In free-to-play narrative game Extrasolar, players sign up with XRI, a private research firm taking part in a cutting edge scientific expedition to Epsilon Prime, a planet beyond our solar system. Participants then use their browser to send directions to a remote robotic rover, which then follows those orders in real time on a virtual planet with its own lunar cycle, and sends back cloud-rendered “photos” of the planet’s surface to be analysed for signs of life.
As players are drawn deeper into the experience, they’re contacted via email by a hacker who offers information hinting that all is not what it seems, and soon enough the player is breaking into classified files, decoding PDF documents and listening to tapped phone calls. The story unfolds in real time, through text, audio and video messages.
Extrasolar is the work of Lazy 8 Studios. Based in San Francisco, the company came to prominence with its game Cogs, which won the $100,000 Grand Prize at the 2010 Indie Game Challenge. With Extrasolar, the developer is pushing its narrative ambitions even further, and making them overlap with the real world.
With Extrasolar, the developer is pushing its narrative ambitions even further, and making them overlap with the real world.
Here, producer and creator Rob Jagnow explains the thinking behind Extrasolar, and how he’s defying conventional wisdom to create a deep narrative experience designed to bleed into real life.
How did Extrasolar take shape, and what makes it different?
Originally it was just an exploration game and it evolved over time. I have a writer in Vancouver, and we played around, got a prototype out really early. It was kind of built around the ARG (augmented reality game) philosophies, where we’d have communities solving puzzles, and it just didn’t work that way. We built in all these sharing mechanics, where you could have a goal and explore with your friends, share what you see on your map, but all of that compromised the story which was that you were a special character in the middle of this conspiracy. From a business standpoint everyone says “You’re making the wrong decision, you need heavy social mechanics” but from a story standpoint it didn’t make sense. We made the decision to be true to the story, and anything that compromises the fiction we’re going to cut out. We’re fully aware that this is a risky proposition.
How much freedom do you give the player to ignore their mission directives and approach the story in their own way?
Quite a bit. If you go too far off-script there are some invisible walls you’ll hit where it will say “please finish your current missions before moving beyond this point”, but once you’ve got to the north east corner of the island all the barriers go away, everything’s open and you can do things in any order. We had discussions between the story people and the engineer people. From the engineering side, it’s like “We have this stuff available to find at any time, it’s going to make all these conditions in the story possible that we need to consider”. And the story people would say “Yeah, but that’s fun. It’s cool if you can find things before you’re supposed to, and the story will change as a result”.
What sort of reactions did you get when pitching a project like this?
When I pitched Extrasolar, there were a couple of questions people would commonly ask. One was “How do rovers kill each other?” This is a simulation of a scientific exploration, but calling it a “game” weighed in to people’s assumptions. “It takes place in space and it’s a game so surely there will be lasers and jumping and killing?” I don’t think I could have made this game if I were a “gamer” and had been in the industry for a long time. Because I came from a little bit more of the movie side, there were different assumptions I was operating under.
I don’t think I could have made this game if I were a “gamer” and had been in the industry for a long time.
What are your plans for the future of Extrasolar?
What we’re releasing now, we’re considering just season one. It takes players, on average, 27 days to go through the story we’ve written. We have season two and season three, the broad story arcs are scripted out. That’s going to be the next step, taking the lessons we’ve learned about how to produce a good story, what works and what doesn’t, what’s challenging, and hopefully take all of that and make season two even better and more interesting.