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Starbound Again

I played through and “completed” Starbound about 5 months ago, and my conclusion was:

And now, even if the devs end up finishing Starbound, I will have already consumed the lion’s share of the game’s novelty – that ever-finite motivational resource. No more character wipes? Then I’m already at endgame. Character wipes? I already know where to go, what to look for, how to overcome the obstacles, and basically speed my way through normal progression. Assuming I can be bothered to do so a second time.

I’m here to say that I’m wrong, and pretty much all fronts. At least, so far.

For the most part, I wasn’t planning on coming back to Starbound, but I needed a game I could sink my teeth into that also did not require uninterrupted time. Clash Royale and Overwatch used to be my “don’t know my schedule” games, but I’m still adapting to cohabiting with another human being.

And that’s a problem with a rather large number of games, actually. Meanwhile, Starbound is two clicks away from Save & Quit, and they fixed the “issue” with you being teleported back to your ship if you exit the game. Which I had utilized previously as a tricksey way of not having to climb out of the planet-sized hole I dug, but nevermind.

The, ahem, core mechanics of Starbound have not changed, but the tech tree, what minerals show up where, the quest structure, essentially enough has changed to make the experience fresh again. For example, one minor change the devs made was to introduce a sort of invulnerable ghost creature to the moons that contain your FTL fuel. While it is tacitly annoying (and deadly) in the same way as I talked about those Wasted SOB Purifiers before, they achieve a similar purpose – change the way you approach the game. Before, the most deadly thing about stocking up with infinite FTL fuel were meteor showers, which could only kill you in the two seconds before you burrowed underground. Now? It’s a risk/reward decision on how much fuel you grab on the surface (i.e. not much), and meanwhile you’re actively playing the game so as to not get stuck in a hole while getting chased.

So, yeah. The game definitely feels more finished than it did before. I will say though, that the first couple of story missions have been the exact same as the ones I played through previously. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing… so far. We will see how things progress as I approach the endgame. Considering I already have 32 hours in Starbound, perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Then again, the bar Terraria set is still at 50 hours.

Freedom from Hunger

I am currently playing through a rougelike called “Wasted,” and the experience has been interesting. It is an Adult Swim Game that I believe came in a Humble Monthly Bundle or something, as I don’t remember purchasing it. The premise is very non-serious – think Borderlands rougelike with permadeath – but that’s not particularly relevant. What’s relevant is the addition of the SOB Purifiers.

The general gameplay in Wasted pretty common in terms of opening doors, killing enemies, avoiding traps, grabbing loot. After about two minutes on each floor though, an extremely deadly (albeit predictable) enemy spawns at the entrance and slowly makes it way towards you. The first few times I encountered these SOBs, I very nearly quit playing the game entirely. Why do they need to exist? How much bullshit is it that their miniguns basically stunlock you? The SOBs seem to have sucked all the fun out of exploring the levels.

After a while, I realized something. Namely, that I wasn’t experiencing Fallout-esque burnout.

As the developer has gone through great lengths to point out in the Steam forums (even getting a bit saucy in the process), the Purifiers exist as a gameplay element to shepherd the player around and drive them forward. You aren’t supposed to be exploring, you should be making some strategic gambles on your way to the exit. If I had all the time in the world, I would be fully healed before opening any door, spending 99% of the gameplay crouch-sneaking, and micromanaging an incredibly-limited inventory with the attention of Warren Buffet. In other words, I’d be playing it just like I play every other post-apocalypse game. Or most games, period, if I’m honest.

Other roguelikes have addressed the “problem” of over-exploring characters with Hunger mechanics and the like, but the Purifier feels really interesting to me now. Mechanics like Hunger don’t actually impact my behavior in those games; if anything, it just makes me more committed to looting all the things in the vain hope that there is some half-rotten morsel in that broken filing cabinet. Hunger also evokes that most-hated of all gameplay mechanics: the Breath meter in underwater levels. It feels oppressive, cheap.

After I got over the first few bullshit deaths to Purifiers that nullified hours of progression, I started to realize how… well, elegant is not the term, but perhaps “fair” they are. The Purifiers always spawn in the same location (the entrance to the floor you started on), after roughly the same amount of time, and always move towards your location decently slowly. If you happen to be in a circular sort of area, you can lure them to your location and then double-back behind them. Yeah, getting caught in a long hallway or dead-end sucks, but the Purifier’s arrival is announced both when they spawn and as they get closer to your location (the music changes).

In a real sense, Purifiers give you a sense of agency that Hunger does not. If I hit a fork early in a level, I might skip the locked door (which the exit is never behind) so as to give myself more time to explore a later fork. Or maybe I’ll lay some traps near the entrance to the level so that the Purifier spawns in a mine field that will hopefully cripple a leg and give me additional time. And, hey, even if I just barely escape through the exit at the last possible second, I know that I still get a full X minutes to explore the next floor without having to worry about them. That is a far cry different than Hunger or whatever, which often represents a cumulative loss of time.

For the record, I am taking this mechanic way more seriously than the game does. Indeed, the premise of the game is drinking Booze and getting radioactive hangovers that will help/hurt your next Booze run. But the problem that Wasted solves with Purifiers is a problem that exists in every roguelike (and arguably any survival game), and it’s the best solution I’ve seen in quite some time. I’m not sure it would be especially applicable in future games ala Fallout 5, but I hope the eventual solution is more akin to this than something else.

I don’t think I can stand the freedom to collect 10,000 tin cans anymore.