Home. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy can just click her heels together and chant “There’s no place like home” to get back to Kansas. For the crew in The Away Team — a sci-fi interactive fiction game—it’s not so easy; there is, literally, no place like home. Earth is just a memory, and as the AI and pilot of their space ship, it’s your job to find them the next best thing from among the planets, moons and stations you’ll visit.
Earlier this year, Underflow Studios Lead Developer Michael Brune (Dark Future, Heavy Gear Assault, Squad) put the final pieces in place to bring The Away Team to fruition: art from Christian Nordgren (Angry Birds 2, Hammerwatch), music by Chris Upton (Dwagons and Aliens, Heavy Gear Assault), and writing by Michael Fiegel (Aion: Assault on Balaurea, Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising, Ninja Burger). The finished game, published by Crackshell AB (Hammerwatch) was ultimately released on Steam on July 22 to positive reviews.
Although the term “interactive fiction” is often associated with text-based adventure games of old (especially Infocom titles like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and A Mind Forever Voyaging), the genre has seen something of a resurgence in recent years. While still rooted in the same basic concepts as their predecessors, many newer titles have pushed things in new directions and achieved acclaim, including inkle’s 80 Days, Choice of Games’ Choice of Robots, and Failbetter Games’ Fallen London and Sunless Sea.
With The Away Team, Underflow Studios decided to create a custom engine built using C++, SFML, Luabind and JsonCPP. The mission text—the core of the game experience—is contained within Lua files and loaded into the game with json files. The game’s structure means that not only is it highly moddable, but that rather than using a text parser all decision points in the game are more like hyperlinks on a website. Players are presented with a situation and then one or more responses, and simply clicking on a choice moves the story along.
All these elements aside, what makes The Away Team a game rather than just a visual novel is the fact that choices carry with them not just consequences, but varying degrees of success or failure, based on three gameplay factors.
Your decision as player is of course the primary factor in determining what happens. There are over 500 choices to make across 85,000+ words of narrative. Assuming you make all the right choices, and depending on how fast you read, a typical game will take several hours, while unlocking all four endings and ten achievements will probably span at least 10-12 hours.
The second factor at play in decision-making is who you select to go on your away missions. When you set off from Earth you select a crew of either 4, 6 or 8 from a roster of ten, and each member of your crew brings with them a unique set of traits and attributes, both positive and negative. Some crew members are very good at physical tasks, but have a tendency towards violent outbursts; others may be quite good at technical tasks, but prone to wandering off on their own.
Elements of randomness are also at play in many decisions. Each check takes into account not only crew traits and attributes, but also a random number based on the check itself as well as the game’s difficulty level. Even if you use the same crew on the same planets twice in a row, chances are good you’ll get different results each time.
Any further detail would really start to spoil the story of The Away Team. Rather than go into detail, let’s just say that it’s a cross between sci-fi television “planet of the week” style adventure with the philosophical exploration found in more introspective feature films or novels. Is it really possible to find a new home for humanity? That’s up to you.