Thursday, September 9, 2010

Retro Gaming time

Along with my sf reading kick lately I have been in the mood to play some space games. I have a whole slew of them to work through, but to start off I have decided to go back to one of my favorites and one of the best, Starflight.

starflt_001  starflt_002

In this game you captain a space ship and crew around the galaxy searching for clues as to why the star in your home system is going unstable. You fly around to different star systems, land on planets and search the surface looking for clues, and minerals for use and selling. You also communicate with other beings out in space, and occasionally fight them.

You start the game at a space station, with a basic ship and 12000 credits to spend. You get some initial briefings about what is going on, and then you must hire a crew, train them, and possibly upgrade your ship (at the very least adding cargo pods to haul back what you find during expeditions down on the surface of planets. You are given some initial clues as part of those notices which lead you to some other planets in your system to do some initial prospecting to build up more money for training and upgrades. You will get into a cycle of searching for clues, prospecting for minerals, training and upgrading until your ship and crew are maxed out, at which point you will start to focus more on solving the mystery.

What is amazing is the amount of detail that is in this game, and the fact that they managed to pack it into such a small footprint. The way they did that is with procedural techniques, which generates most of the data from seeds. They used this for generating the terrain of the 800+ planets you can explore in the game. Procedural techniques had fallen out of favor as technology and games went more into the eye candy realm. Recently though Will Wright and Maxis returned to the use of procedural techniques with the game Spore in order to cut down on the amount of storage used by the game, as well as the development costs of coming up with art assets. The procedural generation of art assets is a bit different than the procedural generation used in Starflight and Elite, but still is a very interesting concept.

I remember when I first encountered this game. I had a Commodore 64 growing up, but a friend had a PC and he got this game. We were both blown away by how immense the universe in the game seemed. I remember his notebook that he had filled with page after page of notes for clues, the sites of ruins, and everything other piece of information he could glean from the game. I didn’t play the game until after graduating from high school when I got my 1st PC. I bought Sim City and Starflight that summer.

It is a shame that no one has really come up with something like this game since the early 90s.

A Fire Upon the Deep

I finally got around to reading Vernor Vinge's book this past month. I have had it on the shelf for a few years, but I had stalled fairly early in the book the last time I tried reading it. Luckily I gave it another shot, because it is a very good book that deserves it's reputation. The universe Vinge creates is very interesting. The galaxy is divided into zones, where certain technologies are possible. From what I can tell the closer you move to the galactic core and greater mass density the less you are able to achieve. There are 3 defined zones in the book: the Unthinking Depths where FTL travel is impossible, the Slow Zone, and the Beyond. As you move out through the zones much greater technology is possible, with civilizations reaching the beyond transcending typically into another state of being, something like a super AI. I think some of this is Vinge working his ideas of the technological singularity which is a subject he is interested in. He also toys with the idea of pack sentience for a dog-like species that inhabits a planet in the story. Overall it leads to a very different universe than what is usually portrayed in sf, and probably is part of what initially got me stalled the 1st time through just trying to make sense of it all.

I don't have time to really get into the plot right now, but it basically involves a group of human researchers unearthing something very evil out in the Beyond, and the subsequent battle to stop that evil.

I'd recommend the book to any sf fans as would the World Science Fiction Society, which awarded the book a Hugo.