Sun Dogs’ Expansive (Then Contracting) Solar System

I’ve been tinkering with Sun Dogs [official site] today. It’s a transhumanist exploration game by Nic Tringali and Rebecca McCarthy that has you moving around the solar system of the future collecting story snippets and sometimes artifacts or bodily upgrades. It does an excellent job of creating this sense of a bio-tech-dominated spacescape and infusing it with a sense of scale, but the more I played the more I also saw its limitations:

When you play you’re looking at this simplified 2D map of the solar system. When you’re up close to a planet you might see a couple of points of interest – orbital space stations, maybe a major settlement or two, or a moon drifting around. If you zoom out for a macro view you’ll see planets and dwarf planets as well as their orbits. Navigating to different points you just click but the blob that represents you (a consciousness implanted in a body which is referred to as a “sleeve”) and your ship will arc towards the target, swooping in to intercept it and maybe taking a couple of orbits of a planet or moon to do so. It’s charming.

At the moment I’m on the edge of the inner solar system, trying to find a way to Jupiter. I think I need to head to Ceres or Vesta or Pallas and time it so that I arrive when it’s near its aphelion AND its aphelion is closest to Jupiter (i.e. so that the jump from my location is as short as possible to Jupiter because I’m as far out as possible and Jupiter is within range). I’m enjoying experimenting with the jumps but would prefer to be able to plan those jumps a bit better and predict the movement of the planets. I mean, at this point I have spent more than 20 earth years trying to make those jumps intersect. COME ON.

The main meat of Sun Dogs is the storytelling, though. When you’re at a location you can click explore and the game dispenses a story fragment. Some result in you getting items or upgrades for your sleeve but far more often you’ll receive a snapshot of an experience. Your character will watch space yachts cruising past, spend an afternoon in conversation with a local stranger, encounter a possibly-virtual parrot, observe the comings and goings at a traffic point… I felt like I recognised nods to M John Harrison in particular but maybe that’s because I was reading Light fairly recently and it touches on similar ground.

I found it hard to sink into the game at first – I think that’s partly because the way the snippets are presented means they just appear on top of the interface with no obvious border or separation so I struggled to ignore the background as I read. But once I did get the hang of absorbing the words, I really liked the writing. Combined with the dreamy engine throbs and electronic pulses of the soundtrack it was easy to get a sense of this future place. It’s enormous. It’s lonely. Events often take place at great scale and so both error and natural phenomena are often catastrophic for your sleeve. A death means resetting in a new sleeve, with the memories you most recently saved, at an upload point. It contributes to this feeling of being an outsider or a tourist. You’re in this transient form, you don’t get to keep your possessions, you can’t build a home or a stable physical identity.

All of this I really liked. But the longer I played the more I encountered repetition of the events or snippets. The solar system started to feel small again so I started to click the explore button less frequently, not wanting to unearth more repeats and shrink the space further.

I also started to feel a little frustrated by the random nature of a lot of the events, particularly the deaths. Some were interesting but generally it felt like fatal events came too frequently for me to make use of any items or augments I’d accrued, as I needed to start from scratch again and again. It’s here that I felt the player came into conflict with the sleeve conceit, too. On death your character reverts to the most recently uploaded version of itself so it would have no memory of some of the things the player does. The more you play the more the player and the avatar would diverge (unless there’s a twist I haven’t encountered).

There’s a menu space for “missions” but I didn’t encounter anything that populated the mission menu nor any hints on where they might be. That’s not necessarily a problem in a game about exploration, but it would have been nice to see trails that lead you in promising directions. As it was, that tab stayed resolutely empty for me.

I fared better in acquiring genetic upgrades and space trinkets/items but the deaths meant I didn’t hold onto any for long. All I can boast at the moment is temporary ownership of some corporation data. I lost my fancy clothes and my carnivorous plant to some space disaster or other pretty early on. I had a nice sleeve for a while but that got obliterated when I was killed by a strange book.

The most interesting element of Sun Dogs for me now, after this initial period of finding out what the game is, is the possibility of mods. As per the game description there is a “Full modding system allowing additions or rewrites to the entire game.” There’s a bit more info on how that works here on the dev blog. At this point I’m waiting to see what other people do with the system and whether it becomes a platform for further/different storytelling.

Sun Dogs is on Steam for $9.99 (£6.99) and Itch for $10.

10 Comments

  1. popej says:

    I’m sad that it’s nothing to with – link to en.wikipedia.org

    I loved that game when I was little.

    This does sound interesting though.

  2. VisibleMachine says:

    M John Harrison yes yes

    • Yukiomo says:

      Sentence by sentence, MJH is best writer alive, for my money. I did not like Light as much as many others seemed to, though.

  3. Noc says:

    The thing I actually found really interesting about this game was that I played it soon after I’d played RymdResa?

    And RymdResa is ostensibly a game about space and loneliness, but ends up being a game about getting brained by asteroids that come out of nowhere and about chasing down planets while they zip around in circles, with a spaceman interjecting every so often to complain.

    But Sun Dogs nailed the sense of loneliness and alienation, since it doesn’t let you ever…settle down? All you can really do is wander about aimlessly, and while the worlds around you are busy and vibrant you can’t form any connections with persistent NPCs, or build anything that lasts, or do anything besides wander alone through the solar system until some random mishap kills you.

    And then you wake up in a backup sleeve and do it again, until you die again, until (spoiler?) eventually you die too many times and your backup degenerates into senility and you have to start over from scratch.

    And though I think you’re referred to as a “Sun Dog” a few times, I don’t think it’s ever really explained what that is, or if it’s related to your aimless, disconnected tourism. And I don’t even know if that’s the sense that the game was trying to convey, or if the dev was shooting for “vibrant, living world to immerse yourself in” and just kinda missed? But it’s definitely ended up feeling like one of those games where “quitting and going to do something else” has ended up as one of its central player-verbs — since your only other option is “wander around until you die.”

    • El Mariachi says:

      A sun dog is an atmospheric cold-weather halo phenomenon link to en.wikipedia.org

      Jonas Persson suggested that out of Norse mythology and archaic names (Danish: solhunde (sun dog), Norwegian: solhund (sun dog), Swedish: solvarg (sun wolf)) in the Scandinavian languages, constellations of two wolves hunting the Sun and the Moon, one after and one before, may be a possible origin for the term.

      Not sure if that pertains to this game, perhaps poetically… Or maybe the devs just thought it was a cool-sounding but irrelevant name, like Blade Runner. (Which did actually involve bootlegging medical equipment, e.g. scalpels, in the Alan Nourse novel and William Burroughs screenplay that the film is not at all based on.)

  4. jeeger says:

    The “sleeve)” terminology seem to be taken from the Richard Morgan “Takeshi Kovacs” book series, which is write a thrilling read, if you don’t mind a bit of pulp and violence.

    • King in Winter says:

      The word is also used by Eclipse Phase, a TTRPG about transhumanist solar system.

  5. Unsheep says:

    The author touches on a somewhat common issue for me when it comes to experimental games like this; they introduce gameplay elements that often feel rather unique, yet the game overall does not have enough complexity or depth to sustain the game.

  6. Josh W says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this, imagining it as “eclipse phase”-ish “tales of the arabian nights”, although I would prefer it if more events lead to weird conditions over death, the concept of resleveing is very interesting, but more so if the traits you gain along the way are psychological ones, so resleveing means resetting your characteristics.

    It would also be great if there were persistent other travellers, who might remember you from previous lives, potentially ones where you were in love with them or their enemy or something, which could lead to a lot of dramatic irony for the player.