Wishful Thinking: Han Solo Simulator

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Writing my recent post about The Precursors, and how it attempts to be a dream game by coupling a free-roaming space sim with a first-person shooter/role-playing game, reminded me that I’d started a series about dream game designs over two years ago. I never got around to writing any more entries, which is too bad, because one thing I’d intended to write about is exactly what The Precursors attempts; namely, a Han Solo simulator. I touched on that a bit in my post about the game, but I wanted to clarify exactly what this dream game would be for me, and the ways in which The Precursors (and other games) succeed and fail in achieving it. Read on!

First, I should really talk about Han Solo a bit. Actually, about Star Wars in general. The prequel films basically destroyed any integrity that Stars Wars once had, and that’s a real shame, because Star Wars used to be awesome. There’s a reason that I called out Han Solo specifically, rather than some nameless space outlaw or vagabond. In fact, today, the more fashionable choice would likely be Malcolm Reynolds, from Firefly. And he’s a great character, on a great show, and a game that recreates that experience would be great. But the reason I called out Han Solo is that I want to play in a universe like his.

A lot of science fiction settings strike me as empty and boring. And honestly, the real universe is mostly empty and boring. If there is intelligent life out there, it’s likely too far away for contact to be feasible. It would take us six months just to fly to Mars; flying to another star could take centuries, and messages sent out ahead would take years to reach their destination. But with science fiction, these concerns can be waved away, and the universe is rife with possibilities. Yet so many science fiction works disappoint in this regard. In many, humans are the only intelligent race, and various planets have little to offer other than yet another human colony. Others are obsessed with war, and pit humans against another alien race in an endless conflict. Only a few pay attention to history and culture, to creating a believable universe that humans and other races actually live in. Star Wars was one of them.

The original film, A New Hope, does a brilliant job of setting the scene. After the opening space battle, we find ourselves on Tatooine, a backwater planet populated by moisture farmers, scraping together enough cash to buy some second-hand, junky droids. And we see that even on this backwater planet, humans are not alone; the strange Jawas hawk their reclaimed droids from their massive, rolling sandcrawlers. Soon after we’re introduced to the Tusken raiders, dangerous denizens of the desert, and an old hermit who promises to take Luke out into the wider universe he’s always dreamed about. The first stop on that journey is the Cantina in Mos Eisley, one of the most memorable places in the film. Luke and Obi-Wan might be the only humans here — it’s teeming with aliens of all shapes and sizes, chattering away in dozens of languages. This place shows us just how varied and interesting the rest of the universe must be. And then, in the middle of it all, we meet Han Solo.

He’s in his element. Surrounded by all manner of creatures, most criminals and many of them quite nasty, Han is calm and confident. He has no trouble conversing with Chewbacca or Greedo, even though he can’t speak their language (and before a debate breaks out, let me say that I always believed Han shot first). He drives a hard bargain. He’s constantly in trouble with the law and with the criminal underground, but he always stays one step ahead. He proclaims his ship to be legendary even though it’s scrappy and falling apart. But it’s fast enough to get our heroes off of Tatooine while under fire from the Imperials, and then it’s off to the wider universe for some grand adventure.

When I say that I want a Han Solo simulator, I don’t mean that I want a game literally set in the Star Wars universe. That would be OK, I guess, but all I really need is a universe that feels similar. One that’s teeming with life, with all sorts of creatures to meet and make friends (and enemies) with. One that has places like the Mos Eisley Cantina, where these creatures go to socialize and make deals. Or ecumenopoli (I may have just learned that word right now) like Coruscant or Nar Shaddaa, massive planet-spanning cities continuously built on top of their own ancient ruins. Or how about some forest moons, or ocean planets, complete with underwater cities? Places that play important roles in the universe. Places that are actually interesting to visit.

I also want to fly a ship like Han’s. Despite our initial incredulity in A New Hope, it turns out Han was right: the Millennium Falcon is legendary, for all the right reasons. It’s the hunk of junk that could. It’s gotten Han and Chewbacca out of countless scrapes, always barely holding together against all odds. It’s a transport, great for smuggling cargo, but it’s also fast and agile and can hold its own in a fight. It’s also been heavily modified from its original specifications, making it unique among the other ships in Star Wars, and, most importantly, making it Han’s own. It’s not just a generic ship, that anyone could buy. It’s Han’s ship. It’s a character of its own.

Which brings me back to games. There are many games that give players a ship and let them take to the stars, free to do what they please. I mentioned some of these in my post about The Precursors: prominent examples are Elite, Freelancer and the X series. I haven’t played many of these games, but I did spend some time with the indie effort Evochron: Legends (which has now been supplanted by its sequel, Evochron: Mercenary) and the German game Darkstar One. I’ve mentioned Evochron before in my post about taking it easy, and summarized its strengths and shortcomings. It works best when exploring space, floating in the void, skimming the rings above planets, or engaging in one of the game’s breathtaking planetary descents. But I never felt much attachment to the ship I was flying, and when it came to the nitty gritty of making money and having adventures, it all felt stale. Formulaic missions, repetitive trading, identical space stations, and little reason to explore planets meant that I never felt inspired to engage in those activities.

Worse, Evochron falls into a trap that nearly all games of this type do: it feels like you’re playing as a spaceship, not as a person. The Evochron games even laud the fact that players never leave their ship as a feature. I think the intention was to avoid static menu screens and the like when trading at space stations, but the problem is that I want to leave the ship. Flying around is great, but when I arrive somewhere, I’m ready for some shore leave. I want to visit planets and see their landmarks, meet people, and unwind. I want there to be stuff to do in these places. Darkstar One does a better job of presenting the protagonist as an actual person, but he still does most of that interesting stuff in cutscenes. The playable sections are in the cockpit only, and moneymaking activities become rote quickly. The Precursors is the strongest in this respect. The player can explore the interior of the ship, even though there’s little reason to do so, and there are several massive planets to explore and quest in. But the space-borne part of the game suffers for this split focus, unable to provide enough things to do on its own.

The other problem such games have is their focus on making money. The freeform activities they provide are all ways of amassing wealth, and that wealth can be spent on better ways to partake in those freeform activities. Ship upgrades, usually, which should inspire an attachment to one’s ship but actually do the opposite. Playing Evochron especially, I just felt I was moving up a ladder of ship parts, never feeling any sense of ownership, and amassing money for no real purpose. Han Solo never had any money. Neither did Malcolm Reynolds. We don’t want to play as these people to get rich, we want to play as them to be free. To fly through space making our own rules, scraping by but never submitting to anyone.

But that experience is impossible without the right setting, which is why I spent so much time on that above. When the game universe is just a bunch of people flying around, conducting business and occasionally attacking each other, what’s the point? I want a game where making money is hard, where I’ll be drawn into illicit dealings just to get by, where I can fly to lots of interesting places and get into all sorts of trouble. There is one game I’ve played that almost captures this feeling, and it’s one that I didn’t mention earlier because it has neither in-cockpit piloting nor planet surface explorations: Space Rangers. A Russian game, it’s a top-down, turn-based free-roaming space game, and not only does it have several different alien races, it tries to make its races and places feel characterful through, of all things, miniature text-based adventures. It also makes the player very weak at the beginning, and money is always tight as one struggles to put together a ship that stands a chance against pirates or the encroaching Klissans. And while most planets and places are similar, there’s a real sense of a living universe, with traders and pirates coming and going independently of what the player is doing. There’s a sequel that I haven’t played yet, but I’ll be sure to post about it here when I do.

I want a game that combines the first-person piloting of the free-roaming space games with the universe design and quirkiness of Space Rangers or Star Wars and the first-person planet explorations of The Precursors. I understand this would be an absolutely massive undertaking. In fact, when considering building a universe like that, most developers would immediately think of an MMO. Some readers may already be thinking of EVE Online. But that’s not what I want. Like last time, I feel that having lots of other real people involved would break the illusion. That illusion is all-important. I need to feel like I’m actually inhabiting this world, not just playing along with a bunch of other people clogging up the chat window.

That’s the fantasy. A huge universe full of life and character, a ship to fly wherever I want, and tons of opportunities to have shady dealings, get into trouble, and then miraculously get out of it unscathed. It’s probably impossible. Balancing things so it’s not too easy to make money will be hard (although both Space Rangers and The Precursors do an admirable job). Coding all the different systems will be hard. The sheer amount of content needed will be very hard. But that’s the dream. Maybe we’ll actually get such a game someday. I hope so.

In the meantime, I should probably go write some History Lesson posts about some space games. Hmm.

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