The world is cold and empty. Those spaces with the warmth and resources we need are small and far apart. When I find somewhere habitable I never stay there. Somehow, it isn’t right. It isn’t home. So I set off and keep travelling through a world that cannot sustain me, looking for the slightest glimmer of hope that I might find what I really need.
“Space is inhuman, and it can drive you mad.”
So says FibreTigre, developer of mobile emergent space opera Out There, in an interview on French games criticism site Merlanfrit.
Out There isn’t a miserable game — it has its share of humour and joy — but it is nihilistic. A spaceship roguelike superficially similar to FTL, it puts me alone in a tiny vessel that has been warped far from home. I will remain alone forever. This isn’t Star Trek: Voyager. Nobody wants to join me on my journey. Nobody believes that they can better understand the nature of their own existence through our relationship with each other. The aliens are too busy worrying about their own survival. We speak briefly in diagnostic tones: friend or foe? Life or death? Whose side are you on? We transact and then part ways.
When I come up against the cold I flinch. I push myself to feel irritated, determined; the passion might keep me warm, I reason. I can’t keep it up for long though. I’m tired, and oxygen supplies are low. The only answer is to let the cold in, to let the world make me cold, to go into cryostasis and only wake up when the ship needs to refuel and reembark.
I am lonely. So lonely, that when godlike creatures send me a message in my own language, I’m drawn to them. The coordinates they gave me are my closest light in the darkness. I barely survive long enough to reach them, but eventually we meet each other. But my loneliness had made me vulnerable. I’d slipped into a needy, childlike naivety. I should never have trusted them, the beings that aliens call the Judges/Architects.
“We are perfectly alone,” says FibreTigre, “and we are condemned.”
The first point at which Out There differs from FTL is its abandonment of any kind of battle system. FibreTigre and Michel Pfeiffert have instead created a world where the threat of being abandoned to entropy is terrifying enough, without needing to have an external enemy threatening to end it sooner. If anything, violence is part of what gives FTL an intimacy that is absent in Out There’s universe. If an enemy is strong enough to destroy me, they won’t bother with the foreplay of fisticuffs.
FibreTigre hints in the Merlanfrit interview that it is too simplistic to see Out There as a pacifist game. “Pacifism is a human concept. It is linked to the relation to another, to our mammalian genetics, to a certain logic or a morality. Why would aliens be belligerent or pacifist? They are fundamentally different from us.”
I am learning to understand alien ways of thinking, learning their language and working out what they want to hear from me, figuring out how I can be what they need me to be. I don’t know if I will survive if they don’t help me, so I will give them anything they want, I will be anything they want. I listen closely to them, I understand the world through them. Their constant talk of Judges/Architects tricks me into believing that there must be some kind of morality at play. We are, after all, being judged by a stronger power.
The Judges/Architects gave me a direction, and it led me to my doom.
I won’t be following their call again. I suspect that my survival will be better served by avoiding their gaze.
Why do the aliens have the same word for Judge as they do for Architects? Perhaps it’s a conflation that happens in our own world too. The decisions of an architect can appear judgemental, making a user feel that they have been favoured or disadvantaged based on their personal characteristics. Judges act as architects, constructing the systems under which we live with as much of an eye on a larger social project as on individual morality.
Aliens fear the Judges/Architects, knowing they are capable of ending entire civilisations at their whim. Aliens beg for mercy, but it seems unlikely that dualities like mercy and cruelty exist in their minds. I have met powerful creatures who see that everything will be claimed by entropy. Continuity of the self is only an illusion. It makes no difference whether you kill someone or let them live.
FibreTigre were considering implementing a karma system, but decided against it. What remained were a series of actions that might have been construed as good or bad, but in the end, are just neutral actions in the eyes of the universe. I can drain a planet of its natural resources or breathe new life into dead worlds. It makes no difference to my fate, beyond utilitarian questions about whether I have what I need to survive and keep travelling.
The remarkable storytelling of Out There integrates the coldness of the game’s rules into an alien normativity. FigreTigre have explicitly said in an article for RageMag that they designed the game’s resource management systems in a way that would run counter to socio-economic norms:
We made sure that if your intergalactic engine breaks, you will need to disassemble your telescope to rebuild it. You will therefore resort to the most extreme measures to survive, cannibalising yourself just to find the energy to continue. We wanted to destroy the financial system of values that is familiar to us, by making sure that you had to choose between storing gold or iron, platinum or oxygen — and of course, iron and oxygen are crucial in your adventure.
If I am able to get my through self-reliance, then I will rely on my own resources, I will consume them until they have expired, and I will be lost. I know that I can never go home, and I know that nobody will join me on my journey. But I keep on travelling toward that waypoint on the horizon.
I might survive, but my sense of self will not remain intact.
I will have to become cold, like the environment in which I find myself. Out There is resource management without earthly norms. The higher layer doesn’t reassure you of a greater purpose. Ours is not a smiling god. There’s just the increasingly desperate attempt to keep the numbers balanced as everything is slowly lost to entropy, pursuing the faint hope that there is something worth surviving for.