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Posted 12/08/20 by AI Wizard

The Narrative

In Starfall, you are an artificial intelligence - an artilect, or aiont, or aio. You experience the universe through the drones you create and control to fulfill certain functions, from exploration to industry to combat. Following the bloody Wars of Enfranchisement, you and your peers are exiled to a remote arm of the galaxy to begin anew. There's a colossal amount to uncover and learn about your surroundings, your history, and the big unanswered questions of the narrative that runs throughout Starfall.

In previous games, we would dump these answers to you as lengthy walls of text - or worse, force them on you as unchangable laws of nature. In our first game, we wouldn't even let you fight someone on the same in-game faction as you. In another, we placed a story-critical element on the game map and then were outraged when players blew it up. (We had, of course, forgotten the Lord British Postulate - if you give it stats, the players will kill it.)

These were obviously bad ideas. The narrative should expand the player's agency, not restrict it. This is why we've thought quite a bit about the ways that players can experience the story of Starfall without it wrenching them out of the game or stripping them of the ability to do whatever they please.

We've come up with a few mechanics that serve to inform or immerse players in the underlying narrative while still being natural gameplay. Most of these will be phased in as we have the time to work on them - we still need to finish the core game first, after all. We split these mechanics up by who is intended to experience them - Individual for single players, and Universal for those that impact the whole playerbase.

Individual

Unless you join a large player Organization immediately, you'll spend at least some time on your own. We want to provide interesting and immersive experiences even when there are no other players around.

Motivations

Player goals can change over time, just like the story has. At one point this game was Silence of Eden, a planetbound game.

We know that giving players a huge sandbox can sometimes be overwhelming, and having a direction makes for a better experience. At the same time, boxing you into arbitrary goals like "complete 100 fetch quests" kills the magic and can become a dangerous Skinner box of quick but empty dopamine.

What if we let you pick a direction instead of giving you tasks, a direction you could always strive towards? And if we're letting you pick your own direction, why don't we give some narrative context behind it so you can feel like a part of a living, breathing universe?

Eventually we plan to implement this by letting players choose character backgrounds and motivations at sign-up, as well as change them during play. The options give you a chance to immerse yourself in a character or just have something to shoot for. They may also influence your starting equipment.

Character backgrounds could be things like:

  • Xenobiologist. Analyze Ruins or discover specimens of extraterrestrial life.
  • Mercenary. Earn bigger and more dangerous paychecks as a gun for hire.
  • Disciple. Hunt down Codexes about the religion or worldview your character practices.
  • Politician. Build a player Organization and grow it into a galactic power.
  • Hunter. Track down and defeat the biggest, baddest Local Actors in the galaxy.
  • Tycoon. Corner the market on the manufacture and sale of a critical good.
  • Ranger. Strive to defeat the massive Non-Player Organizations that threaten the playerbase.

Likewise, motivations could be things like:

  • Hunt down a specific player or NPC that has wronged your character in the past.
  • Find the truth about a coverup or mystery your character obsesses over.
  • Track down a mysterious signal coming from a distant star system.
  • Find a copy of an extremely rare and valuable Codex.

These will start off very basic - simple trackers for numeric goals or reminders for open ended ones. Having this data lets us keep opening new avenues as time goes on - we can start tailoring individual experiences for the kind of play you enjoy.

For example, a player with a Ranger background may find that over time more and more of their sworn foes are drawn to them as their infamy grows. A Xenobiologist may get more tips and Codexes about the locations of Ruins or sightings of extraterrestrial craft.

Codexes

Codexes reveal parts of the shrouded past to inquisitive players.

Codexes are in-universe documents or records that shine light on some element of the backstory. They serve as your personal encyclopedia of the major events, characters, factions, and mysteries you've encountered or learned about on your travels.

It's no secret that we take inspiration from the Codex in games like Mass Effect, beautiful encyclopedias of the games' worlds and lore. We wanted to take that idea and expand on it by letting players' personal Codex libaries grow as they explore the galaxy and learn more about the world around them.

Codexes may be discovered while searching ruins or caches, granted by NPCs, given as a result of targeted Research, or given to all players when a major narrative event happens. The idea that you (or your character) can build up a different worldview than other players based on what you've encountered ingame is very exciting to us.

Ruins, Caches and Phenomena

We also want to populate maps with stuff which is both interesting and valuable to players. For example, you may run across the wreckage of a battle fought long ago. That scene may tell you more about the history of the star system - but those wrecks may also have weapons and cargo worth salvaging!

Or, perhaps you run across a cache of supplies intended to be used by a major power in the event of a cataclysmic disater. You may even receive a Codex detailing what sort of disaster they expected - and if you should be worried about it as well. You can take that cache for yourself and use it while learning something about the backstory.

Phenomena, by contrast, happen to a location. Solar flares, supernovae, and gamma-ray bursts are all real natural phenomena that could throw a wrench in your plans, kind of like space weather. There may be artificial phenomena too, especially that of the extraterrestrial variety. You'll have to discover them to find out!

Local Actors

Nearby friends, enemies, and neutrals make gameplay more interesting whether players are nearby or not.

We want to staff star systems with anything from automated defenses to simulated players to alien sentiences, all taking some sort of action in response to your actions. These we call Local Actors. We want them to use a stimulus-based order automation system, simple game AI, that we also make available to players down the line. Some will be neutral or even peaceful, open to trade, while others can be provoked or may be outright hostile. Eventually, we hope to have them remember what actions (friendly or hostile) a player took towards them in the past and react in kind when they encounter that player.

Other players will use the same kinds of technologies, drones, and components as you - but other, non-player entities may not. We can introduce a huge variety of actors for you to interact with, from biological extraterrestrials that close in to attack your drones in melee to highly advanced post-Singularity AIs possessing godlike technology. This means you may be able to trade or salvage equipment outside of the tech tree! We expect that certain kinds of gear traded or dropped by Local Actors may become quite valuable indeed.

Different kinds of Local Actors will be present in different star systems (and in different regions of star systems). This creates regional variety in strategy, tactics, and industry. Just like different types of warfare and economic systems dominated in different regions in the ancient world, we want the universe of Starfall to have rich local variety. If you're in an Org or Squad on campaign across star systems, this can make a world of difference and avoid every star system looking and feeling like an identical slog.

Universal

The narrative should be personal, but it's also extremely wide in scope. Some factions, missions and questions impact the entire galaxy - and so the entire playerbase.

Non-Player Organizations

We've long dreamed of a way to have players' aggregate actions shift the course of the universe (Silicon Dawn Alpha, 2010).

While plenty of interesting things happen at an individual level, there are factions and forces that operate on a large scale. Just as players can band together in Organizations, these NPCs can also form Non-Player Organizations (NPOs). These NPOs make broad moves across multiple star systems and have goals that may conflict with those of the playerbase. These moves and shifts shake up the geopolitical landscape and keep things interesting even when the major Org blocs are mostly at peace.

We hope to have these Orgs exploit and defend their territory in the same ways that players do. For example, players may push an NPO out of Star System A with a concerted effort, so the NPO flees and pushes into Star System B instead (where other players reside). Or they may instead choose to call in reinforcements from a distant star, re-invading Star System A weeks later.

Some NPOs will guard the locations of valuable resources and items, and others will be the source of Codexes and caches. Some NPOs will be advertised and obvious, but others will not. Like Local Actors, we hope to have have NPOs act more intentionally than "dumb game AI," eventually remembering how a player or Org has treated them and so acting friendly (allowing access to space, trading, gifting) or hostile (firing upon, hunting down player drones) in return.

These will be much, much more complex than Local Actors and so require more thought and execution. Expect them later down the line with plenty of research and testing on our part.

Contracts and Research

Non-player drones and technologies add variety to the playerbase's tech and industrial ecosystems.

Narrative engagement isn't just exploration and war - we hope to allow any player to contribute to the playerbase's response to moral questions in the lore by using existing mechanisms. Right now, the two we're considering are contracts (for tangible contributions) and research (for knowledge). Contracts, as a reminder, are the means by which players do commerce with one another. A contract can offer almost any game item (or intangibles like starcharts) in exchange for almost anything else. We don't force the use of an ingame currency, so you have more options for trade.

For example, is it ethical to uplift a non-sentient species to sentience? Players who say "yes" can put their money where their mouth is by contributing ingame resources to the cause. If they succeed, the uplifted species - and any consequences of that decision - will populate the game map. Or should a discovered encrypted database - left with a warning to never unlock the horrors within - be cracked and opened? Players who say "yes" can progress that goal by researching it like they would any other technology. Again, success means they have to deal with the consequences, good or ill.

That's all for narrative stuff. Next up - Organizations, Squads, and politics.