Andy Weir’s debut novel, about to be a (surprisingly great-looking) Ridley Scott movie, completely mesmerised me. The tale of a man stuck on Mars, surviving with his wits and his fantastic intelligence, captured two of my favourite things: stories of isolation, and people smarter than me being good at difficult stuff. A light, easy read, and yet utterly absorbing, it’s stuck with me since I finished reading it a month ago. Mostly in the nagging thought about how much I wish it could be a computer game.
I’ve found myself returning to this idea so many times, working out the mechanics in my head as I walk around, musing on how you’d give the player Mark Watney’s extensive knowledge, whether it could work as a scripted narrative, and so on. If I knew how you make a game (is it something to do with BASIC?), I’d have started making a game. And then, gosh, Empyrion looks like it might scratch that itch.
You begin on an alien planet, next to your escape pod. And no instructions. Well, apart from the instructions on a website that give you an idea of how to start, if you want it. Your escape pod did its job – you escaped whatever may have happened – but it’s not in a state to escape you any further. It does, however, come with a whole bunch of useful supplies, and an incredibly useful tool that when fed the right ingredients, can build you enormously complicated tech.
So no, okay, it’s not The Martian. But the principle is there – you, alone, stranded on a planet, with a magic machine instead of a magic brain. The air isn’t breathable, so you’re going to need to create ways to make oxygen. You’ll also need supplies of food once your emergency rations run out. And you’ll need a place to live, sources of fuel, and ideally, at some point, the means to get yourself off the planet and into the next section of the game. Oh mercy me, it’s what I wanted!
In practice, this early access project is certainly rather clumsy and mundane-looking. The graphics are particularly poor, which is – as ever – only a problem for a few minutes before you stop noticing. But at the same time, it’s a royal shame that it’s not some beautiful Unity creation of inspiring vistas and wondrous sunsets. Instead it’s angular brown that looks like one of those alien planets we used to visit in 2002. Like the old spaceship that presumably blew up leaving us here, it’s functional rather than beautiful.
So too are the menus, and that’s more of a problem, since there’s an awful lot of staring at them to do. To use the Magic Machine (that’s not its name – it’s called a Constructor – but mine is better) you need to look at a lot of inventories, moving icons from tiled grid to tiled grid, as you generate enough electronics, metal components and pipes to build the rector core you need to build the small generator, to add to your base. Each build is on a varying countdown timer, but thank goodness you can rack up a whole bunch to build in a queue, and go off for a pootle.
Yet, here’s the thing, I love those bits! I’m loving creating the parts to create the parts to create the thing I need, then sticking it on the side of my base, and feeling all proud of myself. You start off with a good pile of the resources you need, stored on the pod, but these will eventually get used up, and then there will be a lot more worry about gathering resources – I’ll be intrigued to see how much it can hold my attention at that point. But in the meantime, I’m gripped. And I’m really loving the sense of building this stuff while I can, so I’ll have enough in place to help me get through when things get scarce. A big stockpile of fuel cells and oxygen tanks seems like a plan – both are essential for your game to continue, as without the former your base, pod and everything else will cease to work, and without the latter you get all dead.
Running out of copper for electronic parts, in my bid to build a land-based vehicle after completing the starting components of my base, I had to go out on an expedition to find copper ore. I got pretty lucky, and figuring out the drill, began filling my boots with the stuff. Until I, well, fell through the bottom of the world.
This is alpha, of course, so such things are expected. But ooh, what a lovely surprise. Despite the survivaling of it all, it seems it’s saved! It’s saved, in fact, right before I fell. Well this is splendid. It means I can carry on. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Empyrion – Galactic Survival is on Steam Early Access now, for just over £12.