There is an alien bird in front of me, and it is adorable. It’s all pupils and cuteness, a squeaking, big-eyed blob snuffling happily away at my feet. Or rather at the feet of Alex Hutchinson. He's the creative director of Journey To The Savage Planet, and he's guiding me through his new studio's "optimistic and colourful" sci-fi exploration game. It's about finding a new colony for humanity. About setting off on "a purely positive mission to get out there and find something for people."
Hutchinson kicks the bird into the maw of a carnivorous plant, then cackles as the sated beast retracts to open up a new path. You don't always need to visit other planets to find savagery.
Journey To The Savage Planet is the first game from Hutchinson's company, the 25-strong Typhoon Studios. It's staffed by industry veterans taking refuge from big-budget open worlds including Assassin's Creed and Far Cry, Hutchinson himself having been the creative director of Far Cry 4. Gone, though, are the mantras that defined their work for the man. "Hidden content is wasted content", they used to say at Ubisoft. Not on the Savage Planet.
You’re the latest recruit of Kindred Aerospace, an organisation that proudly declares itself the fourth best space exploration company in the universe. Your goal is to determine whether the planet you've landed on is habitable, check out an unexpected alien monolith, and send data back to your corporate overlords.
In some ways, to talk of overlords is to distract from what Journey To The Savage Planet is. This is no desperate struggle for survival. It's a romp through a planet that sometimes tries to kill you, and often only once you're busy trying to kill it. Hutchinson and his team want players to take their time, in a world that "pushes back on you" without being overbearing. As Hutchinson repeatedly told me, he's very keen for players to reach the end. Ideally in 10-12 hours, if they commit to "turning over all the rocks".
"Optimistic" was almost the very first word Hutchinson deployed, describing his attempt to recapture the spirit of games from his childhood. "I wanted to get back to that positive feeling I had growing up", he said. "I think we're a bit dystopian right now, everything is grey and brown and negative".
Sure enough, the Planet is anything but. It's a lush, vibrant world, filled with uniquely arresting plants and beasties. At one point Hutchinson hunted down a warbling multi-headed chicken-like creature, shot it, then laughed as it poofed into two smaller creatures that ran off screaming in opposite directions. I confess, I chuckled too.
When we weren't shooting adorable aliens for lols, we solved puzzles, gathered resources for gadgets, and occasionally fought brightly-coloured monsters. Your ultimate aim is to reach the top of that monolith, but the path there is littered with side-trails and distractions.
I got a taste for how that works moments after we left our dropship. After a brief foray into a pit full of gloopy jellyfish ghosts, Hutchinson pointed out the giant rocks floating above. Swapping to a snazzy visor mode, he zoomed in on one of the vines coating them. The visor's chirpy robo-voice suggested that we might be able to make a grappling hook, then added a quest marker guiding us to the right materials. It's a slick, unobtrusive way of handling objectives.
Hutchinson insisted that many of those objectives can be tackled in multiple ways, and that he doesn't want people to get stuck. "You should feel rewarded for trying things", he said, "as opposed to being punished for failing to second guess the designer." It's a laudable goal, though I can't say I saw much evidence of it. That bulbous bird, for instance, simply had to die.
I pointed out that some players would rather quit than boot a creature with eyes that big into anything, let alone a flesh-eating flower. Will there really be no way to finish the game without killing anything adorable? "I would love to say yes. At the moment it's a no. You can get through about 75% of it, and we've made the monsters you do have to fight not so cute and cuddly, but yeah, you do have to confront them."
Hutchinson hasn't lost hope, he told me, of figuring out a way for cunning players to best the Savage Planet without violence. I'm sceptical, and not just because of the relish with which he dispatched my sweet balloon friend. There's also this trailer, and its stylised freeze-frame of foot connecting with bird.
In some ways, to talk of overlords is to nail exactly what The Savage Planet is. Life might be looking up for humanity, but this is a world that exists to be abused by it. Albeit a beautiful, surreal world that I'm still eager to explore - far more so than those populating No Man's Sky, a game I noticed Hutchinson distancing himself from at every opportunity. It made me wonder: does he reckon No Man's Sky has tainted the well for colourful space games?
"I don't know, I was the lead designer on Spore so maybe we tainted the well before they did! Maybe they re-tainted it." Japes aside, Hutchinson was keen to air his issues with infinite oatmeal. He told me the problem with algorithmic content is that it inevitably leads to a lack of specificity, providing "an emotion of scale" that skips the most important part of exploration: discovery. "I don't want to find something random, I want to find something that a creator put there for me."
He would say that. That doesn't mean I don't agree with him.
I wouldn't call Savage Planet an optimistic game, but it's certainly a jolly one. A puerile world where "everything is gooey", where every creature has a place and a purpose. Creatures that don't just make me ask 'what is THAT?', but 'what can it do?', and 'can I turn its goop into a bouncy platform or something?'
I'll find out early next year.