Starmancer is a neat looking space station sim inspired by Dwarf Fortress

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If you want to get my attention, opening your Kickstarter pitch with a mention of transhumanism is a great way to go about that. Another great way is to make a game that’s essentially ‘RimWorld in space’, and developers Ominux Games seem to have succeeded on both counts.

Starmancer is a space station sim where you play as a human/AI hybrid tasked with managing a human crew. The devs point to Dwarf Fortress as an inspiration, with colonists that get up to sneaky stuff like blabbing about their days to their crew mates, forming relationships and potentially starting mutinies if you chuck their friends out of airlocks. Starmancer’s Kickstarter campaign is set to comfortably exceed its target, with an alpha that’ll start in the next few months and a full release planned for January 2019.

Colony sims are familiar territory by now, but Starmancer’s setting takes the idea somewhere new. A catastrophe has befallen Earth, and you control one of many Ark ships that were loaded up with digital copies of human consciousnesses and launched into the void. Each game starts with you awaking after an unknown length of time, in an unknown solar system populated by factions from other Arks that have woken up before you. You can trade with and perform missions for those factions, though there are also pirate types that will just attack you.

It’s encouraging to see that the devs know why people want to play the kind of game they’re making – “for the stories that you can tell about your station”. Key to that is making you care about your colonists, who’ll all have their own personalities. Part of that will be shaped by you: the jobs and conditions you create for each colonist affect their behaviour, so spoil them with fancy bedrooms and they’ll get used to living in decadence.

It sounds like an interesting system, though one line from the Kickstarter sets alarm bells ringing: “low class colonists are little more than animals–caring only about survival.” I’m not at all comfortable with the language being used here. This gets thorny, fast, because from what I can tell the system amounts to a crude interpretation of Marx’s theory of alienation. I think it’s an important theory that gets at a very real and very troubling aspect of capitalism, though this is complicated and nuanced stuff that needs to be presented carefully, or else risk offensively perpetuating problems that the theory is meant to expose.

It’s an issue I’ll be keeping an eye on, largely because I’m still interested in the game itself. As you’d expect, there are plenty of features I haven’t mentioned here, like managing the atmosphere (in terms of oxygen and temperature, not just curtailing rumour-mongering), the spread of diseases and your Ark’s defences.

If any of that piques your interest, you can check out a pre-alpha gameplay video here, and the Kickstarter page is here.

42 Comments

  1. Ur-Quan says:

    This looks really nice and all but i have seen far too many of these Dwarf Fortress style games crash and burn to get my hopes up.

    • Vilos Cohaagen says:

      I 100% agree with your comment.

    • Marr says:

      Step one of being a legit “Like Dwarf Fortress but” game is to begin full time development fifteen years ago.

  2. MaxMcG says:

    Well, it sure can’t be any worse that Spacebase DF9.

  3. Gothnak says:

    It’s like Kairosoft made a ‘proper’ game.

  4. SanguineAngel says:

    Looks like it might be interesting. Though, like Ur-Quan above I’d be skeptical about just how successful any game looking to DF for inspiration can be for me personally. DF is a seemingly insurmountable monument of gaming, though the repeated attempts seem to me to indicate the real desire to translate it into something just a touch more accessible.

    Matt, I’m honestly interested in your opinion regarding the space for interpretation or discussion of alienation in this game. You’ve used some pretty strong terminology to note your concerns. Who do you think might be offended by an insensitive representation?

    To me, games seem a fine place to explore, discuss, and reflect upon any number of political or socialiogical topics. Particularly sci-fi, which has a tradition of doing so. As with other creative fields – I’d fully expect and hope that discussion to address topics with varying degrees of sophistication and understanding, and explore a myriad of theories and views and so be accessible for participents of any level.

    Might it be a little churlish or imperious to chastise a work for approaching a topic that queries a concept in a simple or accessible manner, possibly with a degree of ignorance and exploring potentially uncomfortable or niave lines of thought?

    If you prohibit discussion about a topic until you have formed a full and possibly even socially “correct” opinion… How can we develop an informed opinion or knowledge if we don’t discuss it in the first place? And that applies not only to the creator but the audience also…

    I don’t really know, I guess I just wonder why it could be problematic for Starmancer to discuss the theory of alienation, even in a simplistic or hamfisted manner?

    • IaIaFhtagn says:

      I’m actually intrigued about some of the things you’ve written here. To provide some opinions about why this ‘could’ be troublesome, it’s important to remember that the idea that ‘poor people can’t appreciate nice things’ is something that’s frequently used – either openly or by implication – by gutter rags like the Mail to attack the lower working class and benefit claimants. These are the problems that I would imagine Mr Cox is referring to, in terms of possibly perpetuating them.

      What intrigues me about your response, though, is that you seem to be arguing against something that isn’t in the article. You talk about how it would be ‘imperious to chastise a work’ and argue against prohibiting ‘discussion about a topic until you have formed a full and possibly even socially “correct” opinion’, but there’s none of this in the original writing. Indeed, all Mr Cox has said is that the language used makes him – as an individual – uncomfortable, and that it needs to be presented carefully.

      Unless you’re reading a very different article to me, there’s no imperiousness here, no calls for censorship. And while it may seem strange for me – a randomer on the internet – to take issue with you taking issue, it’s something I see a lot. It seems that often when someone gives a personal opinion, there are accusations of prohibiting discussion. So, out of interest: why does his opinion on the potentially divisive nature of how a fairly complex theory is handled worry you so much?

      • SanguineAngel says:

        Hey, thanks for taking the time to respond.

        To be clear, I’m not offended or taking umbridge with Matt’s opinions or comfort level, simply thought this was an interesting line of thought, funnily enough. Thought it might make interesting conversation.

        The part of the article I’m curious about myself is this:

        “…though one line from the Kickstarter sets alarm bells ringing[…]I’m not at all comfortable with the language being used here. This gets thorny, fast, because from what I can tell the system amounts to a crude interpretation of Marx’s theory of alienation.[…]this is complicated and nuanced stuff that needs to be presented carefully, or else risk offensively perpetuating problems that the theory is meant to expose.

        It’s an issue I’ll be keeping an eye on, largely because I’m still interested in the game itself.”

        The tone here seems quite critical to me, and even authoritarian in “I’ll be keeping an eye on” (though I am aware that’s not the intended effect) hence my use of the word chastisement earlier.

        From that last line in particular I have inferred that Matt will allow the game a chance to either a. not address something he finds problematic or b. address it in a manner he finds acceptable before deciding what to do with it. buy, review it, give it the time of day.

        I’m certainly not trying to accuse anyone of censorship, please don’t think I am or that I am trying to be overly critical of Matt, who is entitled to his own opinions of course! It’s just that impression that he would prefer the game to discuss the topic in a fitting manner or not at all left me with the desire to discuss the matter.

        • automatic says:

          I don’t understand how the article writer can be prohibitive about something that he says the game is lacking. What is he prohibiting? To prohibit something is not to allow it. He’s just potentially avoiding something. He’s making a valuation based on he’s own knowledge and/or experience. I for instance love for critics to have their own opinions and it “rings a bell” to me whenever they are writing simple merchandising, because it ends up misleading readers about product quality. If a critics opinion somehow influences the game development, or sales, that depends solely on the developers and potential buyers opinions on the subject themselves. If you feel that there’s no problem for that game to have a superficial alienation representation then the writers opinion should simply have no value to you. I honestly feel that if there’s anyone here rehearsing a censorship, that one is you. A polite censorship, but a censorship on the writers opinion nonetheless.

          • SanguineAngel says:

            Hi there,

            My post was really about an honest wish to engage in dialogue with matt and anyone else (such as yourself?) interested enough I suppose, and absolutely not an attempt to shut down Matt’s own opinion or voice.

            To my mind, entering into a debate or conversation with the sole intent of defending or enforcing your own viewpoint serves no one. Better to have an openminded and honest exchange that provides both parties the opportunity to grow.

            Given the only real reactions have been people rushing to Matt’s defence I think I must have done a poor job.

            Anyway, I was merely querying what I read to be quite a strong opposition on Matt’s part on the basis that he may be ruling out something that still has merit in its own right.

            Regarding the prohibition? Though my inferrence /was/ that he would prefer that they not discuss the matter at all if they are not going to discuss it, in my original post that was a paragraph that was intended in part at least to be an extrapolation of my point. I can see that is not clear so I apologise for that.

            Although, as a writer for RPS he /is/ an influencer and so hi word does carry weight; and though I may disagree with or disregard it, it does have value to me in that it will influence or inform other readers in their own opinion forming thus affecting society in some small but tangible way. Ultimately, though, I agree with you that it the responsibility for judgement lies with the individual and I would in actuality argue /for/ him to contribute his voice to such a debate as per my earlier comments.

            Hopefully this makes some sort of sense, I’m painfully aware that I’m something of a rambler!

          • automatic says:

            @SanguineAngel I can tell by your comment you’re not an immature person but I can’t avoid to think this subject only led to a controversy because the theme is politically leaned against the status quo. Articles are always secondary to the games themselves in forming peoples opinions. And, as this comment section shows, they are way less passive in doing so. In fact the articles people write about games are one of the few mediums available to discuss game content more deeply.

            The way I see the writer is not “ruling out something that still has merit in its own right”, because that merit is already stabilished. He’s pointing out how simplistic and unpractical that form of representation is, even though it’s common sense. He’s adding something to the theme, not taking something away from it.

    • poliovaccine says:

      Well, when you ask who’s going to be offended, those low-income people who are being compared with dumb beasts come to mind. One might defend oneself from that comparison by saying that, well, naturally they’re more focused on survival, since those needs are far more prescient for them, far less attended-to. Which, of course, is part of what the idea in question is meant to talk about. So when Matt here says he can see merely expressing the idea without the necessary nuance to be a potential problem, I see at least the one very real consideration, which is that it runs a danger of presenting people as dumb brutes according to their income status. As someone who’s currently way overqualified for his gas station job, I get that.

      • SanguineAngel says:

        Perhaps, although do you think there is likely to be enough of a distinction between the fictional society depicted in the game, and real societies here that you would not find yourself identifying as part of that underclass?

  5. Dominic Tarason says:

    While the ‘little more than animals’ line is… rubbish, quite frankly, I’m willing to chalk that one up to just some clumsy writing. I appreciate that they’re trying to replicate the Dwarf Fortress system whereby your workers are largely content with having a warm bed and cold beer, while nobles make increasingly irritating and awkward demands in their pursuit of a life of luxury.

    There’s a reason why savvy dwarf fort builders design nobles quarters with a lock on the outside, and a way to re-route magma flow into the chamber if the 1% get too fussy.

    Now that I think about it, being rich in Dwarf Fortress is a very high stakes game. The ruling class never get to forget who built their homes.

    • Shadow says:

      Could easily be a writing mishap, considering that after all, most games involving classes of citizens have the lowest ones content with the basics such as bread and water, but increasingly wealthier strata require an increasing amount of luxuries to achieve the same level of contentment. Happens in Caesar/Pharaoh/Zeus/Emperor, the Anno series, Dwarf Fortress and countless others.

      But it could also represent the game’s potentially cynical tone, following the notion that humans will be humans, and the worst of us will pop up wherever you send a cluster of our species. Call me cynical as well, but if there’s something humans haven’t tired of in millenia, it’s exploiting others of their own kind. Capitalism is brand-spanking-new in this side of human history.

    • qeloqoo says:

      Kingdom: Animalia
      Phylum: Chordata
      Class: Mammalia
      Order: Primates
      Suborder: Haplorhini
      Infraorder: Simiiformes
      Family: Hominidae
      Genus: Homo
      Species: Homo sapiens
      Do you see what’s on top of the list?
      Is there point in arguing with science? Harsh conditions strip luxury sentiment as “humane” and leave only survival instinct.

      • Premium User Badge

        Drib says:

        Dude, speaking in colloquialisms is something that people do. “Little more than animals” is saying basically “not human”, or “can only think of eating, fighting, and fucking”. I get that homo sapiens are part of the animalia kingdom, but you’re missing the point and I think you know that.

      • aldo_14 says:

        Listing taxonomy does not equate to ‘arguing with science’.

    • automatic says:

      Regardless of being a DF reference this represents developer perspective. I think it’s an pretty simplistic system and kind of expected from a game where you’re basically managing capital. But they can go further than that. Like introducing crime where social inequality is too great, or a slow down to science development where the life is too basic. My 2 cents.

  6. Sandepande says:

    But I don’t want to care about my colonists. Such a faff.

  7. DodgyG33za says:

    I am usually a sucker for this kind of game, but it after buying into Towns and DF9 this would be a buy when finished for me.

    I say ‘would’, because I rage quit Rimworld and uninstalled at the weekend after a colonist went nuts and burned my/his base to the ground. Which happened to be made completely of stone. And underground. This happened just after another colonist had died after walking into one of our own traps wooden deadfall traps. And only security I had researched. Which raiders, in their infinite wisdom, avoid by tunneling though my walls.

    Sure, you can have an evolving story. With characters I can get to love only to see them die. I get that. It gets you invested and makes your decisions all the more weighty, even if a decision is effectively choosing who to let live. But you need sensible systems for controlling these outcomes. And believable actions by all involved (within the context of the setting of course) otherwise it is just an exercise in frustration and play until RNG gets you.

    • Son_of_Georg says:

      I totally understand the frustration, but to be fair, that is a pretty good story. The problem is that all the best stories from these games are of the terrible things that happen. “I built a successful base and everyone was happy” is not all that interesting.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I’ve been on a bit of a DF kick lately. Granted this won’t be out for ages, but hey. Looks neat.

    The writing is a bit suspect up there but I do expect they just mean “people with nothing expect just food and drink” or something, rather than “are literally drooling animals with no minds, the useless poor people”

    Anyway, looks neat. I’m a bit gunshy after DF9, but so what, really?

  9. jonahcutter says:

    Astrobase Command is doing something similar, in space station management with a focus on managing mini AI personalities. It’s already in backer/ea alpha.

  10. Maxheadroom says:

    The premise is reminding me of a little indie game from about 5 years ago where you played the corrupt AI of a starship and had to kill your crew (by venting them into space, rigging consoles to explode etc) before they could bet back home and have you purged.

    Anyone remember what that was called?

    Edit: never mind, fiound it : link to plaw.itch.io

    • Premium User Badge

      Drib says:

      That looks pretty neat. I’ll have to play that when I’m not at work.

      Also, what, edit? I don’t have an edit button on RPS anymore. Hax, I swear.

      • poliovaccine says:

        It’s only visible for five minutes after you post, just fyi. Or did you know that, and you mean even that doesn’t happen anymore?

  11. PantsGuy says:

    Trust RPS to try and force nothing into contraversy lol

    • Ghostwise says:

      Well, not everybody is equipped to grasp the point, and that’s OK. Low-class people are little better than animals, or so we’re told. So can we truly blame them ?

    • 111uminate says:

      Seriously.

      It’s pretentious garbage like this that dissuades me from actually reading many of the articles here in depth. If you want to wax philosophic on the horrors of Marxism and Human Animal theory, save it for your blog and keep RPS what it’s supposed to be; a God damn game review site.

      • Vilos Cohaagen says:

        Oh do shut up. The site can be whatever they, not you, want it to be.

        • baud001 says:

          They can whatever they want with their site. But then calling it “PC Game Reviews” would be dishonest.

          • Harlander says:

            What, and lose the free joke when people say “this site has got too PC for my liking”?

      • Mattsetback says:

        I mean, there’s a reason it used to be called ‘Kieron Gillen’s Blog’. I very much enjoy all the cultural criticism and extra thought that goes into the previews, far better than just regurgitating the press release. RPS has always been like this, why the surprise and anger?

      • gwop_the_derailer says:

        “keep RPS what it’s supposed to be”

        You do know that this site was co-founded by Karen Gillan, companion to the eleventh Doctor and coiner of the term New Games Journalism, right? Injecting personal politics into games criticism is exactly what this site has always been doing.

  12. Anvilfolk says:

    This looks really exciting, if it comes to fruition!

    I don’t doubt their intentions, but the way they stress it’s the earliest alpha in the video; how they claim everything is currently placeholder; all together with not being able to spot any credentials on the Kickstarter or anything like that makes me a little dubious of the success. The easiest part of game development is getting a prototype up. The hardest part is transforming it into a game.

    I keep coming back to Star Command, which has been like half a decade in coming and is still riddled with bugs. Also, The Mandate, Novus Aeterno and so very many others.

    I think it’d be important for RPS to do this kind of research into devs abilities. Projects may look cool, but without an analysis of the likelihood of them making it, reporting may be a little moot!

    I wish them the best of luck! If it turns out good, I’ll probably buy it!

  13. indigochill says:

    Something that bothers me perhaps more than it should is developers prominently featuring “Inspired by Dwarf Fortress” in their ad copy. It feels to me like they’re “hijacking” a sort of “brand recognition” that’s not theirs to benefit from.

    I’d probably be less salty about it if any of them came anywhere close to their dwarfy aspirations, thus earning the comparison. The closest game I can think of is Rimworld which is a solid game in its own right but still lacks much of Dwarf Fortress’ depth (pun intended, you darn z-levels).

    TBF, I’m not sure commercial game development is capable of reproducing Dwarf Fortress just because for Tarn it seems a life-long passion. For everyone else, it’s just another product to ship on a deadline and then never expand on.

    • Dominic Tarason says:

      Like it or not, Dwarf Fortress is the progenitor of a whole new genre, effectively. We just don’t have a better name for it yet. It’s not quite a city-builder, not quite a roguelike, not quite an A-life simulation.

      Remember when every FPS was called a Doom Clone until we had better terminology for it?

    • Alberto says:

      As a regular DF player, I see it as a great way to summarize “many systems interlocked with physical simulations affecting individual personalities”.

      We’re used to the (horrible) word Metroidvania or BattleRoyale, already, for they are good genre descriptors

  14. Raoul Duke says:

    What I want to know is – how many of the good bits of Dwarf Fortress does this include?

    It looks quite… streamlined. The holy grail would be to have a game with the vast complexity and unpredictability of Dwarf Fortress, but with an actual good UI and decent graphics.

    Are these little people invested with the vast range of characteristics and motivations of Dwarf Fortress dwarves? Is there scope for interesting emergent gameplay here?

    • Alberto says:

      Backed the project. Their scope is quite reduced, I think, by the moment.

      Also, the price tag for the copy reward tier was only 12€, and the game is due to be finished in 1 year, so yeah, small focused game it seems.

      And I like that.

  15. PancakeWizard says:

    The Spatials: Galactology is another such game which is already in late-Early Access on Steam and great fun.