Premature Evaluation: Space Rogue

One of the most charming things about Space Rogue is its stylistic nod to 50s retrofuturism - a vision of the future that simultaneously remembers the past’s quaint anticipation for that future. This is a very new thing in human history - for two reasons: firstly, futuristic fiction itself hasn’t been around for long; secondly, technological progress has only in the last century achieved such a speed that we are able to scoff at or feel nostalgic for predictions made during our own life-times. Perhaps this is why retro-futurism currently operates in just three rapidly well-worn modes: steampunk born of Jules Verne’s fantastic voyages and assorted Victoriana; Space Age Americana of The Jetsons kind; and cyberpunk, replete with jacked matrices and augmented beards.

Each week Marsh Davies beams aboard the hostile vessel of Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find or otherwise lasers the life support system and surrenders himself to the cold grip of the vacuum. This week, he succumbs to randomised interplanetary peril in Space Rogue, a rogue-like game set in space and strong contender for RPS’s Most Literal Title Award 2015.

Space Rogue is a lot like FTL. Let’s get that out the way. Your ship travels from planet to planet, encountering and resolving brief randomised events. Many of these involve ship-to-ship combat, during which you micromanage your crew – fixing hull breaches, putting out fires, fighting off boarding parties – while ensuring your arsenal is trained upon your opponent’s most vulnerable systems. Here are the two main ways in which it isn’t like FTL: 1) you are free to explore without a fleet of ships chasing you onward and 2) it has 3D graphics.

Each of these aesthetics tracks a major shift in technology from the era they look back upon. The original writers pastiched/evoked by steampunk were responding to the industrial revolution, and obsessed over how technology might change production and travel. 50s science fiction looked to the stars and cowered beneath the threat of nuclear apocalypse, finally grasping humanity’s potential for boundless expansion and self-destruction. And of course cyberpunk embraces the digital age, imagining how technology will change our very being, and whether we will still be human afterwards.

Let’s not skip over that second point with too much haste – its 3D graphics are very nice indeed, with a vision of interstellar adventure informed by 1950s pulp, and rendered with a velvety rim-lit lustre. It gives everything a voluptuous solidity, from the Matador Red undulations of your spacecraft’s body – which faintly resembles a ‘57 Chevy Bel Air – to your captain’s cartoonish pill-shaped bonce. Alien species and hostile ships are given just as much attention – all rounded edges and ray guns – and the entire thing gives off such a strong whiff of Golden Age Americana that just looking at a screenshot makes me want to order fries and a milkshake.

The available menu proves a little less predictable and a good deal more lethal than that, however – and is soundtracked by synthy lounge music rather than Little Richard. Rebellious robots threaten to abduct crew members, pirates try to turn you into scrap and overzealous security forces persecute you as a dangerous criminal (only sometimes mistakenly). Even without hostile intervention, calamity is foisted upon you at every turn: your ship may spontaneously catch fire, be punctured by a wayward drone or be scorched by deadly radiation. Mining operations can explode in your face. Crew may mutiny at their working conditions. It’s a game about rolling with the punches, and then swiftly crumbling beneath the punches and dying.

This simultaneously explains the dearth of futuristic writing prior to the industrial revolution: there was simply very little change to observe during a life-time - notions of a future radically different from the present could barely be formulated. An early example of time-travel in fiction is Urashima Tarō, a Japanese tale dating from the 8th century AD, in which a fisherman finds himself 300 years in the future. But this isn’t really an example of futurism - quite the opposite. Although everything has changed - his village, the people there - nothing has evolved. The only difference is that no one knows who he is. The only measure of time passing is the failure of human memory, the grand irrelevance of human lives.

After the novelty of several messy space deaths has worn off – and players of FTL may find it already has – I’m not sure how satisfying mere fatalism is. On some runs an entire twenty-minute-long death spiral may work itself out without the player having made any real decisions: instead you end up clicking OK on a large number of depressing dialogue boxes and then starting again. Partly this is a matter of rebalancing the probabilities during its stay in Early Access, and Space Rogue already includes a custom game option which allows you to control the odds of nearly every variable. But it’s also because, currently, the game doesn’t allow within its random encounters many chances for the player to overcome them through skill. On some unluckier playthroughs it can feel like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure in which every entry states, “Everything’s shit and you’re going to die soon.” And who plays games to be exposed to the truth?

Combat is the main means by which you can massage the odds through your ability, juggling control of your crew, your weapon systems and special abilities to best effect. Some weapons, like rockets, punch straight through enemy shields, while lasers have the advantage of a much quicker cooldown. Special abilities might empower shots, instantly patch up hull breaches, or somehow let you start fires on your opponent’s ship. So far, so FTL, but here there is no need to shunt power from one system to another, and only the captain is able to improve a system’s efficacy by jumping on the console. Nonetheless, figuring out which functions of the enemy vessel to target and in which order requires a little thinking and careful timing, but even then, there is usually an apparent optimum strategy which you can apply with relative ease by pausing the game at any moment to queue up commands. It’s also usually clear from the outset whether that optimum strategy will be enough or whether you are simply doomed.

While there’s a fair amount of writing prior to the industrial revolution which imagines fantastical machinery (like the Hindu epic Ramayana or Aristophanes play The Clouds, both from the 5th century BC) or journeys to the moon (like Japan’s 10th century The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter or Johannes Kepler’s 1608 Somnium), these stories are not usually a projection of what humans will achieve in the coming centuries. However, in 1659 Jacques Guttin publishes his romance Epigone, which imagines human societies distant to us in both space and time. This is, according to Paul K. Alkon’s Origins of Futuristic Fiction, the “first secular story to break the imaginative barrier against tales of the future” and lays the groundwork for a new form of fiction then championed by the likes of Mary Shelley and Samuel Madden.

And, in every game I’ve played, at some point, I’ve been simply doomed. I’d prefer it if nearly every encounter was surmountable, not by chance, but by skill. Randomisation is a handy way to generate stories that are unique to each playthrough, but when the player’s participation is merely a die roll, it saps the meaning of those events, and how much the player is invested in the decisions she or he makes. Being unlucky in such a universe feels like a waste of time – a mission in which each random event unavoidably blows off a chunk of your hull and withholds any means to repair your vessel doesn’t interrogate or engage the player’s abilities at all. It’s just a simulation of entropy.

It would be a shame were it to stay like this, because, assuming you live long enough, playthroughs do begin to generate more interesting and particular scenarios. The ability to upgrade your ship, to swap out weapons and special modules, to hire and level up crew – these things end up giving your mission a distinct complexion. Combat is enlivened with new strategies as the abilities of your ship and your opponent’s become increasingly asymmetric. I would hope the developers are looking to exaggerate this further; certainly more playable vessels are planned, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

“Secular” is the significant word there. There has, of course, been a good deal of religious prophecy throughout the ages. The Bible itself offers a prediction of how things will go, though not one particularly interested in the development of human endeavour so much as its obliteration and replacement by God’s Kingdom. It’s only when technological change becomes a visible, appreciably short-term thing that futurism, in the sense of an earnest forecast of human progress, really becomes a possible and highly relevant part of the cultural imagination. A challenge for you: can we identify the cliches in our vision of the future now, here in 2015, that will calcify into nostalgic retrofuturism? Or is progress occurring so fast that we can’t even identify the sorts of retrofuturistic strata before they are buried by freshly obsolescent fiction?

I’m also intrigued by the overall motive for your expedition, the later stages of which I have yet to survive to see. Instead of fleeing an oppressive regime, as in FTL, the circumstances of your journey vary in Space Rogue. Sometimes a robot insurrection threatens all biological life, sometimes human eugenicists must be stopped from starting a pan-galactic war, sometimes you must prevent a renegade faction from rending open an interdimensional portal – the solution to each requires you to follow a trail of information, ultimately locating an enemy’s base of operations, say, or hunting down and destroying an artifact. This plays well into the game’s less linear, more exploratory structure, encouraging you to scour each planet, hoping that the random event generator will spit out a clue for where to go next. I could see ways in which some small amount of detective work might be encouraged here, too, giving additional strategy to your wandering.

Without doubt, Space Rogue is a robust, playable and enjoyable game – in spite of my whining about the role that (usually bad) luck plays within it. I can only assume its balance will improve, its dynamism increase and its avenues for player expression multiply. But it’s already playing catch-up with FTL, a game that currently equals or surpasses Space Rogue’s complexity in most of its systems, and whose sheer quantity of content has been enriched further by an Enhanced Edition which costs half of what this new game is asking for its Early Access build. Space Rogue may well go on to differentiate itself – I’m curious about its stated plans for mod support and what it intends to do with the persistent player stats, which level up across attempted sorties. But as gorgeous as I find the game’s pulp sci-fi futurism, it’ll have to do just a little more to convince me that this is a vision of the future worth waiting for.

Space Rogue is available from Steam for £23, although it’s discounted to £15 for the duration of its Early Access development. I played version ea.3489_174834 on 20/05/2015.

42 Comments

  1. ansionnach says:

    Thought this might be some sort of follow-up to the 1989 Origin Systems game of the same name. Guess not. Both Paul Neurath and Warren Spector worked on that one. Have only tricked around with it but it’s supposed to be good.

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      Andy_Panthro says:

      The CRPG Addict covered it in his blog, and scored it pretty highly.
      link to crpgaddict.blogspot.co.uk

    • Tyrric says:

      I thought the same thing, and clicked on the link via the RSS feed. That game was a blast, although I did hate the wormhole trips. On the C64 I could never get the hang of them without going extremely slow. I also remember it being part of Origin Systems “We Can Do More Than Ultima” marketing blitz after Ultima 5 came out, with other games like Time of Lore, Tangled Tales, Windwalker, and Knights of Legend either being developed by them or published by them in the late 80s.

      Gods, I miss those days….

    • UKPartisan says:

      I thought for a brief second it was some kind of remake of the Origin Systems Space Rogue too. I had it on my Commodore Amiga in my teens, thought it was a cracking game. A bit like Elite, but with stronger RPG elements.

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    Surely the best game with similar 50s style retro-futurism is X-COM: Apocalypse, which I am tempted to play again but I wonder if I remember it being better than it was.

    As for this game, I got fed up with dying so much in FTL that I only managed to complete it after cheating (I couldn’t manage the boss fight otherwise, even after multiple frustrating attempts), so I think I’ll pass on playing something that seems so similar. I think the 2D style suited FTL very well too, it was very clear easy to jump right into and “improving” the graphics is to little benefit (and can sometimes make things less clear).

    • mashkeyboardgetusername says:

      I’d say so, although it took me a little while to reprogram my brain to the interface.

      I will say that if you’re playing the Steam version like I was (my disk is…somewhere) you probably want to savescum a bit as it’ll periodically ask you for the CD which obviously doesn’t exist. Mostly on loading screens (so saving before starting a mission or when you think there’s only one alien left is a good idea) but I also had one or two in the middle of the game.

    • spindaden says:

      I see your X-COM Apocalypse and raise you a whole Fallout series.

    • PancakeWizard says:

      Nothing to do with the 50sness, but XCOM:Apocalypse is the first time I was super disappointed in the XCOM games. I just couldn’t like it. Me and my friends used to joke it must have a ‘make game good’ button somewhere in the menu to warrant the high critical praise it got at the time.

  3. BisonHero says:

    “Space Rouge review (Early Access)”

    The cardinal sin.

  4. MrNash says:

    Sort of been watching this game, but it’s going to have to differentiate itself from FTL more before I’d be willing to spend time with it.

  5. Malkara says:

    I love the article within the article!

    • jezcentral says:

      It’s the first day of the working week, and I’ve only just had my first coffee. If I hadn’t, I think my brain would have exploded reading that.

    • welverin says:

      Question is: do they pay him for two articles, or just one? These things really are like getting two entirely different articles. Hell, I didn’t even bother reading about Space Rogue, not my kind of game. I just came for the alt text.

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    kfix says:

    Much as I’d love to believe otherwise, surely the Star Trek vision of the Federation is a charmingly naive vision of the future that will “calcify into nostalgic retrofuturism” (surely that phrase deserves a drink).

    • Arathorn says:

      Isn’t all optimism naive to a certain extent? That’s what makes it better than pessimism or “realistic” cynicism.
      I’m already longing for a return to that naive optimism, as all sci-fi nowadays seems to be bleak and depressing as a rule. Can’t we have some fun in the future?

  7. LogicalDash says:

    Currently cyberpunk and transhumanist fiction are weirdly preoccupied with technologies that replace something of the user’s body, like robot arms and the notion of “uploading” (which a previous tooltip problematized pretty well). I think that augmentations in our fiction and real lives are going to look kind of dull, you know, along the lines of a baseball cap that happens to read your thoughts, or a plastic wedge that happens to access a global telecommunications network. This means that the tech itself will no longer be a source of eye candy so basically any film that wants eye candy will do it with impractically flashy user interfaces and infographics and shit…probably make that part interactive since so many people are watching movies on tablets anyway.

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    Harlander says:

    Once again, the article is kinda interesting, but the title text is fascinating.

    I expect our current crop of “everything is styled like an iPhone” smooth white futurism to be a source of ironic amusement to future generations.

    • LionsPhil says:

      “Cleanpunk”, perhaps. Everyone loves an oxymoron.

      Also because I never want to read someone using the term “iPunk”. (Besides, ST:TNG was there way earlier.)

      • Monggerel says:

        Applepunk sounds cute while being unbelievably disturbing – it’s perfect.

      • PancakeWizard says:

        ‘Digipunk’ perhaps.

        I’ve always thought of the 50s retrofuturism as being called ‘futurama’, rather than a ‘punk’ (after the 1939 world’s fair) hence the name and look of the animated show.

    • Arathorn says:

      After reading the introduction, I went straight to the alt text. I’m not really interested in this game to be honest.

    • LogicalDash says:

      The actual iPhone doesn’t even look much like an iPhone anymore. In the rush for bigger screens, the space available for material design has gotten smaller to the point that the only distinctive feature of the 6+ is the button. The…single front button.

      • Napalm Sushi says:

        …And that was preceded in the early 00s by another case of phone-related futurism becoming swiftly obsolete: the gag of a wealthy and trendy character using a comically microscopic mobile phone, held delicately between their finger and thumb, taking the then-ongoing trend of all-round miniaturisation to its logical extreme – a trend that would be thoroughly bucked by the advent of smartphones and their unprecedented demands for screen-estate. It’s a perfect demonstration that even our surest-looking expectations can be disrupted.

  9. melnificent says:

    The Alt-text is fascinating. It’s hard to predict what will be the cliche of our generaton, gaming devices, cars for all, 100’s of varieties of the same phone, the 1%, pessimism, non-equal rights, green land, recreation time, it could be anything.

    With most people having to work more and longer hours the future could hold romantic ideas of family… picking the kids up from school, spending time with them, doing housework. With the ever increasing reliance on two jobs per person to support a family more and more people are having less and less free time to spend with their loved ones. After-school and breakfast clubs are busier and busier, working parents drop their children off at after breakfast and then don’t see them until dinner/bedtime. Our school now uses the main hall with 100+ children being looked after.

    But then again, those that look back tend to re-enact the higher ups… so the 1% seem like an easy and well publicised target for cliched remembrance. Using the juiciest stories as sources for gold plated suits, etc.

    Or maybe, and most likely, it’ll be something we didn’t even think of at the time.

    • Monggerel says:

      Won’t somebody please think of the rich!

    • Kollega says:

      I actually suspect that what will be remembered down the line of our day and age is the explosion of indie-everything, the hipsterdom, and minimalistic iGadgetry, with the pronounced contrast of “This song is popular, so it sucks! Now I will search for more indie-like songs with my $500 smartphone made by the highest-capitalization company in history!”

      • radishlaw says:

        I suppose this age will be looked back on akin to people the time of Romans? An explosion in online personal freedom, great sharing of information, decadency in the elite, a high contrast with the supporting African/Asian poor.

  10. frightlever says:

    Re: retrofuturism. What about all the Sci-Fi with evil empires modelled after ancient China/Japan, and plucky heroes who are swashbuckling European freebooters in spaceships? ie Flash Gordon. Or maybe it doesn’t count because it’s retroretro.

  11. varangian says:

    By chance the last 3 Moves Ahead podcast was about roguelike games. General consensus seemed to be that roguelikes like Nethack, where you could start a game, take 3 steps and die without any chance of avoiding it, were going out of fashion. Better takes on the roguelike genre aim to punish the poor decisions you take – like not running away from a dragon – rather than killing by unlucky dice rolls. As currently configured Space Rogue seems to be more in the Nethack territory so I hope it gets re-balanced in due course. I don’t mind permadeath and I’m happy to die by stupidity as often as it takes to learn how to do better but like Marsh I don’t find dying repeatedly without ever having had a chance to avoid it much fun.

    • BlueTemplar says:

      Roguelikes were always unpopular, that’s why roguelites replaced them?

    • Eleven says:

      I would love it if rogue-likes started putting in a “tourist” mode for people who just want to explore, with just enough difficulty so that you can appreciate the game mechanics but not enough that you need more than a half-dozen attempts to win the game.

      (I would also like it if you could play a rogue-like where your character wasn’t a one-person mass extinction event, but whatever.)

      • mineshaft says:

        You may know this but Nethack has a non scoring exploration mode that allows you to refuse to die.

        link to nethack.wikia.com

      • LogicalDash says:

        Well, I suppose Invisible Inc might not make you a genocide activist, since you have to pay for “cleanup” whenever you kill someone, and even incapacitating a guard raises the alarm level.

        The game that you really want is ToeJam and Earl.

  12. BlueTemplar says:

    It’s pretty easy : the cliché of our vision of the future, which is summarized very well by Star Trek : The Next Generation is :
    that there are no limits to human ingenuity, and the future consists of even more of the total domination of Man over Nature, always exploring and settling the next New Frontier –
    as if the limits imposed on us by laws of Thermodynamics, Ecology, and the Earth being generally a finite planet with limited resources… were still far away (or even didn’t exist).

  13. derbefrier says:

    man if someone would take this premise, get a license deal with Star Trek, dump the rougue like and random generation elements and make a long sprawling , detailed open world campaign in the Trek universe, with co-op and pvp modes. I would give them all my money.

  14. phuzz says:

    Blimey, that GUI is laid out very much like FTL.

  15. ziddersroofurry says:

    Great review.I loved the text that shows up when you mouse over the pictures. This was a fantastic review.

  16. ziddersroofurry says:

    I will say that from what I’ve seen the game costs a bit much for what you get. I’m not saying it’s something that should be in the dollar bin but given it’s early access and needs a lot of polishing I think the $20 price tag on Steam is asking a bit much. Put it closer to $15 and it might do better.