Story of the Stars

Even though videogames are an entirely new medium, blessed – or cursed depending on your point of view – with both unique challenges and opportunities when a creator attempts to tell a story, many game developers choose to ape the more established conventions of cinema or literature. But a small team at Kerberos Productions working on the Sword of the Stars series are championing the concept that story can emerge through gameplay instead of just beaming pre-packaged plot and characters into the player’s brain. Some open-ended RPGs like Morrowind or strategy games like Civilization allow for this kind of emergent story-telling, but, like its predecessor, Sword of the Stars 2 is built on the premise that a videogame’s story is most effectively communicated by empowering the player to forge his or her own tale without giving up the kinds of details which ignite players’ imaginations. Games like Sword of the Stars 2 shed the dead weight of movies and novels to further establish the medium as something unique.

“My job is not to create one story, but to create the elements that can come together and create a different story every time you fire up the game,”

No one groks the concept of emergent story more than Arinn Dembo, lead writer of the Sword of the Stars series of games. Dembo has been embroiled in 4X space games since Homeworld and its expansions, while also writing background for Ground Control and Arcanum. (In case you’re a strategy noob, 4X stands for explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.) She has been guiding the Sword of the Stars (SotS) franchise since it began, writing the racial profiles of the various extraterrestrials met in space and even penning a novel set in the universe, The Deacon’s Tale. For Dembo, writing a campaign for the turn-based play of SotS would have been a bad move.

“A campaign is only one medium for story-telling,” Dembo took a break from crunch time on SotS2 to explain to me. “It has many strengths, but it also has weaknesses, and the major weakness is that it tends to be a one-shot deal. You play through it once, and it’s over. You can repeat the experience and enjoy it, but [it’s] like watching a favorite movie or re-reading a favorite book.”

To combat that “one-and-done” effect of playing through a campaign, Dembo has worked hard to provide a set of storytelling tools rather than stringing the player along from Point A to Point B. “My job is not to create one story, but to create the elements that can come together and create a different story every time you fire up the game,” she said. “It’s the difference between designing a single ride at a theme park, versus building a park in which there are more rides than anyone could ever ride in a lifetime.”

In SotS, you can play as one of several races with the advanced technology necessary to travel between planets in space. For humans, a scientific research accident led to the discovery of sub-space travel which brought about a new era of exploration. In the vastness of space, a human player can discover other races like the bug-like Hivers, the heavily stratified culture of the Tarkas, the bloodthirsty Zuul, the aquatic Liir, or the feathered Morrigi travelers better known as Crows. Alternately, you can play as one of these races and send uniquely-designed ships to explore worlds in a randomly-generated playfield of planets. Each system you discover might be overflowing with resources ripe for colonization, may already be occupied by one of the competing races in the game you’ve set up, or it may spawn a random menace.

“The random menaces you encounter, the opponents you face, the stars and planets you explore, the technology you have available: these things change from game to game,” said Dembo. “Even if you wanted to play the same game of SotS twice, it’s nearly impossible to do so.”

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That kind of infinite replayability has kept fans of SotS glued to the game when other titles might occupy a month or two of a gamer’s time before they move on to something else. The Kerberos forums are flooded with AAR (After Action Reports) and TAR (Tactics and Action Reports) threads in which SotS fans write character’s dialogue dramatizing the decisions made in a single playthrough. “Our fans produce a lot of fan fiction. The universe gives them a lot of scope for the imagination, and some of them really take off and fly,” said Dembo.

The big downside to forcing the player to create his own story is that some people just aren’t wired that way.

“Whatever zapped us in n-space really did a number. Most of our databanks are fried. I ran across one that looked to be working, but it kept insisting that two plus two equaled pie – apple pie a la mode, to be exact. I finally gave it a mercy kill with my boot,” reads the log of Chief Engineer Lisa Breen as written by SotS forum user Sofaspud. Breen then complains about how the Captain ordered her to start research on suspended animation technology in order to transport colonists to new systems when she’d rather work on making the ship’s engines work better. That little scene is represented in the game by merely directing research, but Sofaspud felt compelled to put character and intention behind the pressing of a simple button.

The big downside to forcing the player to create his own story is that some people just aren’t wired that way. When I want to sit down a play a game, I don’t always want to think about the implications of every move or action I take as coming from a character or having a specific voice and I consider myself as generally a creative guy. What if I just want to shut my brain down after a hard day at the keys and just freaking play? Dembo believes that even if you just make choices as a regular player, you are still creating a unique story whether it is dramatized or not.

SotS is like life: The player is the plot, and the game is what he chooses to do with the cards he’s been dealt,” Dembo said. The notable departure from real life is that in playing SotS, “the cards you’re dealt include FTL drives, meson beams and siege drivers” instead of parents, car accidents or an insatiable appetite for pizza.

“When you play SotS, your actions are the story,” Dembo said.

The remarkable thing about SotS is that for a game with no campaign, there is still a huge amount of world-building detail to experience while playing. When you encounter the Liir, for example, you’ll learn a little bit about the background of the race of sentient whale-like creatures. They’ve only been a space-faring culture for a short time, after they threw off the shackles placed on them by entities that they called the Suul’ka and adopted their former master’s technology. The other races have encountered these sinister beings but call them by different names – one of which is the Lords of Winter.

Many of these details came from the mind of Dembo, who credits CEO and Lead Designer Martin Cirulis at Kerberos for bringing on a full-time lead writer to what is a comparatively small team working on SotS and its forthcoming sequel. “I’ve had a lot of input into the design and direction of the franchise as a whole, which has not been true of projects that I’ve worked on elsewhere in the industry,” Dembo said. “I have been helping to shape the game and its playable races and non-playable menaces from the beginning, which has made a huge difference.”

Cirulis and his team have made it a priority to program the code in SotS to allow Dembo to tinker with the story details in the game. “Some of the tools that are available to me as a writer for an independent franchise like SotS are very powerful,” Dembo said. “We can add new story elements to the game with every update; I don’t have to wait years for expansions and sequels to be released. Kerberos has become notorious over the years for adding new encounters, menaces and scenarios that indicate the passage of time in the game universe … and sometimes hint about bigger things to come.”

“A few people don’t understand that every character in a story, including the villain, needs to be as well-crafted as possible,”

The biggest thing on the horizon is, of course, the sequel. Dembo, Cirulis and the rest of Kerberos are busy in crunch mode right now to make sure that Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter ships on schedule this September. The sequel will not only improve game systems like combat and user interface, but it will also add more tools for story to emerge. SotS2 features an in-game wiki of sorts called the Encyclopedia of the Stars and its Marginalia. As you encounter races, planets and technologies, entries will auto-populate in the Encyclopedia giving you instant access to that information. You’ll also be able to tap notes in the “margins” about each entry, but the function of the Marginalia doesn’t stop there.

“The Marginalia are intended to give the players a voice,” Dembo said. “They can add notes and remarks on any page in the Encyclopedia and trade those notes with other players, which means that if you have a great mentor in the game community, you can consult his sage advice even when he’s not around.”

Normally, you won’t be able to see other players’ Marginalia unless you agree to share, but Dembo isn’t above breaking the rules. As Lead Writer, she can use Marginalia to continue to tell stories through an always-on soapbox within the game itself. “I could easily put out a set of Marginalia which added extra lore in snack-sized bites. It’s a feature that has a lot of potential uses,” said Dembo.

From the sequel’s subtitle, you can glean that players will learn much more about the beings that once subjugated the Liir and perhaps genetically engineered the Zuul to be instruments of war. From what I saw at the Paradox event this winter, the Suul’ka don’t just pilot around the cosmos in massive ships that dwarf the current designs of humans and other races, the Suul’ka are those massive ships.

“A few people don’t understand that every character in a story, including the villain, needs to be as well-crafted as possible,” Dembo said. “Some of them assume that if I’ve created a playable race and made some effort to flesh them out and make them as real as the others, that I must be affirming their way of life somehow.”

What stories will emerge from encountering the Lords of Winter? I don’t want to give too much away, but I’m intrigued by Dembo’s description of them: “If you fire up Sword of the Stars 2 and choose to play Suul’ka, you will be playing the closest thing to True Evil that I could drag slithering from the darkest hell of my imagination. My worry isn’t that they’re too alien to you or to me. My worry is that all of us will find them all too familiar.”

Greg Tito can’t hear the title Lords of Winter without Ricardo Montalban’s voice playing in his head. “It is very cold in space.”

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