Chaotic Era preview – a harsh RTS

Beneath Chaotic Era’s cool, retro-futuristic user interface, a potential humanitarian disaster is unfolding. After countless years in hypersleep, you and a small group of pilgrims have emerged on an alien planet, hoping to find a hospitable new home now that Earth’s on its last legs following years of ill-treatment. The problem is, the odds are decidedly not in your favour.

In each run of the game, your starting planet can harbour all kinds of threats, from intense temperatures to natural disasters to hideous alien diseases. As the commander of this beleaguered group of survivors, you’re responsible for exploring the planet, harvesting local resources that can be turned into energy, using said energy to build new units and structures, and eventually, forge a means of escaping your current world and finding new, habitable spaces elsewhere.

Chaotic Era is, in short, a real-time strategy game along the lines of StarCraft and SimCity, but served up with a detached technological style all its own: the monochrome visuals give the impression you’re overseeing everything via the kind of analogue, chunky computer terminal once seen in seventies and eighties sci-fi staples like Alien and Blade Runner. It’s an arrestingly clean, minimal look, but one that belies the ambition going on behind the scenes; for one thing, it’s a pretty enormous game for a two-person indie team to tackle, and second, it’s unusual to see an RTS game of this style and scope on iOS.

Remarkably, though, Chaotic Era was conceived as an even bigger project in its nascent stages. Programmer Gabriel O’Flaherty-Chan tells us that the initial thinking was to recreate a “proportionally accurate universe simulation” of stars and planets. “We had all these hopes and dreams of this incredibly immersive, realistic project,” he says. “And we end up taking all these ideas, pulling out what we really liked, and figuring out how we could package them together into something we could actually finish. It’s been a few years in the making, but without some of that focus, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.”

The retro-futuristic displays seen in Alien and Blade Runner formed the basis of Chaotic Era’s minimalist user interface.

“It’s been finding that balance between it being a mobile game, but also a macro experience,” continues designer Kevin Donnelly. “And so, what’s the correct balance between giving a player a universe or galaxy or star cluster to explore, and having them be able to play that effectively on mobile without it becoming a really paint-by-numbers RTS? The challenge has been for us to constantly be pushing ourselves beyond what’s already been done on iOS, and into this new territory of a large, complex game that we hope is going to offer folks something they’ve never played before.”

One of Chaotic Era’s noteworthy departures from the RTS playbook is its lack of combat; this places the emphasis firmly on survival – of building a new society in the face of almost impossible odds. “It’s like someone getting dropped in the middle of the woods and needing to figure out how to live,” Donnelly says. “That’s what we wanted to create, except in space. And so that’s why we decided to not include a combat system for the sake of emphasising survival and struggling – just trying to make it out of the depths of space alive, because space is the greatest enemy.”

So if life on Chaotic Era’s planets is so difficult, is there an ecological undercurrent to the game, we wondered? “I think so,” Donnelly nods. “There’s this core message of, what we’ve got is really special, which is a planet that has these resources and can support us. A lot of people get excited about going to Mars or going to other planets, but life on Mars isn’t going to be great. It’s not going to be a magical paradise – you’ll be in an underground bunker 24 hours a day and you’re going to miss Earth terribly. So there’s this core thought: let’s make a game about what it means for humanity to continue down a path of constant energy consumption above all else, and not thinking about the long-term implications of that.”

Just to make things even more tense, the star system you’re stuck in is only years from collapse.

In Chaotic Era, then, the cruelty’s the point: you’ll die often, and you’ll die quickly – but this being a mobile game, these short bouts make it ideal for short play sessions. “We’ve been doing a lot of playtesting recently, and we’ve seen people lose the game immediately,” O’Flaherty-Chan says. “Most people that play the game, they’ll lose within the first few minutes because they don’t know how to strategically collect energy in a sustainable or scalable way.”

“Yeah, the way we’ve built the game, there’s so many possible ways it can unfold for you,” Donnelly concurs. “There’s possibilities of players landing on planets and they’re screwed within seconds because they just made the wrong move at the start, or they’re able to prosper for a long time because they’re lucky. But then their next move to a different planet just completely messes them up… it’s getting back to what we were talking about: this is what it’s going to be like in real life. If we were to send out a thousand ships, in a thousand different directions, some of them will have a good time, and some of them will have a very bad time. We wanted to create that same experience for a player who boots up Chaotic Era, and they’re not sure if they’re going to have an awesome game that lasts two hours or if they’ll have to restart within two minutes.”

Like we said: harsh.

Genre: RTS
Format: iOS
Developer: BOBBY
Publisher: BOBBY
Release: October 2021
(Early Access)
Social: @chaotic_era

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