Impressions: Consortium

By Adam Smith on November 22nd, 2013 at 7:00 pm.

A couple of hours into the pre-release version of Consortium, I realised that I was playing a version of the ‘One City Block’ RPG. The location is an aircraft rather than a collection of streets and buildings, but the philosophy holds up. Create a manageable location, a believable population to inhabit it, and provide the player with enough freedom of expression to define their role in the events that unfold. It’s an unusual sci-fi adventure game with a splendidly credible cast of characters and a strong sense of mystery.

In Consortium, a futuristic aircraft is making a voyage when disaster strikes from various quarters. The crew aren’t heading to the Bloodmoon of Nebulon Ziggurat XI though, they’re on their way to Dublin. This makes me happy.

Consortium is a murder mystery, a political drama and a heavy dose of weird science fiction. It’s the fiction that’s weird rather than the science – the technology is mostly made up of believable near-future devices, with a few notable exceptions, but the story itself is strange from the outset. Contrary to expectation, the writing creates a state of peculiarity and uneasiness by containing so much that is ordinary.

A pilot talks of his love and concern for his elderly mother, Nancy Drew books are making a comeback on the nostalgia circuits, and there are tensions, friendships and flirtations to unpeel. The craft isn’t home to blue-skinned aliens and lizard people, but the crew are a diverse bunch nonetheless. The variety of accents is pleasing, as is the quality of the voice acting, and the international make-up of the player’s colleagues isn’t just an aesthetic choice – like almost every other detail, large or small, it’s a clue.

As much as anything else – and it is many things – Consortium is a game about collecting clues. The whole story is built inside an odd framing device, placing the player in the role of ITALIC an actual player of sorts, controlling the actions of a living person in another time by means of magical technology. The puppet that the player inhabits is Bishop Six, and whether that’s a name, rank or some other designation isn’t explained outright. Other crew members have similar titles, a chess piece and then a number, and a basic hierarchy can be recognised, but the specific role of each piece isn’t clear. And nor is it meant to be.

That’s a lot of words about the setting and maybe you’re wondering what exactly it is you’ll be doing while you play? You’ll be doing first-person things, like exploring the ship, talking to people using a multiple choice interface and, occasionally, shooting people in the face. Just as in real life, it’s much more pleasant talking to people than shooting them, and aside from choices between lethal and non-lethal weaponry, combat is fairly unimaginative. It’s also optional, and the right relationships or conversation choices can keep the bullets from flying.

I’d intended to talk my way out of any violence during the first encounter but accidentally unholstered my weapon right in a mercenary’s face. He reacted as if I’d unholstered something else entirely and done a wee all over his shiny military boots. That is to say, he shot me repeatedly. Hitting the wrong button (again), I switched from my stun gun to an assault rifle and a minute of frantic shooting, hiding and grenade lobbing followed.

The crew chastised me for murdering the boarders, including their leader, because we’d come up with a plan to end the situation non-violently. They thought I’d deliberately deviated from that plan and I couldn’t seem to explain to them that I’d just pressed the wrong buttons at the wrong time. By mistake! I was glad that it had happened though. It fit with the game’s central conceit and demonstrated that the combat, plain as it may be, involves decisions and creates reactions among the crew.

That conceit, of interacting with real events using a science fiction interface, could have been a gimmick, but it becomes core to the more unsettling aspects of the story. There are awkward moments and tensions from the outset, as questions about basic functions of the craft and its crew lead to puzzled queries. You’re supposed to know these things, or at least Bishop Six is supposed to know these things, and displaying ignorance can lead to distrust. Thankfully, he’s a newcomer to the ship and his personality is a tabula rasa, to be decided by conversation choices and actions. Beyond that, there are duties to fulfil and expectations to meet, and there are no information dumps to help the player along, with the exception of an optional console that provides a huge amount of in-fiction backstory.

It’s one of the few science fiction games I’ve ever played that manages to make me feel like a stranger in a strange land, and at times the feeling is uncanny. Glitches in the interface sometimes coincide with characters doubting the sanity or integrity of Bishop Six and despite their slightly crude cartoonish facial expressions, the more inquisitive characters often feel like they’re on the verge of peering straight through the screen.

More than a gateway device, the fictional interface creates a second layer of ‘reality’ to play with and disrupt. Setting up the player’s role in this way also makes the fourth wall (or at least A fourth wall) part of the plot, allowing events to scratch along its surface, looking for a way through.

Joining the story in media res forces the player to think on his/her feet and also asks a great deal of the writers but they’re equal to the task. Consortium exists within a truly weird sci-fi universe, glimpsed through windows like Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings, but so much that is unusual in it is recognisable. The characters don’t spout exposition, instead revealing the nature of this possible future by degrees. They complain about the mundanity of their jobs, drop hints about the political situation and recent historical conflicts, make references to pop culture, both known and unknown. By sharing their own stories, piece by piece, they gradually give an impression of their world.

Mechanically, Consortium is functional rather than exhilarating. Conversations are handled well. The rest of the ship doesn’t freeze while they occur and participants recognise the player’s vicinity, to an extent, allowing Bishop Six to wander off like an ignorant sod. This doesn’t go unnoticed. Replaying sections does makes me wish I could skip dialogue though, particularly on occasions that a group conversation is taking place without a great deal of player input.

A ship defence mini-game threatens to derail the flow of the game, like Dead Space’s ponderous asteroid blasting, but turns out to be a pleasant enough diversion. Importantly, it doesn’t separate itself entirely from the narrative, with the same lethal and non-lethal choices appearing as elsewhere, lending a relevancy that would otherwise be missing.

The characters are the heart of the game though. They’re a sympathetic bunch and the writing avoids stereotypes. The fact that the player’s Bishop Six has such an influence over their existence creates tension and drama, even before the stakes rise, and deeper questions begin to surface about the nature of the Earth in their time.

There are surface similarities with Mass Effect ,and the interaction with crew and the layout of the craft with the pilot in his isolated cockpit, support the comparison. I initially thought of the game as ‘the best parts of Mass Effect’ but that’s unfair to both games. Consortium has more in common with The Last Express or even a recent Telltale release than Bioware’s space opera, and the stories it tells are both far stranger and far more believable than I’ve come to expect from sci-fi games.

Consortium is almost ready for release and is currently seeking attention on Steam Greenlight.

, , , , .

31 Comments »

Sponsored links by Taboola
  1. staberas says:

    Your last 2 paragraphs, sold me for the game.

  2. DarkFarmer says:

    i’m way into this! getting it, steam or no.

  3. Wurstwaffel says:

    I think if people knew what kind of game it is it would have already been greenlit. Judging from the graphics and the shooty bits alone it looks subpar.

  4. Demiath says:

    I backed the Kickstarter and have been casually keeping up with the team’s progress over the months, but the relative complexity (for a video game) of the setting and story setup as described in this article comes as a pleasant surprise to me. There’s clearly a lot more ambition here than I had realized, which makes this indie effort all the more impressive.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Ham Solo says:

    The combat looked a bit wobbly, but maybe that’s just me.
    Interesting characters with good voice acting are a great plus though.
    Might be getting this, definitely will vote for it on S:GL however.

  6. lautalocos says:

    interesting. i will give it a try

  7. Premium User Badge

    Rizlar says:

    Aw yiss! Found the concept really interesting when it was kickstarted, had no idea it was close to release now.

  8. Craig Stern says:

    This sounds excellent.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Crimsoneer says:

    I am properly glad I backed this – doable yet wonderful ambition from day one. Now LET ME PLAY IT :( I suck too hard at Enemy Within.

    • caddyB says:

      Yes, me too; haven’t been burned by Kickstarter yet. Played the beta a bit, it’s very interesting and I the art direction grew on me over time even though I thought the game looked weird at first.

      • AngoraFish says:

        This one looked super-dodgy to me, particularly as a rerun of an initial failed Kickstarter with a much higher goal.

        Nonetheless, I did end up backing despite misgivings and I’m glad to see that my main concerns appear to have been unfounded.

    • Sharlie Shaplin says:

      Me too. I was sad when it failed the first time. I think many people are a little superficial, judging it only by it’s cartoony graphic style.

    • Ergates_Antius says:

      Ditto. It was RPS coverage that persuiaded me to back it, and since I did I’ve deliberately avoided reading the KS updates or following it at all (including watching any of the videos), I want this to be a surprise.

  10. The Random One says:

    I backed this, but was uncertain it would meet its lofty goals and feared it might become wordy pretentious jerky Mass Effect. The Elder Smith’s words have assuaged my fears.

  11. Zelnick says:

    I’m glad this game is getting more exposure. Hopefully more games like this become popular (while increasing in scale too).

  12. YogSo says:

    Adam’s impressions, published 22/11/2013, third to last paragraph: “The fact that the player’s Bishop Six has such an influence over their existence creates tension and drama, even before the stakes rise”.

    Embedded trailer in Adam’s impressions, published 20/11/2013, timestamp 0:50: “That the player’s Bishop has such an influence over (the crew’s) existence creates tension and drama, even before the stakes rise – Adam Smith @Rock,Paper,Shotgun”

    Errr… Taquions? Time travel? Matrix glitch?

    • Adam Smith says:

      Written a couple of days before apart from a few tweaks and they were in trailer production and asked for a quote. I was hoping the Whitsun Weddings reference would make it into a video but no such luck!

      • YogSo says:

        Ah, I see, I thought it might be something like that.(*) It just genuinely surprised me watching the trailer and thinking that quote was probably from one of your older articles, and then finding it at the end of the current one.

        (*) Though taquions were pretty high there on my list too :P

      • frightlever says:

        Cool that you’re pre-recommending a game that hasn’t been launched to the public yet. RPS coverage of X Rebirth was obviously a triumph, so there”s no reason to rein in hyperbole. is there? There’s nothing weird about allowing a developer to include a positive quote in their launch video, having been asked if it was okay. Because that’s what previews are, aren’t they? Unbiased opinions on unreleased games.

        It would probably be a disservice to fans if RPS took the harsh decision to reserve judgement until a game was launched before making positive noises. I’m sure I’m wrong about this. I’m just being negative. People will point out all the POSITIVE game coverage that RPS gave for good games to reveal how wrong I am. Right? All those good games that got multiple previews and turned out to be good. Yeah, there were a load of those.

        • WrenBoy says:

          At least they are actually playing the game this time although Im surprised that the X Rebirth combat demo wasnt enough to ring alarm bells. Combat is one of the worst things in Rebirth.

  13. vecordae says:

    Oddly enough, it is the link to excellent science/archeology/forteana/fringe news aggregator Daily Grail that sold me.

    • frightlever says:

      You’d like my mum. She’s bout 80 or something. She likes Fortean TImes. I bet you two would get on like a house on fire. My dad’s dead. He spontaneously combusted. There was a rain of frogs but it failed to put out the conflagration.

  14. BlitzThose says:

    This game has some brilliant writing, and I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to have a small voice acting role in it.

  15. Dozer says:

    The presence of a center-mounted engine completely ruins the immersion for me. Current and future large commercial aircraft designs will only have two or four engines. (With the sole exception of that Dassault business jet.)

    • greatbird says:

      Actually there is a very specific reason for that 5th engine. It is an *extremely* powerful turbine engine that normally runs at a very low level…the 4 main fusion turbines provide all the needed thrust for normal operations. That 5th engine only really comes into play only if there is a massive failure with the fusion batteries or electrical/computer driven systems that drive/power the 4 primary turbines.

      This “secondary turbine” is hooked up to an “analog” fuel based system , and when running at full capacity is capable of keeping the aircraft in the air – though obviously with very limited maneuverability and speed.

  16. soopytwist says:

    Reminds me a little bit of Psygnosis’ Sentient.

  17. RagingLion says:

    That sounds really excellent. These are exactly the games I’ve hoped would be made and this actually makes me quite excited to read these comments on it. I might have to play this.

  18. KillahMate says:

    “Consortium has more in common with The Last Express”

    SOLD

    But really, years before I ever heard the term ‘one city block RPG’ I entertained a very similar notion, and my idea was also set within the confines of an airplane (a commercial passenger 747 in my case though). It’s such an obvious choice when you want to have an environment with highly limited variables within a relatively real-life scenario, and the blue skies around you naturally alleviate the feelings of claustrophobia – you wouldn’t feel as confined playing in an airplane as you would in a submarine, even if the functional gamespace was the same size. And yes, The Last Express did the same concept years ago. That’s why Jordan Mechner is a legend and I’m just some guy who steals his ideas.

    Given this and many other details (particularly the weird near-/alternate-future sci-fi slant), Consortium sounds like the game I would have made, and I would have been inclined to give them all the money if only I was confident they could pull it off.

  19. Premium User Badge

    The Sombrero Kid says:

    I’m glad there’s a lot of positivity for this, the game I’m working on is very similar but without the combat. I for one will be getting it, it sounds interesting if not excellent.

  20. Ergates_Antius says:

    “A couple of hours into the pre-release version of Consortium, I realised that I was playing a version of the ‘One City Block’ RPG. The location is an aircraft rather than a collection of streets and buildings, but the philosophy holds up.”
    I guess that setting on an aircraft allows the game to give the player total freedom to move about within a controlled space, whilst also allowing it to constrain that space in a non-immersion breaking manner. No invisible walls, no illogical barriers [why can’t I pass that knee high pile of rubble] and a good explanation of why you can’t (and wouldn’t really want to) leave the area.