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Inside the Invincible – Game Informer

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When discussing the creation of Starward Industries, Game Director Marek Markuszewski brings up all the things you might expect from a new team. The company wanted to bring together a group of experienced but still passionate developers, all focused on creating something ambitious despite the studio’s small size. The surprise, however, comes from the studio’s narrative approach. According to Markuszewski, Starward looked for stories that weren’t already “exploited” by the media when developing its first project. He wanted to tell a story that hadn’t been told.

Admittedly, where Starward landed was a story told before – almost 60 years ago, in the novel The Invincible, written by Stanisław Lem. In this one, the crew of the Invincible spaceship investigates the planet Regis III for its missing sister ship. There they discover self-replicating machines which, over time, become more hostile. It questions what it means to be alive, the ever-increasing role of technology in everyday life, and has more than its fair share of retro-futurism, proper names and heady jargon.

For Starward, made up of developers formerly from CD Projekt Red, Techland, and more, this was the right fit for its narrative ambitions – something dense and literary. And for what it’s worth, video game adaptations of novels are relatively rare.

In Starward’s The Invincible, you assume the role of Yasna, a scientist. In typical video game fashion, the protagonist is a somewhat unreliable narrator. She knows she’s a scientist. She knows she came here with a crew that has since disappeared. But many of his memories are hazy. A voice at the other end of an earphone, that of the “astrogator”, helps you throughout your journey.

This is all pretty standard video game fare, though the source material is an interesting place to start. Lem was known for his approach to hard science fiction and the world of The Invincible feels well realized and believable in its fiction. It’s perfectly conceivable to imagine it translating well into a video game, where players are challenged to explore, experiment, and discover the world around them. And for the next hour, with the ideas of the team, I have the chance to do just that.

Slides

My time playing an early pre-alpha version of The Invincible begins with Yasna exploring her surroundings, taking note of her findings, and reporting back to the Astrogator. I’m looking for a lost convoy – and possibly other survivors. Things are not going well.

One of the most immediate things about The Invincible is that, from a fidelity perspective, it looks great. The textures have a lot of definition – I can really tell it’s rocks everywhere I look – and the bright sun gives off a warm feeling as it bakes the ground around Yasna. Regis III mostly resembles Mars – red, arid, dull. But in a way that conveys the desolation of the setting. There’s not much to do in The Invincible other than go ahead and look around. The environment conveys this message.

So, I move on. I can sneak around or move straight to my objective. I choose to take the direct route. After a short drive, I find one of the convoy vehicles stuck under a rockslide. Yasna notes that radiation levels in the area are high. I climb through the vehicle and exit on the other side of the collapse, encountering a machine that will soon cause trouble: a mobile antimatter cannon. Well, two, to be precise. One intact. One destroyed. Nearby is a massive tunnel blown through a rock wall. A final discovery awaits me: a corpse.

Yasna removes the onboard antimatter cannon recorder, and the scene of carnage in front of me begins to come into focus. Yasna sees the missing convoy marching towards its destination. Things seem to be going well. However, the plan goes awry upon reaching Yasna’s current location.

One slide shows the team using the antimatter beam to carve their own path through the rock, recovering materials from the tunnel they created with the antimatter cannon. The next slide shows the convoy rushing out of their new hole. Another shows the cannon firing into the hole. And then the mess. One of the antimatter cannons fires at the other, obliterating it, before turning its beam on the humans. As you might expect, this separates them. “It’s monstrous what the antimatter beam is doing to the human body,” Yasna remarks. Finally, she looks at the last slide, a still image of herself moments ago inspecting the barrel. She is shocked but decides to continue her exploration, turning to whatever is on the other side of the tunnel.

Dense

It doesn’t take long to realize that The Invincible is a slow game – both literally and narratively. It takes time to do just about anything, from walking towards your goal (there’s, thankfully, a sprint button I found after a while in the menus) to listening to Yasna and the Astrogator talk, what they do – a lot.

According to Markuszewski, this is a deliberate choice, which makes sense. Stanisław Lem’s work is, again, dense. Lem is often classified as a “hard” science fiction writer, meaning that the work is focused on scientific accuracy and credibility based on current technologies and theoretical possibilities.

“He was kind of a prophet, writing about things like [the] matrix, ebooks,” says Markuszewski.

“Internet”, adds artistic director Wojtek Ostrycharz.

“Internet, cell phones,” launches marketing director Maciej Dobrowolski. “All those things, yeah.”

It takes time for this information and exposure to be conveyed to the player via visuals and dialogue. As Markuszewski points out, in a book you can spend as many pages as you want describing what something is like or a character’s thoughts and feelings. Video games don’t quite have that luxury; adapt The Invincible into something interactive was a challenge.

“If you opt for the much more conventional model approach, like real-time action, directing a character, being in place – normal pace, normal speed – you don’t have that downtime [to visualize] all very attractive parts of the book,” says Markuszewski. “It’s hard to have very short windows to describe all the emotions or all the concepts [that we want to discuss].”

Based on my time with the game, I think Starward could work more on that balance. Contrary to what Markuszewski says, I spend a lot of my game time doing very little, just listening to the characters talk, occasionally choosing a dialogue prompt. If there’s one major issue I’ve had so far, it’s the pacing of the game. It’s unclear how well Starward can fix that pre-launch, but with story concept too interesting, it is a pity that it is delivered in an often tedious way.

Danger

At the end of the tunnel, I find a small robot carrying a crate in a circle around a cave. Yasna later notes that the robot is stuck in its task.

Deeper down, I find metal plants growing on the walls of the cave. Yasna and the Astrogator then debate the nature of biology – whether or not the metal in front of us can be classified as living or not if things like membranes, organs, etc. are missing. All very heady stuff, with the theoretical jargon that sci-fi fans eat, slowly dispensed as you stand still, waiting for The Invincible to give you your next objective.

On the way to my new point B, my little robot, for reasons that are never very clear, breaks its loop and begins to climb out of the cave. I follow suit, returning to the place with the two antimatter cannons. As my mechanical companion walks along its new path, slicing its way through a new adventure, the intact antimatter cannon comes to life. He fires at the robot, disintegrating it completely, before aiming his cannon at me.

I prepare my hands to dodge the path, then to fight back, to save my own life from what would otherwise be sudden death. I remember those slides I slowly went through, remembering how he tore up the convoy. I am ready to use their failures to my advantage, to save my own life from total destruction. On the other end of the line, Astrogator begins to panic, knowing that I’m probably seconds from death. “Fight,” he shouts in my ear.

To top it all off, I’m going to stop before revealing more of what I’ve played. If you’re excited about The Invincible or a fan of the novel, some of the narrative moments you can’t wait to follow. After this initial setup and a few more explorations, I will say that I am left with many questions about what is happening on Regis III and who is on the wasteland.

Think

My many questions mostly stem from seeing a later-stage mission largely out of context. A conversation between Yasna and Astrogator stuck with me – the previous conversation about metal factories, biology and the human condition.

I don’t think this particular moment has anything interesting to say – or anything that other games haven’t already explored in detail, like 2017’s Nier: Automata, for example. But I love a video game that asks these questions – if only because it’s a rare example of a big-budget game taking the time to explore more nuanced and mature questions, even if a specific moment n doesn’t add too much to the conversation. In its current form, I have issues with how The Invincible tells its story structurally, but I can’t help but think its themes are a welcome change of pace. And I think that’s exactly what Starward was aiming for – that the developers want players to think about new concepts and ideas.

“I had this awesome feeling when I was playing Persona 5, where after an hour and a half of playing, I had to stop, go out, smoke a cigarette and say, ‘Oh my God, I can’. don’t believe what this game is about,'” Starward community manager Michał Napora said. “Maybe people don’t need to go to [it in] this extreme way – going out and smoking cigarettes – but it would be cool if they finished the game and maybe thought of things they hadn’t thought of before.


This article originally appeared in Game Informer #346.