When we talk about exploring alien worlds in gaming, it’s hard to pick a game that represents the classic sci-fi promise of alien life better than No Man’s Sky. From its pulp paperback aesthetic to the breathless euphoria evoked by its presentation of unexplored distant frontiers, it’s as much a love letter to the foundational ideas of sci-fi as the procedural generation tech that powers it. Creator Sean Murray has often cited the ‘big three’ writers – Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein – as key influences.
Still, the kind of exploration No Man’s Sky offers is a strange thing. There are worlds beyond counting that we seek out to experience on their own terms, but we also leave our mark on them. We marvel at their undisturbed flora and fauna and then plant a flag in the ground and catalogue their vistas and oddities. As fictional explorers, these places fill us with wonder, and so we covet them, precisely because of their untouched beauty. We observe them in awe, then stake our claim. It’s like going to a tranquil lake precisely for the lure of its tranquillity, then hurling a stone into it to mark our arrival.
No Man’s Sky is by no means alone in this approach, and its extraterrestrial ecologies still brim with marvels. But there are portrayals of alien landscapes that either lessen humanity’s importance in their stories, or remove them from the picture entirely. Human agnostic ecologies that thrive, unrecorded, bubbling with strange diversity. Recently, no other game has fit that bill better than ACE Team’s The Eternal Cylinder, an arrestingly creative spin on survival with a central premise hinging on the Spore-like evolution of an alien species called The Trebhum.
Some of the Trebhum’s mutations, game director Charles Bordeu tells us, have evident real-world analogies: grasshopper legs, porcupine skin, or camouflage that blends with their surroundings. “However, we actually used germs and parasites as the inspiration for some of our alien creatures and enemies,” Bordeu explains. The Unifier – a titanic, biomechanical monster – spawns parasites that attach to living beings, which is inspired by a bacteriophage. The water-dwelling Squabadoo, meanwhile, takes control of the player’s movement and tries to lead them to its poisoned water lair. “An example of this in nature is the jewel wasp, which strikes the head of cockroaches, injecting a venom that prevents the roach from moving of its own free will.”
Of course, any abilities still have to make sense within The Eternal Cylinder’s gameplay ecosystem. “For the Trebhum, we came up with mutations inspired by real-life animals that allowed us to create unique puzzles.” Bordeu gives the example of a glowing skin mutation, “the one which allows the Trebhum to create light from their skin and effectively become a little walking lightbulb. There are many types of bioluminescent animals in nature, and we wanted to use that in order to create a challenge in which the player needs to navigate their little party through pitch-black caves.”
The upcoming Tidebreak is an expansion of narrative exploration game In Other Waters’ universe, in the form of a sourcebook that’s compatible with the immensely popular Mothership tabletop RPG. Like The Eternal Cylinder, its star is a strange and detailed alien ecosystem, except here players take the role of a xenobiologist exploring new life beneath the waves.
“Almost every bit of ecology in In Other Waters has a basis in something that happens in our oceans,” creator Gareth Damian Martin says. “To invent a believable alien ecosystem, you have to start with the environment. Algae Blooms, deep sea brine pools, oceanic vents: they all have very distinctive conditions that produce unique and fascinating examples of life. One of my favourite creatures is the Yeti Crab. They farm bacteria at hydrothermal vents using their hairy arms, and I borrowed this idea and twisted it a little for one of my creatures.”
Creating an entire ecosystem is a huge task, especially for a solo dev like Martin, but they say “following a series of rules and patterns to interesting conclusions made it a lot easier.” The more Martin read, the more strange facts they unearthed. Did you know the humble limpet’s teeth are the strongest biological material in existence? Discoveries like this resulted in an ecosystem that they call “a strange refraction of our own”.
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Surrealism inspired Bordeu and the team at ACE as much as real-world biology. While they looked into many strange flora, the realm of imagination was still a key touchstone. “We are great fans of the surrealism present in illustrations, especially cartoons of the 1970s and 1980s.” He mentions Rene Laloux’s 1973 animation Fantastic Planet, as well as the delightfully esoteric book Codex Seraphinianus. “It’s filled with psychedelic illustrations that are written in a non-existitent language,” Bordeu says, “it looks like a scientific book, but all the designs in it are fictional.”
For Martin, it was Wayne Barlowe’s Expedition – a fictional, illustrated account of an alien world – that served as a key inspiration. Barlowe’s influence on creature design, both in space games and wider media is, Martin says, massive. “I know the excellent Alex Ries, the designer of Subnautica’s creatures, is specifically inspired by Barlowe. In the horror zone, too, you can see his influence everywhere. Destiny 2’s hive, for example, owes so much to him and his illustrations of demons. His work on Avatar is an incredible example of the same approach I took in following an environmental logic or unique body-plan in order to generate ideas.
“I love the way he takes a single idea, like an ecosystem where no creature has eyes or external ears, and just runs with it. Similarly, I set myself the rule of having no fish in In Other Waters. Fish are the dominant aquatic species of our own planet, and so just by taking them out of the equation, I knew I would find new pathways for life. Also, it seemed like a fun joke to have a game set in an ocean with no fish.”
Martin also took influence from Expedition’s form. “I love the fact that Barlowe writes himself into the fiction as an illustrator sent to an alien planet. I did the same with In Other Water’s epilogue book of paintings, A Study of Gliese 667Cc. That’s one of the things that excites me most about doing Tidebreak – getting to go back to that ocean and do more paintings, casting myself as some kind of wildlife artist, mentally exploring the textures and colours of that world.”
If speculative visions of alien worlds take inspiration from our own ecology as it is, it makes sense that the threats to those ecologies would also mirror our own. The titutar Eternal Cylinder is that game’s main antagonist. Is it an analogue for environmental destruction, climate change, or something more?
“That has been one of the interpretations,” Bordeu says, “but there have been many others.” The contrast between uniformity and diversity, for example. “Though it was not the main goal I was looking to develop when I was first designing the game, the cylinder better represents the effects of an artificial disaster than a natural one.”
Bordeu says that, although the cylinder could be compared to something like a tsunami, its clearly artificial form makes it more comparable to a man-made crisis. “The deforestation of trees is similar, look at how ecosystems flatten and are combed away as mankind conquers virgin habitats. It is very much like how a man-provoked forest fire would threaten the lives of a family of monkeys in the Amazon Rainforest.”
According to Martin, our relationship with Earth can’t be ignored when creating fictional worlds. “I can’t imagine making a game about alien ecologies without connecting it in some way to our history,” Martin says. “There’s something dishonest and insipid to me about making these pristine alien frontiers in sci-fi media, and imbuing them with ideas of the heroism of colonisation and exploration.”
Martin’s approach to In Other Water’s narrative took inspiration from the feeling of investigating life on our own planet. “At first, you’re driven by wonder and curiosity. You see how varied and inconceivable life is, but you quickly find yourself reading about humanity’s influence. I wanted the game to take people through that journey. From wonder and curiosity into sadness, anger, and regret. But then also out the other side, towards possible futures.
“At the end of In Other Waters a signal goes out from Gliese 667Cc, and in that moment there’s a kind of gold rush of people looking to study, exploit, and explore the new world. So we have corporations sending clean-up crews, and private scientists flying in, and smugglers and merchants looking to catch creatures to sell as curiosities. Really Tidebreak is about the moment that humanity rejoins the narrative of Gliese 667Cc, and how that plays out will be up to players to explore.”
With developers like ACE Team, Jump Over the Age, and Hello Games making strides in bringing us these enchanting and diverse alien ecosystems, our exploratory needs are in good hands. While the concept art for Bethesda’s upcoming Starfield hints at a narrative focused on human factions, we’re also offered brief glimpses of fantastic, and perhaps untouched worlds. The question of whether we’re alone in the universe is a foundational aspect of classic sci-fi, but in many ways we tend to act like we’re alone on our planet, taking the strange and diverse life we’re surrounded by for granted. That’s the beauty of sci-fi though. It’s just as often a celebration of what’s around us than what’s far off in the distance.
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