Important proviso - all screens and video in this piece show placeholder art. The finished Heat Signature will apparently look very different - there are some hints to its possible final appearance here, however.
"I think the subtitle of the game should be 'You Can Go Inside The Spaceships'," jokes Heat Signature dev Tom Francis as he shows me his follow-up to break-out hit Gunpoint at EGX last week. "I can already tell it's going to have the Gunpoint problem where I say 'I made a game called Gunpoint' and they say 'I don't think I've heard of that', then I explain what the game is and they're "oh yeah, I've heard of that, but I just didn't remember the name because it has nothing to do with what you do in it." A pause. "This does have heat in it, at least."
It also has movement, because that's what Tom Francis' games so far have been about. They've been about many other things too - for instance, foul-mouthed thieves with techno-trousers, languid games about grappling hooks, and now games about hijacking spaceships, but linking them all is movement. Gunpoint's graceful/pratfalling mega-jumps, Floating Point's dreamy rope-swinging and now Heat Signature's high-speed space travel and precision docking manoeuvres. It's a departure from Gunpoint for sure, but a physics-as-cartoon mentality abides.
Heat Signature, in its current state, is a two-stage game. Quests and upgrades and a central purpose are planned for later on, but right now it's find spaceship>dock with spaceship, followed by explore spaceship>fight crew>escape from or steal spaceship.
Finding a spaceship involves thrusting your 'pod', a little, red, initially weaponless thief-ship, across space at incredible speeds, using the mouse to set your direction and speed. Zoom the camera out and you'll thrust harder, zoom in and control will become finer, though still with a sort of bouncy mayhem to it. Once you're within range of your target, you've then got to slow down before you slam into it. You've then got to try and make your way to the target ship's docking bay without either a) letting your own ship's rapidly increasing acceleration drag you to the wrong place and b) triggering the target's scanners, as it'll lob a volley of insta-kill missiles at you if it realises you're there. There was a great deal of insta-killing in my brief experience with the game, but I could feel definite improvement as confidence and understanding of the unusual ship movement grew.
"I don't mind if there are a lot of quick deaths, and at first I think there will be as people don't understand the mechanics," explains Francis, "but I do want, if you get really good, for you to get really invested in one life, and it can last for an hour or more. You might have really good equipment, and then when you do die, it'll probably be heartbreaking. [laughs]"
Surviving for that long is easier said than done, as you're flying in space-physics, not Earth-physics. No gravity, see. So once you start accelerating, you keep accelerating, until such time as you accelerate in the opposite direction. There's something of an art to it, but while initial attempts saw me doomed within moments of starting, I slowly-slowly got a handle on it. This is hardly meticulously realistic physics and aerodynamics, however. "[laughs] No, not really. There is a top speed, which is a very un-space thing, in real space you could go as fast as you like, except for the speed of light, but if you did that it would take people like ten minutes to slow down, they'd never be able to stop. The explanation for that is that it's not actually a vacuum in this place, there's a vapour. It's nearly vacuum."
Apart from the risk of banging into things like a drunkard in a turbo-golf cart, the other reason to keep the speed down once you're near an enemy craft is the titular heat. The faster you're moving, the more heat you're generating, and the enemy's missiles will cheerfully lock onto that. Boom-dead. Basically, you're practicing the art of high speed space-stealth, trying to get right up close to your mark without being seen, at which point you can board it.
So, carefully does it. Sidle up to an airlock, thrusting and counter-thrusting this way and that to remain slow and steady, touch your little red ship against it and - you're in. And now you're a chap with a gun, presented with a roofless view of the Tetris block-like craft, within which are crew (with their own guns), engines, cockpits and all sorts. You need to grab data from a certain part of the ship, on orders from those you work for, but it's up to you if you want to slaughter everyone, stealth past them as they patrol, or in some cases head straight for the cockpit and take control of a ship complete with chaps manning the missile turrets for you.
You can then take this big old crate across the stars with you, using its weapons to ambush others you might pass, but the odd shapes and sizes of the procedurally-generated crafts you board and steal means they all fly differently too. A big ship will not necessarily have plenty of thrusters and guns, while a small ship could be a lightning-speed death machine. "It's purely random. We might do it by faction, so one faction's ship might have a lot of crew but not many guns, another faction might have lots of thrusters but very little defensive capability." I wound up ship-napping a hulking zig-zag of a thing with only one thruster, meaning it inclined towards turning in circles and took forever to get anywhere, and it had no guns but I stuck with it anyway because there was pleasure and pride in slowly mastering its cumbersome movement.
The main player 'pod', that little red dart, is as I understand it the fastest way to travel, and remains attached to any ship you dock with and steal, so you'll spend the majority of your time in that, but it's oh so vulnerable. And, y'know, variety is the spice of spacelife. "Your pod is kind of your home," clarifies Francis. "That's what you always go back to, and you'll be getting upgrades for that, little systems. Having a big ship is only good for getting past another big ship, because they won't attack you, or attacking another big ship. I think in future there'll be missions too. You might get a mission just to take out a ship any way you like. So you could board it and take out the captain, or you could take another ship and try and destroy it."
Of course, you're not guaranteed to get away with stealing any ship. You might well get blown up by its missiles, in which case it's perma-death and game over. (However, Francis is hoping there'll be a degree of persistence between games: "if you've lasted a long time, you'll probably have conquered some territory for your faction, and when you start a new character working for a different faction, that work that you did as the last character is still out there.") It's a different matter if you've boarded a ship but get caught in the act of exporing or stealing. The crew will shoot you unconscious, then summarily chuck you out of the airlock, your prone form rushing into the black beyond at high velocity.
Asphyxiation awaits, but if you can act fast enough you can hit Tab, assume remote control of your little red ship and then chase your own dying body across space. Accelerate as fast as you can, chase the white arrow that appears, and hope you've aimed accurately. With only seconds on the clock, it's a race against time, a last gasp that usually involves hurtling past your floating pilot at speed, mere centimetres to the left or right. It's exciting - it feels impossible when you begin the pursuit, as the oxygen timer races down and the arrow seems a thousand light years away, then as you finally close on the drifting body suddenly this rescues seems plausible. Then, no, missed it, game over. But next time. Definitely next time.
"Every time you get shot you go through that," explains Francis. It's been fun watching people do that, because no-one's good at it the first time, most people miss it. Even if you have some time to spare, if you overshoot it takes you a long time to get your speed back in the other direction."
Whether you succeed or fail, it makes death a whole lot less abrupt. "Getting shot is a little bit hard to avoid and very, very sudden, and it doesn't have Gunpoint's saving system where you can go back, like, five seconds. When [Heat Signature] didn't have this recovery mechanic it felt really frustrating. Now that it has it, often I die anyway, but the fact I had a chance to recover makes me a lot more accepting of the death."
It was my favourite idea in a game full of ideas, though many of them are yet to be implemented. Also yet to be implemented is any writing, but that was one of Gunpoint's most-praised aspects. Will there be words, and gags, and characters in Heat Signature, despite its procedural nature? "Yeah, I think so. I'm not totally sure what yet. I'm going to make the rest of the game first. I specifically want the randomly-generated stuff to be the game, and if I do story stuff it'll be like sidequests."
He's got an idea about how these will be obtained, though. "If you're flying around in your pod, very occasionally you might see another pod flying past. It's obviously another person doing the same kind of job as you. You won't be able to catch up, but the next time you start a new game and choose a character, one of the characters will be that person, and they'll have some personal quest like seeking revenge on someone. They all have a personal reason to do what they're doing, and they'll have contacts that they actually talk to, with dialogue trees and stuff. But I think if I wrote one main story and you completed that, then afterwards when you were playing the procedural stuff, that would feel kind of second rate. You might be thinking 'I've played the game, and now I'm in Ghettoised Arbitrary-Land.' Ghettoised Arbitrary-Land is the main game."
Disclaimer - I used to work at the same magazine company as Tom Francis, and sometimes socialised with him, until I moved to a different city in 2008. I consider him to be A Good Egg, and if this concerns you then please seek alternative coverage of Heat Signature from elsewhere.