The Invincible is way more exciting now I know it "isn't a 1:1 adaptation" of Stanislaw Lem's sci-fi thriller
As all good adaptations should be
When Marek Markuszewski had finished working on The Witcher 3's Blood And Wine expansion, he wanted to go back to basics and make something by himself, Starward Industries' chief marketing officer Maciej Dobrowolski tells me at GDC. Something that would capture the same kind of cultural Polish heritage as The Witcher - originally adapted from Andrzej Sapkowski's six-strong series of novels - but that would take him on a new, more introspective kind of development journey. It took a while to find, but after a fateful encounter with an investor who'd just sailed across the Atlantic with only a copy of Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem's The Invincible for company, the signs were too good to ignore, Dobrowolski says. And after spending the best part of a year convincing Stanislaw Lem's son (and current rights holder) of the same thing, Markuszewski finally had his something - and a new partner to help him realise it.
"People tell us, 'Don't fuck it up, this guy's important,'" Dobrowolski continues, and no wonder. During the course of our conversation, Lem is described as both a "national treasure" and "mandatory reading in high school" for Polish students, and his hallowed cultural status is something the team's "had to deal with" in bringing the book to life. Despite all this, though, Dobrowolski insists this "isn't a one-to-one adaptation" of Lem's interstellar rescue story gone wrong, and that fans of the book will still find some surprises on the surface of Regis III as they explore its strange canyons, caves and crash sites.
"When you play the game first and then read the book, you'll find something new in the book," he says. "And if you read the book first, you'll find something new in the game, so they become complementary to each other."
Indeed, heroine Yasna and her crew of fellow astronauts are one of those "new" elements, he tells me - although how long you'll actually stay as a crew is a matter very much open to debate. When I first previewed The Invincible at the end of last year, Yasna was alone in the dusty ravines of Regis III, with only Firewatch-style radio chats with her remote astrogator Novik keeping her sane. In this new GDC build, however, we're meeting them much earlier, just 40-50 minutes in from the start of the game, Dobrowolski says.
Here, Yasna is slowly getting her bearings, finding her crewmates after crash landing on the planet's surface. Sadly, not all of them have made it, but the ones who have survived seem to be afflicted with a strange, symptom-less illness that's left them completely dazed and unable to move. Over the next 20 minutes, Yasna re-establishes communication with Novik after finding and setting up a new relay satellite - rendered with pleasing tactility onscreen as you twist, rotate and push in thumbsticks to manoeuvre it into place - and sets about trying to find the other signals of her stranded friends. But it's not just her own crew that might be waiting for her, it seems.
"The gist and the core story is there, but we didn't touch the characters," Dobrowolski tells me. "You might see some of the characters from the book, but you're not playing them. Yasna and her crew are totally made up by us, but they give the story a different spin, making it more personal and emotional."
In his view, Lem "never really went that much into people's feelings" in his books. Rather, it was the "huge, board ideas" and philosophical questions he wanted to answer that always took centre stage in his work - and when you've got a novel such as The Invincible dealing with the moral quandaries of self-replicating machines, micro robots and artificial intelligence, those sorts of questions don't come much bigger than that.
"But we wanted to give a more intimate view," he says. "So that's why we created this new crew, and not basically fuck up his guys."
This is heartening news, as I must admit I was a little worried during my preview last year whether The Invincible's emphasis on so much walking and talking was going to sustain me through its story. Admittedly, this latest preview still involved a lot of walking and talking and not a lot of action, but I can understand why Starward Industries would perhaps want to hold this stuff back if it's going to deviate from Lem's original plot - especially when the game's 11 different endings mean it could end up going down some very different routes indeed from what people might be expecting.
Dobrowolski was also keen to stress that their branching narrative isn't going end up like The Walking Dead's 'so-and-so will remember this' schtick. Rather, they're taking a very hands off approach to decision-making in their version of The Invincible, leaving players to figure out for themselves what kind of impact they're having on the game's story.
To give an example, he points to Yasna's dazed crewmate Dr Krauter. At the end of our demo, Dr Krauter is alive and (sort of) well inside a rescue pod, all because we took the time to help repair an off-kilter robot back at the crash site with a little help from Novik. We could have left the robot as it was, its long limbs stuck in an endless, non-responsive loop. Novik would have still been able to patch through to take control of it when the time came to put Krauter in the rescue lander, but its wonky limbs would have sent the poor chap hurtling down a ravine, killing him instantly. "He'd still be in the lander, but dead inside," says Dobrowolski, although what role Krauter might play once he's recovered back on the ship he wouldn't say.
The same goes for some of The Invincible's dialogue choices as well. We get the option to go back from another one of our deceased crew members, although in the interests of time, Dobrowolski says we should move on for now, so we end up leaving them behind (sorry, pal). Since they're already mullered, there's probably not much story benefit to be gained from taking the time to peel them out from under a big pile of rocks, but it's comforting to have the choice all the same.
In fact, Dobrowolski says the team was desperate to avoid the game being labelled as just "another walking simulator", as they worried that people would think it was going to be little more than "watching asteroids in space".
"We wanted to add more mechanics so nobody would call it that," he says, and the hope is that the final game will end up landing "somewhere between Firewatch and Alien Isolation, and maybe a little bit of Road 96, if you're looking at more recent games".
The latter, released in 2021 by French studio Digixart, has been particularly inspirational for the team, Dobrowolski continues, and he concludes our chat being saying how happy he is that story-driven games like this seem to be "coming back", and how there's still "space for narrative experiences that are more mature and philosophical".
All in all, it would seem Starward Industries have made a lot of good decisions of their own in the making of The Invincible, and the fact it's not going to be straightforward re-tread of the Lem story people know and love has me more excited than ever to play the finished article. Even if Alien Isolation-esque thrills don't quite materialise in the way I'm hoping, at least the Firewatch-style walking and the talking will be surprising and unpredictable - which is a lesson the first season of The Last Of Us could have learned a thing or two from after simply resorted to ripping scenes and lines from the game wholesale into the TV show. Adaptations shouldn't just repeat what came before it, if you ask me. They should build on them and move the conversation forward, challenging audiences to see that work in a new light and discover new wrinkles they never noticed before. The Invincible seems to be doing that in spades from where I'm sitting, and while there's still every possibility Starward Industries will, in fact, "fuck it up", here's hoping they succeed in telling their "more intimate view" of Lem's revered sci-fi tale.