In stark contrast to the usual internet drum-banging that occurs whenever a developer patches a new feature into their game, Eskil Steenberg has been growing Love- his beautiful, enigmatic, online building game- on the sly, with new features arriving simply as precious treats for the game's existing community. As of this week, he's dropped the price of the game to €10 for 180 days and is looking to expand his playerbase. Actually, let me phrase it another way. Eskil wants you. I met up with him for a spellbinding demonstration of what he's added to Love, where he's taking it and why you should be playing it.
A hotel bar in London. Eskil and I sit, quiet and illicit, as he unfolds his enormous laptop and positions other technical instruments on the table. For my part, I take out a pad and pen and order coffee and a hot chocolate, and between us the table is transformed into the tiniest of offices. Waitresses and residents drop strange looks in our direction, which I do my best to ignore. Do you folks mind? We're trying to build something here.
After some difficulties Eskil finishes setting up a private server and loads up Love. Seeing the game again, with its trademark smoky, intangible visuals, I feel a bolt of nostalgia. I was here a year ago, and it didn't end entirely well.
Rather than having a plan, Eskil simply sets off, hiking across one of Love's many dreamlike rock formations to see what we can see. "One of the cool new things in the game are these super-tokens, which you'll find in AI settlements," he says, deftly dropping off a cliff into a tribal-looking collection of huts and archways. There's a large, floating token in the middle. "This one makes balloons."
As I'm still processing that last sentence he walks up and summons a large helium balloon into existence. Snatching at its tail, it carries him up, up and up, out of the AI village and into the air.
"If you build fans," he explains, "you can blow the balloons around to use them as transport."
As Eskil continues to cling to this balloon, I realise we can see the curvature of the planet. It's an incredible view. Mountains, lagoons, ancient ruins and barren tundra all assembled like a jigsaw puzzle, somewhat intangible in the visible buzz of the engine. I knew the worlds of Love were spheres, but I had no idea they were so small. How on Earth could I have gotten so lost down there, back when I played Love? Why did those worlds seem endless?
Seemingly bored of our journey into nothingness, Eskil lets go of the balloon and we go plummeting back into this world of his. He has so much more to show me.
I'll just quickly outline Love for those who haven't played it. It's not entirely dissimilar from MineCraft. It's a game about exploring, gathering and building in a procedurally generated world. Four of Love's bigger differences from Minecraft are that
(1) Rather than simply reshaping the world, Love has you constructing and manipulating many different types of buildings
(2) It's online, and you join (or start) a community of many players rather than going it alone
(3) Building and surviving is more nuanced, for example requiring you to learn how to redirect electricity to your camp and manipulate radio frequencies
(4) The world bites back. In MineCraft, you worry about the odd creeper. In Love, you worry about the AI taking a dislike to you, building an enormous artillery piece and shelling your community.
But when I played Love last, as unique as the world, engine and concept were, I felt that something was missing, an opinion shared by some of my friends. Unlike MineCraft, where finishing a building project simply means you start an even more ambitious one, Love's limited selection of buildings meant that it was possible to build a nigh-impenetrable fortress and then... and then nothing. Not that I ever experienced that kind of success. I spent most of my time scrambling around the world, looking for tokens that would help to expand my settlement. But the knowledge that I was building my way towards the game losing what I perceived as its purpose was depressing, and I eventually lost interest.
What I thought at the time was that Eskil had built the perfect framework for a competitive multiplayer game. You could have multiple forts of pioneers duking it out, cutting one another's power, or infiltrating the opposition's base to redirect their new artillery piece at their allies. Technically you could do all that in Love then, but the game clearly didn't encourage it, mechanically speaking. Players can't even shoot other players. It's a co-op game. Nonetheless, there was something missing.
Back to last week's demonstration. Eskil's found a flat bit of scrubland and has used his moderator omnipotence to drop one of the new player buildings on top of it, something called a Melder. It accepts resources you can find throughout the world (flowers, minerals, gas, water, clay and antimatter) and then allows you to mix these in any of 216 combinations, the result then dropping out of the machine as a pod which you can carry with you and use.
This is Eskil's spin on crafting, and it's characteristically inventive, impressive and flexible. Through learning the properties of the different resources you can create (or stumble blindly across) just about anything, from pods which grow grass, pods which flood an area with electricity, pods which erode the landscape, "anti-chaff" pods which allow everybody in the area to see what anybody else (including the AI) is broadcasting (like the secret frequency they use to give co-ordinates to an artillery piece), pods which bounce you up into the air, pods which set fire to things.
"What's much cooler about my fire any other fire," Eskil explains, "is that it actually cares about the geometry of the world." To demonstrate he lobs the pod near a stony bit of ground. It climbs upward dutifully, but is more reluctant to travel other bumps or downhill.
It's around this time that some figures approach Eskil. A handful of players, seemingly women wrapped in a light-coloured cloth, have walked up and are peering at him.
Hang on. This is a private server, I think to myself. Those aren't players. They're AI.
As I watch, the women begin throwing small objects on the ground in front of Eskil. "Oh, cool!" he exclaims. "They like me." And as he walks back to the Melder to show me some more fun combinations, the flickering ladies follow him at a polite distance. They want to be friends. This was the beginning of my understanding as to where Eskil's taking Love.
Over the next twenty minutes I learned just how much work has gone into Love's AI. There are now five different AI tribes, all of whom have a different colour, name, personality, architecture and a different super token. More importantly, they're now not all terrible psychos who see your existence as an error that must be rectified by an endless stream of laser fire. Not only can they be your friends, they'll actually go to war with one another.
Eskil's description of how your relationship with the tribes manifests itself leaves me stunned. Friendly tribes who you treat with respect or protect will give you things, trade with you, if they're at the top of a cliff and see you at the bottom they'll even throw down a cable for you to climb. Ultimately, the blue tribe might even give you a token that'll allow you to build using their special architectural patterns and colours.
Tribes that dislike you have received attention too. In addition to raiding you on foot or attacking you with artillery, they can and will build outposts that overlook your settlement, allowing them to take shots at you from afar. If they do particularly well in an attack they'll even occupy their settlement and power it down. When that happens, you and your friends will need to find weapons somewhere, assault your own home and shoot out the breaker on the occupation token. But whether the AI is friendly or murderous, it'll more often than not be because of the actions of you, or a member of your community.
"Eventually," Eskil says, "the AI should be able to do everything that the players can do." This is, he goes on to explain, a herculean task. Even something as simple as AI pathfinding is nightmarish, because for the AI to appear human, they don't just need to be able to pick their way across the world from their home to a player settlement and back again. They need to be able to do that successfully, but sometimes fail, just like a human. How do you know when you've got pathfinding code right when the AI is meant to fail? How do ensure the pacing of the game is right when the AI is meant to be unpredictable?
Finally, after more than a year, I understand what Eskil's striving for with Love. A world where players don't just explore and build a home for themselves, but have perfectly human interaction with the strange folk that live there. The reason I felt Love was missing something back when I played it was because the simulation was incomplete to the point of feeling mechanical. I assumed those mechanics should be placed within the framework of a game, to give Love purpose. That's not the goal here. The goal is to make those mechanics richer, deeper, more organic and more emotive to the point of being human.
Cautiously, I ask Eskil whether this is the case, and he nods. "This is the game we dreamt about 20 years ago. An open world, where the game's story follows your actions rather than you following the game's story. The ability to do whatever you want, and the game just responds."
Which is about as inspiring a mission statement as a videogame can have, I reckon.
At the time of writing, Eskil's just given me an activation code for Love, and I'm giddy at the prospect of getting stuck in. If you want to get involved, there's no time like the present. Eskil's timed the game's price drop with the most stable build Love's seen in a while, plus among the huge list of new features is a new Help system and a built-in tutorial. There's also the following video, which Eskil put together himself.
Gentlemen? Get stuck in. This is one of those games that confirms the PC to be the most exciting gaming platform around today, and it's something we need to support.
EDIT: Yeah, I should probably mention that joining the game's teamspeak server (teamspeak.quelsolaar.com port 9987) is highly recommended, so that any moment you have a question there'll be a kindly player to help you. If you're an antisocial type, the guides on the game's wiki will help too.