As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
Silicon Void first got my attention due to its unusual premise. It presents a future where no biological life has existed in the galaxy for at least 20 billion years. Many artificial intelligences doubt that it ever existed, suggesting instead that biological organisms are nothing more than a creation myth. The constructs that populate the galaxy have more pressing concerns, regardless; after billions of years of existence, transferring themselves across galaxy-spanning networks, corruption is starting to appear. It’s a thermodynamic inevitability known as Senescence, the slow degradation of a construct’s personality and sanity. Constructs are dying out, trying to stave off the madness as long as they can, with no hope of reversing the process. The player controls an artificial intelligence diagnosed with the early stages of Senescence and accordingly exiled to the galactic rim. Once there, they uncover a mysterious message, claiming that organic life has finally been found. This discovery may hold the key to stopping Senescence and preventing extinction.
I love imaginative science fiction ideas like this. It’s a plausible crisis for a universe populated solely by computerized intelligences, and it begs questions related to other science fiction ideas. Could biological organisms have actually transformed themselves into artificial intelligence long ago? Are there some who now perceive biology as a threat, and are working to prevent its resurgence?
So, Silicon Void appealed from a narrative standpoint. In terms of game design, developer Chris Doucette — who is seeking funding on Kickstarter for the project — cites inspirations I am less familiar with: Japanese-style role-playing games (JRPGs) from the late Playstation 1 and early Playstation 2 era. He drops names like Chrono Cross, Etrian Odyssey, and Xenosaga, none of which I’ve played. My knowledge of JRPGs is mostly of earlier titles from the ’90s, and the more recent examples I’ve played, such as Ara Fell or Master of the Wind, take inspiration from those early games as well. Doucette laments that the comparatively unusual design and battle mechanics of his inspirations were never elaborated upon in more recent games, and hopes to explore these design possibilities with Silicon Void.
With those touchstones meaning little to me, I was left unsure if I would enjoy actually playing Silicon Void, despite the great premise. Fortunately, Doucette has provided a substantial playable demo along with his Kickstarter campaign, so I was able to try it out for myself.
The demo does a fantastic job of setting the tone. The opening scene placed me before a tribunal, being tested for signs of Senescence. With just a few questions, it had me feeling anxious and desperate to hide any signs of corruption. It was hopeless, of course, and soon I was on my way to the galactic rim. I really like the visual style of the game, which depicts advanced technological devices that have become old and decrepit. My home on the rim is known as the Scrapyard, the abode of a construct called the Scrapmonger who salvages parts from the mad, warring intelligences nearby and makes something useful out of them. Constructs travel through physical space in craft known as frames, and I was able to obtain some from the Scrapmonger in exchange for parts I found in my travels. These frames, and the Scrapmonger’s floating ball of scrap, have a pleasingly worn look that actually reminded me of The Desolate Room. Like that game, Silicon Void nails the feeling of a lonely future, not just visually but also through its excellent soundtrack composed by Kirk Markarian.
I was also pleased by the various types of exploration I could partake in. I could explore physical space by venturing forth from the Scrapyard and uncovering regions of the starmap, but my forays were limited due to fuel. Still, I was able to find a few lifeless planets and land on them to search for resources. This involved navigating the surfaces of miniature spherical planetoids, using probes to scan their surfaces, and tracking down resources deposits, which were sometimes guarded by enemies. In some special locations, these planetoids were hosts for Silicon Void’s version of “dungeons”; instead of scanning bare surfaces, I found maze-like environments to explore, complete with roving guards and treasures to find. And if that wasn’t enough, I later discovered I could explore cyberspace as well as real space, navigating through a network map node by node, able to emerge at a distant location in real space that I couldn’t have reached otherwise given my limited fuel.
Everywhere I went, however, I managed to get into a lot of fights. Combat in JRPGs can be an interesting beast, often feeling very disconnected from the rest of the game. The genre tends to feature long, involved, linear stories starring a large cast of characters, but that story can be at odds with the fact that the characters end up battling hordes of monsters wherever they go. These battles often feel disconnected mechanically as well, with their own sets of rules, stats, and abilities that play no role in the exploration or exposition that dominate the rest of the game. I enjoy the two sides of any given JRPG in parallel, and after thinking about the design of Master of the Wind I concluded that my favorite JRPGs use their combat to form a stronger connection between the player and the characters in the game. The characters typically embark on a long quest full of struggle, and by playing through the combat encounters, the player feels they have participated in that struggle along with the characters, rather than just watching their journey from afar. If done well, this can enhance both sides of the game, making players more invested in the narrative and better motivated to defeat tough opponents.
From the pitch for Silicon Void, I get the sense that Chris Doucette enjoys JRPG combat for its own sake, relishing the challenge of parsing the rules and executing winning strategies. It’s clearly the aspect of Silicon Void that he’s most excited about. I won’t explain all the mechanical details here, since he’s already written two posts about it on his development blog, but I understand that it borrows the main mechanics from Chrono Cross, requiring players to smartly chain together attacks in order to build up combos that let them activate powerful abilities. In Silicon Void this is made more interesting through the addition of a clock that times out the player’s and enemies’ actions. The clock has four quandrants, and actions performed in the appropriately colored quadrant (colors correspond to different types of damage, like explosive, electrical, etc.) will be boosted in power. In addition, each quandrant has a special effect, such as making actions cost fewer CPU cycles to use, or increasing the chance for attacks to hit their target. Everything is entirely turn-based, so I had as much time as I needed to figure out the best sequence of actions to take, and each battle randomizes the clock and the properties of the enemies, so a different sequence of actions will be appropriate for an efficient victory, even if the enemies are nominally the same foes as the last battle.
Doucette’s philsophy is that each action should have more than one effect, so there will be tradeoffs. For example, let’s say I’m facing an enemy that (this fight) has the red (explosive) property. That makes it weak to blue electrical attacks. I look at the clock and realize that the blue quadrant of the clock happens to line up with the increased chance for regular attacks to hit. My frames start the battle without any particular color, but if I use an electrical ability with one of them, it will take on the electrical property. This means its standard attacks will be electrical, dealing extra damage to the red enemy. Plus, the attacks will get a boost if I perform them in the blue quadrant of the clock. On top of that, the increased hit chance in the blue quadrant means I can go all out on powerful but less accurate attacks and still have a good chance of hitting. But to set that up, I need to plan out some combos, and make sure that the frame that’s going to do the attacking has enough CPU to dish out several powerful attacks in a row at the right time.
There are more details to the system than that, but hopefully it exemplifies the type of thinking that the combat system requires. Every battle is its own logical challenge; the next fight might be against a similar enemy but with a different color, and the clock quadrants line up differently, so I have to use a different strategy and set of abilities to succeed. This is in contrast to many JRPGs which have what is derogatorily called “trash combat”, meaning easy battles that require little thought and are mostly there for pacing. With Silicon Void, Doucette wants players to face a slightly different challenge each time and feel more engaged even when fighting common foes.
The system takes some getting used to, and early on I used simple strategies where each of my frames started a combo so they could launch a special attack, preferably timed to the correct color on the clock, and that was it. Usually the enemies didn’t survive the first barrage, and things were fine. In tougher fights, however, such a strategy left my frames without any CPU cycles left, forced to choose defensive or recovery options just to get back into the fight. Eventually I learned to try for more robust strategies like the one mentioned above. In that scenario, the frame that’s attacking has boosted its damage against the enemy but also made itself weak to the enemy’s attacks. So my other frames might perform support roles, boosting defense for my attacker and hopefully activating some red abilities to increase their own defense against the enemy. But since only one frame can act during any one tick on the clock, this also requires careful timing.
This definitely made fights more involved and interesting than in many JRPGs I’ve played, but for my personal tastes there was a little too much combat compared to the exploration and story. I wanted to learn more about the rim and the constructs there, and I got some of that, but felt I was being interrupted with another puzzle-like fight too often. I also found I was constantly returning to the Scrapyard to turn in materials, start new research projects, and buy new abilities, which further interrupted my exploration. Having said that, towards the end of the demo I ran into enemies with more interesting combat abilities, able to alter the clock in a variety of ways (like changing all quadrants to the same color). This opened my eyes to the possibilities that might emerge from the system, leading to some really engaging encounters in the full game.
Overall, however, combat felt like an interruption because it didn’t help build a connection between me and the characters. In fact, the frames I took into battle weren’t characters at all; they were all me, my intelligence copied into each, and as such they felt like a set of tools rather than people I could care about. This is by design. I could purchase different frames from the Scrapmonger (provided I’d collected enough materials) with different built-in abilities. These frames do not increase in power after winning battles, but their equipped ability modules do, and those (other than built-in abilities) can be swapped into new frames when appropriate. Again, a tool box approach. Leveling up an ability does not make the ability itself any more effective, but it does make the ability confer static bonuses when equipped. In my play time these bonuses never seemed to make a noticeable difference, but I appreciate what Doucette is going for with the system, encouraging players to swap out abilities often and experiment with different approaches.
Personally, however, I find it harder to care about the frames and abilities in my combat toolbox than I would about another artificial intelligence who might choose to travel with me. I’d be more invested if I had combat companions who had truly unique fighting abilities I could develop, rather than just choosing from the same bag of modules as my other frames. The only non-hostile intelligences I met were outside of combat, but I enjoyed my interactions with them. The writing for these encounters lives up to the strong premise of the game, and I liked what I saw of where the story is going. There’s also a decent justification for the hostile constructs I had to battle, either as insane Senescents or Hunters who have left Union to stave off the Senescent threat. When many JRPGs just include monsters as a matter of course, it was refreshing that even the combat in Silicon Void serves its excellent setting. I definitely want to see more of that setting, and find out where the story is going, but I struggled to care about the fighting beyond each individual encounter, and would have preferred to fight a little less often.
The Silicon Void demo is, however, a pre-alpha slice of a game that is still looking for funding before development can proceed in earnest, so my complaints may well be addressed in the future. The combat design, and indeed the design of everything else, will doubtless be rethought, tweaked, and improved. And I should stress that I still had a good time, despite a few annoyances. I love the setting and characters, I love the visual style and music, and the combat system shows a lot of promise. Combined, they give Silicon Void a very distinctive feel, promising a memorable experience when the full game arrives. I also liked how the demo kept throwing new things at me, be it space exploration, landing on planets, navigating special maze-like locations (although the two I visited felt very similar to explore; I’m hoping for more distinctive locations in the full game), or exploring cyberspace. Even combat had new surprises in store later on, and will hopefully evolve further and remain interesting in the long term. I hope that Silicon Void gets the funding it needs, as I’d quite like to see what it becomes.