Squaddies by the Fireside: Endless Space

“The Diablo comparison is a pretty good one, actually,” said Pete, attempting to re-light the cigar. “Scouting a new system for the first time does have that same sense of discovery and wonderment — that same feeling of ‘will this be good for me?’ when you find — or craft — a rare item in Diablo.

“The one thing that does spring to mind for me, though, is the fact that once you’ve discovered these planetary resources, they’re treated as just that — resources. They become number-generators feeding your stocks, helping make your empire stronger. There’s no explicit sense of ‘personality’ among your colonists — they’re just cold numbers.”

Pete eventually got the cigar lit and puffed on it, this time managing to do so without coughing.

“I played a strategy game from Sierra years ago called Alien Legacy,” he continued. “It came out around the same time as another game from the same publisher called Outpost, which garnered much more media attention for its then-impressive pre-rendered cutscenes and Super VGA graphics. Alien Legacy, on the other hand, kept its presentation relatively simple but infused things with personality by having specific characters along for the ride with you. These characters would advise you and help push along the game’s story. Do you think there’s scope for the inclusion of more well-defined ‘personalities’ and ‘characters’ in Endless Space — perhaps the Heroes could fulfil this role with occasional asides, comments or advice — or do you think that would take away from the fundamental experience?”

“It’s an interesting question,” replied Alex. “I don’t think a little more character would take away from the experience in any way. Maybe an advisory council or something similar would go a long way to create a sense of grounded governance rather than detached omnipotence. It’s been used to great effect in the past, and even in wonky 4X outings like Star Wars: Rebellion, just having droid advisors on the main interface screen had an interesting, reassuring effect for me — though this is highly subjective.”

During this exchange, the pair had become aware of the sound of some bassy music coming from outside the door. It had been gradually coming closer, and now it seemed almost–

The door burst open to reveal Papapishu, founding member of the Squad, inexplicably carrying a bike frame around his neck and clutching a ’90s-style boombox in his hand. The boombox was blasting Rick Ross’ Everyday I’m Hustlin’. Pishu froze in his tracks as he saw the two veterans sitting by the fire, then backed out of the room without saying a word, trying to reduce the volume of the music as subtly as possible — as if he felt that he could convince them that what they had just seen had never happened. By the time he had backed out of the door and pulled it closed, the music was gone.

Pete and Alex turned back to one another, confused expressions on their faces, then shrugged and continued their discussion.

“I think when we’ve got a nicely-balanced and dynamic diplomatic module in place, it’ll do a lot for characterisation,” continued Alex. “The act of working with or conspiring against neighbours, being considered for and initiating one’s own alliances — be they for commercial or military purposes — helps to break down what is ostensibly a numbers game. Will it ever be Civ, though? Probably not, though the lore I’ve read is damn rich and seems ripe to be populated with all manner of heroes and villains — especially given that we’re dealing with a timeframe measured in millenia.”

Pete opened his mouth to say something, but there was more to come from his friend.

“Incidentally, the most character-driven strategy game I’ve ever played has to be Cryo’s Dune. Of course, it’s almost cheating, as the majority of the game was an adventure game, but building up a commercial and military force via grassroots talking and deal-brokering is what kept that game in my top five list after all these years.”

Pete nodded.

“I’d like to see more done with artefacts,” he said. “If a planet has ‘Ancient Ruins’ on it, I’d like to know more about them. I don’t necessarily want an exploration minigame, but at the very least a bit of atmospheric text from an exploration crew might be interesting — think back to classic space exploration games like Starflight and Star Control II and what they did, for example. As you say, the lore seems to be very rich — but it’s also somewhat underutilised right now, wouldn’t you agree?”

Alex shook his head.

“Well, I don’t think it’s a case of not being used, as such, just more a question of where it’d be worth fitting it in,” he said, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I’m all for the flavour text or backstory when applied to mysterious relics or discovered temples, though. A subtle interstellar nod to Ozymandias, if you will.

“But that said, we’ve still got a lot to see in terms of tuning and tweaking. In the eyes of the heavy-duty stat-crunchers that flock to the genre, narrative or lore injection means nothing in the event of imbalance or broken mechanics. I was very happy to see diplomacy get a few overhauls, for instance, as it was only then that I didn’t feel like my neighbour was acting like a malfunctioning kneejerk machine in terms of foreign policy. Once it was acting in a slightly more rational manner, the emergent narrative felt fluid in its inception.”

Alex took out a hip-flask and took a swig from it before continuing.