some skillful mid-combat long-distance dialogue (shouting over the gunfire). But not all such cease-fires are negotiated in good faith by both sides. And the reputation you gain from all of the above feeds back into all of the above.

    I know, it’s even more ambitious than this. But it’s also eminently procedural, and could be really interesting if done right.

    Upon rewatching, I notice they did resolve the “lethal weaponry” thing, via being able to stabilise downed opponents from otherwise lethal fire. Very nice touch, though I do hope it’s not just a guaranteed mechanic that lets you save everyone despite running around shooting them all with a nominally lethal assault rifle.

    Also: Given that Bishop 6 is presumably an android/cyborg and replaced a similar previous unit, I’m wondering if it’s a reference to Alien/s.

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      Lambchops says:

      SWAT IV takes a lot (not all though) of the elements you are suggesting in terms of lethal/non-lethal approach. restraining/fleeing enemies etc.

      It can be done and it can be done well.

  6. derella says:

    It sounds like it could be an interesting experience, so I’ll throw in some money.

  7. Wurstwaffel says:

    That looks a lot like a “one block” type game, seeing as it all seems to play out on that airship; which is workload wise a sensible approach to game design for a small studio i suppose.
    Also love the idea of NPCs treating each other differently depending on how you treat each of them.

  8. AngoraFish says:

    It’s a red flag for me that a company can arbitrarily reduce their minimum to 25% of their original goal ($200,000 to $50,000) less than three months later.

    Either they are asking for too little now to make the game properly, or they were trying to gouge on the first. Either way it’s not a good sign.

    In any case, if the game is already 75% complete then this is really just an early preorder, which not too long ago RPS implored us not to do.

    • elevown says:

      Thats not like a pre-order in ANY way. Just like when FTL went to kickstarter when it was 70% done. And you can hardly get a bigger example of worthy and successful kickstart.

      The difference from pre-order is that without the funding to finish the game just wont come out. They cant live on nothing while making it, nor release a 70% done game. Pre-orders on the other hand will be coming out no matter what you do.

      • AngoraFish says:

        FTL has more or less admitted in several interviews that their Kickstarter was effectively a pre-order/marketing exercise.

        edit: see Penny Arcade “The game was always going to be released … Ma said that they would have been able to borrow the few thousand dollars needed to complete the game; the windfall [getting $200K instead of the $10K they asked for] merely allowed them to widen the scope of the game and increase the game’s production values.”

        And Consortium is not saying that without an extra $50K the game won’t be made. In fact, when they couldn’t make $200K they comfortably dropped their request to $50K in a couple of months. Flexible funding, much?

        “We want hundreds, hopefully even thousands, of people to play our game before we’re done to help us focus on the right elements to polish, and to be an active part of the process of balancing and refining the game. Also, because we are entirely independent, we do need some financial help to allow us to finish the game to a degree of polish and gameplay refinement to meet our high standards.”

        Doesn’t sound like the extra funding is critical to me.

        • JabbleWok says:

          With a preorder, you don’t get to influence the nature of the game in any way. With KS backing, you can do. What’s more, if devs get funding on KS it means they can stay independent of the big publishers which insist on features like draconian (or any) DRM. It means that they can be much more customer-centric than otherwise, as well as produce a better game which most of us reckon is a good thing. And that’s just as true for those games that will get made regardless as for those (likely a large majority) whose KS funding is make-or-break.

          • AngoraFish says:

            I’ve backed around 50 games in the last 12 months including, for what it’s worth, both FTL and this, as it happens.

            The worthiness of crowd funding as a concept isn’t at issue, and in this case at $10 for a copy of the game I’m willing to give Consortium the benefit of the doubt. The concept is cool and, well, $10 is likely the price at the first Steam sale anyhow.

            Regardless, the longer crowd funding is around the more it’s going to be abused. It’s entirely reasonable to question the motives of developers when all indications suggest that the net benefits of kicking in to a project are likely to be marginal.

            Paying for the opportunity to beta test a game isn’t a benefit, it’s something that in the past has been offered as a freebie on even AAA games as part of normal QA processes. Whether kickstarter enables developers to make a better game… surely that depends on the developer’s motivation for kickstarting in the first place.

          • LionsPhil says:

            Even for the reduced number of people involved in backing a Kickstarter, that’s still too many voices for any individual to have much influence. Worse, it’s usually the loudest forum screamers who have the most deleterous ideas. So there’s not much weight to that argument.

            It can wait for a demo.

          • greatbird says:

            Speaking for iDGi, I can say that we are truly looking forward to bringing our beta level backers into the fray, and that we will be taking very seriously those that decide to truly contribute to our internal forum. The potential impact that can be had on the game, at an individual level, is very high indeed.

        • JabbleWok says:

          @AngoraFish:

          Regardless, the longer crowd funding is around the more it’s going to be abused. It’s entirely reasonable to question the motives of developers when all indications suggest that the net benefits of kicking in to a project are likely to be marginal.

          I agree. Judging what to back for whatever reasons is our call, and I don’t doubt there will be abuses, screw-ups, and even the occasional oddball ending. However, we’re still in a position to make that call based on what we see, directly ask the devs for details about what we can expect, and possibly persuade changes to be made. We can be vigilant and questioning, thus ensuring such abuses are kept to a minimum, and we can always back out if we don’t like what we see prior to the KS ending.

          Conversely we get no such benefits with a preorder; indeed nothing different from those who wait. If there’s an abuse or exploitation of customers, there is no way to see it coming or prevent it; even reliable reviewers can get hoodwinked by pre-production features that don’t make it to the final product. Even if it’s sincere but flawed, we only find out the down side when it’s too late. I see no benefit of preordering, while I do see the benefit of crowdfunding by those who demand accountability.

          Paying for the opportunity to beta test a game isn’t a benefit, it’s something that in the past has been offered as a freebie on even AAA games as part of normal QA processes

          Well, you’re not paying to beta test, you’re backing a project with that as one of the rewards (if available). That’s by no means common to all projects, and by no means of interest to everyone. Projects have to provide rewards at different levels, and it seems reasonable that that can be one of them. Besides, you can usually buy a T-shirt far cheaper than the cost of a pledge that gets you one – that’s not the point. The point is to give you something for your pledge, and judging whether it’s a good reward is the pledger’s call.

          Whether kickstarter enables developers to make a better game… surely that depends on the developer’s motivation for kickstarting in the first place.

          Agreed. IMO most do, and that’s part of the judgement to be made. However, I recently encountered one that’s to me a real dilemma, as it’s a clever game I’d really like to see made: they want crowdfunding, but are still considering a publishing deal on top of that whereby they’ll have to submit to a publisher’s demands, possibly including DRM. If so, what’s the point in asking for/getting backers? Will the backer influence still be beneficial? So far I’ve pledged a minimum to get the game and I’ll delay going higher ’til I know what’s happening. However, most other projects I’ve backed are far more clear-cut, and devs seem generally willing to please their backers. After all, backers are a cross-section of the likely customer base, so satisfying their preferences is a good idea.

          It’s always a risk, but KS backing allows for a more informed, calculated, steerable risk than simply preordering.

  9. popedoo says:

    Extremely interesting. My cup of tea for sure!

  10. Snargelfargen says:

    Sounds absolutely fucking brilliant. If the player really is an avatar, then the only way to be “heroic” or basically do anything that matters to the rest of the crew is through making the right choices. Puts all the pressure on the dialogue with crew and decision making. Hope the game lives up to this.

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    Gap Gen says:

    The notion that the NPCs know you’re controlling your avatar remotely is delicious enough alone.

  12. Dizzard says:

    This looks very interesting. I like the art style too.

    It’s very tempting but I think I’ll wait for a few updates to decide. Will they have a demo?

  13. Theory says:

    God dammit, this is a combination of TWO of my best design ideas. And even on the engine I would have created them with!

    • P4p3Rc1iP says:

      Why anyone would want to use the Source engine is a complete mystery to me. Every time I’ve used it it’s reminded me again of how much easier other engines are.

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    Llewyn says:

    It’s incredibly difficult to convince a potential audience of a project’s worth when so much of the claims are based around the quality of the writing and the world-building.

    And this highlights the biggest problem with the development of gaming: that the things that make games sophisticated, the things that many of “us” reading RPS want in games, make for a hard sell not just to the wider games buying public but even to those of us who know we want them. Writing, characterisation, choice, good AI, these things will never sell games like bigger and shinier graphics will.

    Of course, “we” pretty much all know this anyway, I’m aware I’m not telling “us” anything new here. But I’m buggered if I know what we do about it.

    • The Random One says:

      I disagree. I personally don’t give a flying rat’s ass about graphics. Haven’t done so for ages, never will again. I spend most of my time playing old or indie games that don’t look as good but that often try different things.

      The problem, in the prest situation, is that it’s difficult to convey those things when all you have is a prototype. Looking at the preview videos I cannot tell whether the game is actually good or if it’ll be Façade in space, whereas to find out whether Crysis 3’s graphics are good I need only to look at a screenshot.

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        Llewyn says:

        Looking at the preview videos I cannot tell whether the game is actually good or if it’ll be Façade in space, whereas to find out whether Crysis 3′s graphics are good I need only to look at a screenshot.

        Indeed. That was my point.

    • LionsPhil says:

      This comes across as “people are annoyingly shallow”, but the problem with good character writing is not that it’s not glitzy; it’s that it’s really hard to convey if you’re actually any good at it in a preview.

    • greatbird says:

      Indeed, this issue is at the root of one of our challenges in telling the world about our game. But our solution is simple, if extremely risky for those of us that actually want to eat and sleep under a roof: We MAKE a game with cutting edge writing, acting, pacing, AI and real/impactful player choices, and let the game speak for itself in the end.

  15. The Random One says:

    I would have backed it instantly if they had described it as “like Mass Effect only good”. Though guess technically that’s just Mass Effect 1.

  16. realmenhuntinpacks says:

    Well cover me in eggs and flour and bake me for fourteen minutes, I’m interested.

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    El_MUERkO says:

    First image, Ghost Recon.

    /wanders off to install ghost recon

  18. musurca. says:

    Seems less like Mass Effect and more like a modern update of Sentient. Anyone remember that one? Really interesting game but very awkward execution.

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    Lambchops says:

    This definitely looks like it could be my type of thing. Don’t think I’ll back it (too many projects backed now!) but will definitely look out for it’s release.

  20. ninnisinni says:

    I think it might be worth noting that Jeremy Soule apparently will be providing the music for this.
    Not saying that is a guarantee for quality, but he has certainly created some great music in the past…

  21. DiFiasco says:

    Space Quest lives!

  22. Hahaha says:

    All aboard the hype train

    • chatoalbert says:

      The James Brown’s voice in my head is alive and kicking, it seems.

  23. chatoalbert says:

    “CONSORTIUM is a first-person story and character-based role-playing shooter”
    I tried to read it too many times, now my head is aching.

  24. LionsPhil says:

    …occasionally acknowledging your lack of etiquette the next time you pass by, avoiding their gaze and pretending to be on the phone or cleaning your gun.

    your gun

    Hey, hey. Personal space there buddy, especially if you’re going to simultaneously shun me.

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    Siresly says:

    I’ll put in some amount of money. The revised pledge amount from 200 to 50 is a lil funky sure, but I reckon this concept deserves a big a chance as possible at being as good as possible.

    Or whatever, that’s a sentence right? I’m tired.

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