Starbound is a procedurally-generated universe, where you have a ship, a star-map, and an infinite number of planets to visit and plunder. It is a game that makes almost no definition between single and multiplayer, allowing you to bring your character across the void and back again, visiting the same places online and offline, and sharing those worlds with friends. Its first beta just welcomed weary travelers, and though it is missing a framework that would make it an easier game to follow, the foundation is strong. I've spent the weekend exploring the stars.
My friend Owen lives in Stockholm, so we play lots and lots of games together online. He is a lovely man and everyone should have an Owen in their life. We unlocked Starbound on Steam at the same time, before roping in another of Owen's friends, Eld, and going on an adventure. That's us asleep up there. I love that screenshot.
It says a lot about a game that it'll enable three grown men to have a restorative slumber in a basement carved out of an alien world. We landed there after we'd all gathering on Owen's ship. Each player has their own craft, and if you're in a party together you can pay visits to each person's space-abode. The ship can fulfil a multitude of tasks - it can be a backpack, carrying your collected items (weapons, tools, decorative items) from planet-to-planet and it can be a showcase of your adventures, a decorated missile of loot. It can also serve as a meeting point, a place for players to transport themselves and then beam down onto the planet the ship is currently orbiting to meet up with chums.
That's what we did. Owen had parked over a forest planet, though it had giant plants where trees (and more importantly wood) should be. There are no classes in Starbound but there are races, and so it was that a robot with an exposed brain, a totally hot redhead human (that's me!), and a guy with purple hair all moved in together. Eld immediately began creating a house from wood that he'd already scavenged from another planet, drawing out lines on the land that would become walls and floors, then adding a backdrop of planks. Suddenly, we had a home.
Owen and I were still trying to peel back the game's foil: you begin with a matter manipulation device, which is basically a tool for placing items in and removing them from the world. A few quests, picked up by clicking an exclamation mark on the right of the screen, taught us the basics: how to make a crafting table so we could eventually create tools and more (much much more), and how to hunt and gather meat. Events escalate quickly. The first step asks players to collect an item from a locker and the sixth has them calling down an alien invasion of level 10 creatures that will ultimately unlock the rest of the map. It's a bit messy, the opening, and for a game as large as this, with so many potential experiences for the player, it risks leaving people a bit lost. It's the "what does this button do, what does that mean, why are there levelled creatures when I can't level myself?" kind of lost, in addition to the "what sort of things are down this hole?" lost.
As Eld crafted a home, Owen and I excavated. We hunted beneath the house for interesting things, including ores, creatures, pixel pods (little capsules containing the game's currency). We didn't last long underground. Your character starts with a flashlight, and although we took turns to keep the way lit for one another, it was clear that we needed torches we could place to keep the route lit. Crafting torches requires wood and the planet, apparently, did not have any. However, we returned to the surface to discover a lovely house, with beds and even a fire, roaring away against the night to keep the cold away. Yeah, when it gets dark you need to stay warm or you'll eventually freeze to death. That Eld's a keeper.
We picked a direction and started to walk. There are creatures in Starbound's world, and they are either hostile or friendly, and there are both animals and NPCs. The animals are basically fodder - aggressive mobs will attack on sight, while friendlies will simply totter about. The area of aggro is pretty low, so you won't always know whether a creature is friendly before you're in striking distance, and it's possible to whack the friendly mobs, accidentally or otherwise, turning them against you. Ground forces tend to run and jump, and I struck lucky fairly early on when I found a Legendary weapon that spits out explosive bones and has a speedy swing - most ground attacks are easily resolved with it.
More interesting attacks come from above. There are birds that drop bombs, spit out electrical charges and attempt to freeze you, though they're pretty easy to avoid. You can even knock enemies out using walls. I've yet to have a really satisfying fight in Starbound though. Combat feels functional and pretty robotic, only serving to slow the player down in dungeons and give them something to do while exploring above ground. Even with a mixture of diverse weapons, it's the sort of combat you try to find a quick escape from and continue to do so.
But fighting was never the point for me. I just wanted to see things. This planet, a place of toxic ponds and giant plants, was interesting enough, but I died and returned to our little house, leaving Owen to continue on. Eld noticed that we needed more wood to make anything of the game we were in and suggested we move on. I agreed, but Owen interrupted, Welshly: "You're not going to believe what I found guys: a sci-fi underground prison!"
And he wasn't just being Owen--who operates with a level of childlike wonder that would shame Spielberg--he had found a dungeon, and he'd found it in the most Owen way possible, by falling in a hole and spotted it under the ground. We started to dig. At this stage we'd found a tree (it turns out that a single planet can have different kinds of forests) and crafted some picks to help with the digging - the matter manipulator is slow going, and discovering that there are upgradeable tools to help you hoe, dig, and chop really sped our prison break-in along.
The dungeon was a vast facility, dedicated to some sort of techno-ape society. We started wandering through the eerie and empty world before we made a discovery - we could take anything we liked. The world is full of objects that you can pick up, mostly for decorative purposes. Like the kids from The Goonies, we grabbed everything: we pulled tiles from walls, we yanked lights and TV screens, posters and beds. Things you might do little more than glance at, insignificant little details, are placed for you to loot should you so wish. To help you understand how much you can pick up, I've circled everything (from a different world, in an ape city I found) in this screenshot that's yours to collect. Clicky.
That is both a joke and the truth. We could even grab the parts that made up the electrified walls. The entire building is a jumping puzzle made of loot, and by the time we reached the end to find a small chest with a blueprint in it, we had so much stuff that we could have built a mini-techno dungeon of our own. Elsewhere, in worlds away from this place, I have found gongs, plasma discs, prison entrance signs, brains in jars, an anchor, statues, bookcases. I've found these things in all manner of places, from a medieval robot village to a prison that's been taken over by the prisoners.
Just knowing there's that stuff out there has been a hell of a draw for me. When Owen and others aren't online (and there's no easy way to check in-game, stupidly) I'll just go off on my own. I had to stop at one world because I'd used up all of my ship's fuel (wood or coal), and I found a dungeon guarded by a wheelchair-bound ape with a raygun. The reward for completing that dungeon was a double-jump ability. Sometimes, you'll only find blocks, pixels and ore, but if you're digging with friends, working together to adventure deeper and deeper till the warm glow of lava tells you you've hit bottom, even that's good enough.
And if you're on your own, you get to see things like this.
Which is just lovely. Here, have another screenshot just because I like it.
And there are the little details that can't be screenshotted, like the music dipping when you enter water, the way fish chase spilled pixels in the water, or the fact that rain makes your character colder. It's comforting to be part of a world where everything feels like it has attention (or is going to be attended to, according to some of the missing item texts). Starbound's pretty enough and witty enough that the technical hitches don't really bother me. And what's there is already in flux - levelling is going to be explained and simplified greatly in a coming patch, and there's no story yet. That'll be coming in an update. I'd hope they'll also focus on a better friends system, because that's what I think it needs. The current server solution is good, and Owen easily hosted our game on his home machine, but it needs a more robust method of creation, bookmarking, and helping in-game friends to connect. If Chucklefish do that, Starbound will keep me coming back for months.