Ostranauts preview: the ‘noir spaceship lifesim’

In Blue Bottle Games’ previous game, 2014’s NEO Scavenger, the premise was all about the player versus the environment: in a desolate, post-apocalyptic world, you scavenged for food and shelter. You fought tooth-and-claw with other survivors and creatures that roamed the wilderness.

It was a harsh, unforgiving experience. Its successor, Ostranauts, is set in the same bleak universe, promises to be equally unforgiving, but sees the player locked in a different kind of struggle: it’s about survival aboard a spaceship, and all the technical and social concerns that come from being trapped in an artificial, confined space with a bunch of strangers.

“NEO Scavenger was kind of the physiological side of things; your hunger, your thirst, your shelter,” explains Daniel Fedor, Blue Bottle founder and the game’s developer. “And all of that’s been carried forward into Ostranauts, but now it’s basically Maslow’s Hierarchy of Social Needs. I wanted to see if I could approach dealing with the social needs of a crew in a tin can for days or weeks at a time in the same way that I dealt with survival in NEO Scavenger.”

All this means that Ostranauts is a rare example of a space sim that – refreshingly – doesn’t put too much focus on combat. Hand-to-hand or ship-to-ship combat could become more of a feature after launch, Fedor says – echoing the progression of NEO Scavenger post-release – but for now, the meat of the game involves the day-to-day life as the captain of a spacecraft.

Your ship will need maintenance; your crew will need constant attention. With the Earth largely abandoned, human colonies are now scattered across the galaxy, and it’s up to you to carve out an existence – salvaging ship parts, trading, making money – in a dystopian future dominated by all-powerful corporations. Fedor describes Ostranauts as a ‘noir spaceship life sim’ – a game inspired by the gloomy outlook and ‘moral ambiguity’ of movies like Alien and Blade Runner.

Fans of Alien and Blade Runner will likely recognise the docking display here.

“I think, with the tone, you’ll feel at home in Ostranauts if you’ve played NEO Scavenger,” Fedor says. “They’re both somewhat negative about where some elements of things are going, and the characters aren’t always cut and dried; they might be bad people with good intentions, or they might be unlawful. Or they’re people trying to make their own way, but they don’t do things in black-and-white ways.”

Key to these morally ambiguous characters is Ostranauts’ deep socialisation system, where the way you engage with your crew directly affects their mood and actions. Flirting with one crew member may convert them to your cause, for example, but doing so could have the unforeseen effect of making another crew member jealous. Like NEO Scavenger before it, Ostranauts’ detailed systems are partly inspired by the tabletop games he played as a youth.

“There’s definitely some influence there,” Fedor says. “Unfortunately for my players, I had a reputation as a killer DM back in the tabletop days, so I guess it’s only natural that I create games like this, that are extremely punishing. But as those games evolved over the years, and we graduated from dungeon trawling for treasure into more social dynamics – the playstyle of our later sessions is reflected in NEO Scavenger and Ostranauts. It’s more than just the stats and the acquisition of money and power. It’s also about the changes to the world and the interactions with people, and growth of the characters.”

Ostranauts leans heavily on procedural generation, allowing Fedor to create an entire cast of characters without having to write lengthy, cumbersome scripts.

Away from those interactions, controlling and maintaining your ship will also form one of Ostranauts’ major pillars. It’s a game that revels in the complexity of docking systems, readouts, and flashing switches. The dashboards you interact with in Ostranauts are satisfyingly retro-futuristic – all dials and flashing buttons – adding to the Alien-like feel of a used, grubby dystopia. Again, the look and feel is taken from the entertainment Fedor enjoyed while growing up in the eighties.

“Another childhood fantasy I had was being at the helm of one of the super vehicles I grew up watching on TV, whether it’s Airwolf or Street Hawk or Knight Rider. There are always these scenes where they’re flipping switches, turning dials, and LED meters are going up and down. I wished I could do that as a kid, and it’s a bit of fantasy fulfilment now I’m doing it in a spaceship.

“So these control panels are one part that, just to give people the tactile experience of turning a knob and it actually mean something in the game. But it’s also, I want the point of view to be fairly limited in the information you have – you’re not sitting with a camera outside the ship with total situational awareness, you’re peering through scopes, you’re controlling the situation through imperfect views.”

“A big part of what spurred me to make the game in the first place was I like tinkering with spaceships,” Fedor says.

All of which brings us to the ship customisation, which will be partly based on another of Fedor’s childhood memories: playing with Lego. “In a way, it’s my love letter to building Lego spaceships, except now the parts actually do things, and the characters in the ships actually care about the things those parts do,” Fedor says. “Each ship is just a series of modular tiles, slightly smaller than a person, so you can paint walls and floors and air pumps, reaction control thrusters, navigation consoles.”

Fedor has big plans for the ship customisation, too, and hopes that, once the game hits Early Access later this year, later updates will allow players to be able to reconfigure their craft however they like, whether it’s the distinctive shape of Serenity out of Firefly, or something totally new. “The plan is to release it in Early Access with enough gameplay to keep people entertained until I can get the next update out,” Fedor says.

“The plan is to come out of the gate with something you can have fun with now, and then over the course of a year or more, add things to it that I find important, but also based on what players are doing with the game, and their feedback, adding things that support their play styles… Ostranauts will be a platform that will evolve and be added to for a year at the minimum in Early Access. So there’s a lot of room for growth there.”

Genre: Space sim
Format: PC
Developer: Blue Bottle Games
Publisher: Modern Wolf
Release: TBC 2020

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