One of the things that I was alluding to last week was that I “grew up” playing role-playing games (RPGs). I was still a young kid in the 1980s, so I missed out on the Ultima and Wizardry franchises. Back then, my family didn’t own a computer, so I was mostly – alright, exclusively – gaming on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that I purchased my first computer and so had access to the wonderful world of computer RPGs. Back then I was, and still largely remain, a console gamer (don’t hate me, Kerbal Space Program!).
Back in 1980s and 1990s however, console RPGs could almost be equated with Japanese RPGs (JRPGs). If computers were the world of Ultima, The Bard’s Tale, and The Elders Scrolls, then consoles were the home of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that if I ask someone now to name a JRPG, the answer I’d get would be one of the Final Fantasy titles. And with good reason. Many of the games in the series are excellent and routinely end up in online top-10 lists.
I should confess that I was never really a huge fan of Final Fantasy, and by that I mean that I never really played through many of the games. My first one was Final Fantasy VII (I liked it a lot). Then I moved to Final Fantasy IX (never finished it), Final Fantasy X (stopped playing before the last boss), and Final Fantasy XII (didn’t play much of it, but enjoyed what I played).
To me, JRPG isn’t equated to Final Fantasy. Rather, my JRPG of choice was Phantasy Star, or more precisely Phantasy Star IV. On the surface, both franchises espouse many of the same tropes. Both franchises guide you through a tightly focused narrative (yes, even the ones with open worlds). Whether you’re playing Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star, the early titles have you play through medieval fantasy worlds where magic abounds. Also, both games square you off against a Big Bad Evil Guy that wants to SPACESHIPS? OMG, THERE’S SPACESHIPS IN THIS GAME? I CAN GO INTO OUTER SPACE? LOOK AT ME, I’M VISITING OTHER PLANETS! WHAT ARE YOU SAYING, PHANTASY STAR? THERE’S 6 MORE PLANETS TO EXPLORE? OMG!
And there you have it. Phantasy Star ably joined my first video game passion, the JRPG, with my second video game passion, the space simulation. In the 1990s, I devoured the Wing Commander franchise, and with Phantasy Star, I was able to join both worlds. Needless to say, my Star Wars-loving teen ass was jubilant.
But then, I met Starflight.
As I said last week, Starflight was released on computers in 1986. However, I didn’t play it until the mid-1990s after it was ported to the Sega Genesis. For its time, Starflight was a technological achievement. It pioneered procedural content generation and algorithmic map creation. It was also one of the earliest examples of sandbox game design, and has been cited by Casey Hudson as one of the leading influences on the Mass Effect franchise. An impressive pedigree, to say the least.
However, at first glance, it’s hard to pin-point what makes the game fun. It contradicts so many of the norms that have become expected for good games that I’d hazard to say that Starflight would likely have been a forgotten flop if it had been released in today’s game design ecology.
So what is Starflight?
At its heart, Starflight is a space exploration game. In fact, that’s made quite clear right at the start. The first scene after entering your captain’s name on the menu screen puts you aboard a space station in a pixelated space suit. That’s it. No introductory cut scene, no scrolling text detailing a plot, nothing. It’s you, in a space suit, in a space station.
So you start exploring. The station itself has 5 doors: Operations, Personnel, Ship Construction, Trade Depot, and Airlock. That’s it. So you first go to Operations, where a message awaits you that details your first mission:
You are about to embark on your first mission. In your bank account, you will find the amount of 50,000 monetary units (M.U.). This money is to be spent training your crew, configuring your ship, and purchasing any necessary materials.
Of course, you may wish to leave some portion of this in the bank. At this stage, our primary goal is to gather information. Consequently, your objectives are –
1. Seek out and explore strange new worlds.
2. Boldly go where no man has gone before.
3. Establish contact with any sentients.
4. Capture and bring back non-sentient lifeforms.
5. Record alien lifeform data.
6. Bring back alien artifacts.
7. Bring back any valuable minerals (including endurium).
8. Keep from getting brutally killed.
We have little information to offer concerning what you might find. We suggest, however, that you avoid the area of space around the coordinates 135, 84 since that is where we lost contact with two of our earlier ships.
Scout reports indicate a high density of minerals in the mountainous regions of the innermost planet of our system.
Further, we have found information that leads us to believe that there may be some ruins of the Old Empire at coordinates 17N x 162E of the second planet of the neighboring K-class system.
We have also received some indication of alien activity in the system 175, 94. Good luck, and a safe return.
You’d be forgiven to think that you’re playing United States Geological Survey: The Game. In short, you’re expected to mine minerals, make contact with other species, and gather resources. Why? You don’t know. In fact, you’ll never get a clear indication of a plot even if you do follow-up on any of the clues given in the message. Oh, things will happen, even fun and wondrous things, but the main plot they shall not be.
Next, you choose and train your 5 crew members. You’re given the choice of various races: humans make good science officers, Velox good navigators and engineers, Thrynn good communications officers, and Elowan good communications officers and doctors. You can also choose an android crew that can fulfill any role but cannot be as proficient as the other races in said roles.
You continue moving down the series of doors to create your ship. Given your funds and the nature of your mission, the best investment appears to be cargo pods, so you purchase as many as you can, and bank the rest of the money.
Upon exiting the airlock, you’ll find yourself in orbit around your space station. It’s time to go explore! The message in Operations mentioned the innermost planet, but you’re free to explore any of the 5 planets of the system. So you break orbit, and make your way to the nearest planet (in-system travel barely uses any fuel, while traveling between systems guzzles fuel like crazy).
You quickly realize that the game’s physics are more complex that they might seem. While in-system, your ship is subject to the gravitational pull of celestial bodies, and even conserves its speed in space. You find yourself constantly readjusting your trajectory to compensate for these factors until you manage to establish orbit around a planet.
Upon making orbit, you can have your crew perform certain tasks. At this point, you’re mainly concerned with the science officer (who can provide you with the planet’s characteristics), and the navigator (who can land you on the planet).
Landing possesses its own challenges. You’re first presented with a Mercator-like map on which you must choose your landing spot (you can land anywhere on the planet). Second, you’ll need to safely land your ship: an easy enough task on low-gravity worlds, but quite a challenge on high-gravity ones. Once landed, you roam around the landing area with your rover and collect the minerals present in the ground before going back to the station to sell them.
And that’s it. Over and over again.
So what makes the game so fun? Remember how excited I was when I discovered that Phantasy Star IV allowed me to visit a few planets? Starflight takes that to a whole new level. In a sense, you could say that the actual game begins once you’ve gathered enough minerals to buy fuel and leave your system. And once you do, well you’d be forgiven for being overwhelmed.
Where Phantasy Star IV has one system and 4-5 planets, Starflight has over 100 visitable systems that house over 800 explorable planets. Once you leave your original system, Starflight tells you that the universe is yours to explore.
However, more interesting is what Starflight doesn’t tell you, and that’s practically everything else.
Got an Elowan on your crew? Good luck striking a lucrative trading relationship with the Thrynn. Angered the Mechans? Good luck finding Old Earth. Ran into the Spemin? They act tough, but show some teeth and they comically back down. Went to system 135, 8OH GOD THE UHLEKS! IT BURNS! IT BURNS!
But the biggest thing that Starflight doesn’t tell you is that you’re actually the bad guy. And I don’t mean the bad guy in the Knight of the Old Republic kind of way. I mean a genuine genocidal bad guy.
Remember those endurium crystals you and the rest of the galaxy use for fuel? They’re actually sentient. In fact, the actual plot of Starflight revolves around the fact that the sentient endurium crystals are really, really angry at being killed off by the millions so they decide to take their homeworld, the Crystal Planet, out for a ride to cause a supernova into every system it encounters.
They don’t really know we’re sentient too, you see. They communicate telepathetically, and because no other races does so, they figure we’re just some mindless bug that best be squashed before it spreads too much.
But you don’t know that. In fact, you spend much of the game gathering resources to buy endurium to explore the galaxy. Sure, eventually you find out, but what do you do? Well if you’re following the plot you’ll end up blowing up the Crystal Planet, thereby annihilating an entire sentient race.
It’s the fact that Starflight doesn’t tell you anything that makes it so fun. It’s probably the closest to a computerized Dungeons & Dragons adventure as we’re likely to get. Phantasy Star and RPGs keep you on plot. Starflight doesn’t. It allows you to create your own stories.
I’ve never finished the main plot of Starflight. I was too busy plotting with the Thrynn, hunting down Old Earth’s location, or trying to find the Staff constellation where the pirate Harrisson’s treasure is buried. I was too engrossed in my endless war with the Uhleks and their minions. I was too compelled to find a new home for my people after I figured out that our system was going nova in less than 200 days. I was too busy, in other words, following a plot – mine – just not the plot.
Starflight changed the way I game by changing my expectations. No longer was I satisfied with following the thread of breadcrumbs most RPGs laid out before me. Sure I still played them, but it just wasn’t the same. It really wasn’t until Mass Effect that RPGs began keeping my attention again for long periods of time. In fact, I pretty much stopped playing JRPGs for years.
I tried playing them again recently with current generation games like Lost Odyssey and Resonance of Fate in the hope that they’d be the modern game changers that would rekindle the love, but I just couldn’t. Similarly, I tried playing Ultima for the first time recently using an emulator, but I quickly stopped. I just couldn’t go back. I knew what kind of game play was waiting for me if I continued, and it depressed me. I knew that the choices I would be making wouldn’t really be choices at all. They wouldn’t even feel as if I’m making a choice.
And choice is where Starflight shines. Nowadays, choice trees are almost a must in RPGs. However, even in the freest of games, we end up pigeon-holed into a few select paths. Mass Effect, for example, prides itself on the fact that player choices matter. However, I’m sure we all remember the uproar that Mass Effect 3‘s ending caused.
Where RPGs often prevent you from making mistakes, Starflight lets you reap what you sow. That plot-critical NPC in Phantasy Star? Good luck getting rid of him or her. That story thread you’re urged to follow in Final Fantasy? Go ahead and try ignoring it.
Morality is treated similarly. Morality systems are currently the bête noire of RPG game design. They make their appearance in most RPGs, yet focus on the extremes in such a way that one is either a paragon of virtue or a world-destroying monster. And your reward? Some minor plot variation. Starflight‘s morality system is much more dynamic for one simple reason: it doesn’t exist.
Where most RPGs will tell you how to be good or bad, Starflight simply gives you a bomb and tells you: “Do as you will, but be ready to live with the consequences.” The choice is yours, not some algorithms.
And that, my friends, is the kind of role-playing I want to be doing.
This post is part of Critical Distance’s October Blogs of the Round Table. See the other posts by clicking on the link below.