Gas Powered Games make mechanical games. Games where story and character are entirely secondary concerns to the underlying weights and balances: Supreme Commander and Dungeon Siege are creations of honed function, not form. These are games that do not understand this human thing you call 'love.'
It's a very deliberate methodology, and one to celebrate. It's quite the rarity these days, a time of graphical plenty, wherein cheap-to-make in-engine cutscenes see so many games overwhelmed by their own self-indulgent, exposition-choked narratives. At least someone’s still aware that you’ve paid your money to play a game.
With Space Siege though, everything changes.
I suspect GPG are aware that, if they are to become a developer of legend, they do need to try their hand at complex, branching storytelling as well as at classical mechanics and interface design. And properly, as opposed to Supreme Commander’s perfunctory and tiresome talking-head mission briefings, or the fantasy saga archetypes draped so loosely around the Dungeon Siege games. Space Siege is the first time a GPG game isn’t just about you versus the machine (or a machine-like online opponent), but also about you versus your own conscience.
In including moral dilemmas and a fleshed-out, single central character, Space Siege is a bold, even risky departure for Chris Taylor and co, who until now have favoured games played out on a sometimes large and always impersonal stage. It’s a significant change in methodology: the tin man is about to get his heart. If Taylor’s big talk about this sci-fi RPG holds true, perhaps this could be GPG’s Bioshock – as in, the game that transforms a respected developer into a revered one.
In the event that it doesn’t, and this turns out to be just a reskinned Dungeon Siege, let’s just be thankful we’re getting a major RPG that isn’t, for once, spawned from any of the Bioware/Obisidian/Bethesda tri-loins. After all the speculation that Oblivion would lead to a roleplaying resurgence, last year ended up being miserably quiet on that front. Sure, a fair few people loved the Witcher and the Neverwinter Nights 2 addon, but both were largely preaching to the converted. A chummy, broadly accessible RPG like Space Siege could do this neglected genre a lot of favours.
It’s hard not to see echoes of Bioshock’s effective marketing in the one truly meaty bit of information revealed about Space Siege so far. It’s the game’s central moral dilemma – whether your grizzled starship trooper character (named the rather less grizzled ‘Seth’) eases his passage through the game with cyborg upgrades, or if he remains resolutely human. There’s talk of losing humanity as you fit Borgian kit to him, thus cutting off certain game options. On the other hand, keeping the mods to a minimum will make the game significantly tougher. Sure, it lacks the raw shock factor of choosing to save or kill little girls, but it’s a similar decision – convenience versus Doing The Right Thing.
Or is it the right thing? There’ll be an as-yet-unspecified pay-off should you manage to remain entirely human, but we don't know yet whether it'll be an entirely positive turn of events. Perhaps it’ll incite some of the fury surrounding Bioshock’s controversially binary treatment of its key dilemma – I know I’ll be a bit miffed if I’m judged to somehow be inhuman or evil just ‘cos I fancied shooting lasers from my eyes.
As well as having a narrative with purpose, the large, semi-autonomous parties of Dungeon Siege are dropped in favour of focusing on one character (and his upgradeable robo-sidekick). This should mean one of DS’s key frustrations is lost – no more desperately trying to keep track of multiple inventories and abilities as loot drops in a bewildering, shiny torrent. Taylor’s pretty upfront about the ways Dungeon Siege went wrong, so it’ll be fascinating to discover how he thinks the formula can be improved upon, while still feeling like a Siege game. Though Space will be more tactical than the comparatively braindead wall of sustained violence seen in the Dungeons, Gas Powered are promising a game that’s equally accessible.
And there’s not a trace of Tolkien to it. Between this and Fallout 3 (and, if you’re comfortable roping in a third man from consoleland, Mass Effect), there seems to be a quiet push to take the RPG away from its traditional environs of forests and elves and leather armour, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly twat space-goblins in the face. I try to remain objective and not unduly excited about this prospective shift (because god only knows there’s at least as much dodgy sci-fi as there is dodgy fantasy), but I really am very tired of forests and elves and leather armour. Hurrah for space, and all the weird-ass aliens and robots who sail in her.
That said, the screenshots released so far don't bode well for a great-looking game. Generally I'd rather my space adventures were prettier than this, but that's really not going to matter if the roleplaying and storytelling pays off. What kind of locations we're going to see are anyone's guess at the moment - hopefully we'll be planet-hopping with wild abandon, and not stuck in the grim corridors of these screenshots. Narrow indoor walkways don't really scream "space", after all.
So is this a concerted attempt by GPG to restore some of the prestige eroded a little by the workmanlike Dungeon Siege 2 and the mainstream inaccessibility of Supreme Commander, or just a cheerfully pop game for pop’s sake? I'd say both. Regardless, between this and the super-exciting Demigod, 2008 could be the year Gas Powered Games go huge.
On the back of yesterday’s buyout of Big Huge Games by THQ, it’s worth noting that GPG are one of increasingly few long-standing, PC-centric studios to remain independent. In the last few years, they’ve put out games through Microsoft, 2K and THQ – three publishers infamous for absorbing successful devs into their monstrous bellies, and Space Siege publisher Sega has also demonstrated such tendencies. Somehow, Gas Powered still stand on their own feet. For an independent developer to be putting out two high profile and hugely varied games in such climes in pretty damned spectacular. It's three games, if you include the upcoming second Supreme Commander expansion. Four, if you include
the just-confirmed a likely-sounding Dungeon Siege 3. Blimey. Let's hear it for the little guy.
For more HARD FACTS about Space Siege, here's a show'n'tell from last week's CES (cut cruelly into two halves):
Part the second: