As a gamer, I love the ability to create a unique personal narrative. Some games thrive on their writing and provide a compelling story for their audience, but I don’t always want to be an audience member: I want to be in the driver’s seat (It’s why I play games to begin with). Starbound is the most recent game to let me feel like my own author.
Any game brave enough to allow players to make their own choices will always mark high in my book. I have played many open-world and sandbox adventure games over the years; The Sims, Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, Grand Theft Auto, Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and (especially) Minecraft. Each of these games has allowed me to create a unique story all my own. Still, Starbound’s breadth of worlds, monsters and dangerous situations give even the most passive player the substance for a great adventure, with just the right amount of campy sci-fi fun.
Entry 01: The journey begins
The first step in my journey was to decide who I was to become (the what would present itself later), but after cycling through option after option, a simple choice grew complex. From human, to avian, fish, plant, and robot; all of my options provided good hooks for my adventure, but only one with the right amount of sci-fi camp would do, so I began to style a highly-evolved ape-man.
With the harsh environment of space, I would need to be serviceable, honed to survive. I chose a clean military haircut and a set of officers’ fatigues. The captain of a fine starship would need to look the part, so I decorated myself with a stark gold command stripe, sure to strike fear into the heart of any savage beast. I stared at my new form, a barrel-chested rebel-military ape leader and pilot of a fine simian vessel. He needed a name that would demand respect; Bill Bananas was the obvious choice.
As my eyes opened and the world faded in, I heard the hum of an engine. I was alone, in a ship belonging to the Minikong, a fascist space-ape dictatorship. After hijacking the ship and escaping from their reach, my fuel was depleted. The ship adrift, caught in orbit around a large forest planet, I was forced to explore the planet’s surface in search of alternative fuel. I searched the ship and gathered some useful tools; a matter manipulator, flashlight, and a gnarled shard of metal fashioned into a sword. Ready to face the unknown terrain, I stood atop the teleporter, bracing myself, feeling dizzy as I was engulfed in a red light and each atom of my body was de-materialized to the world below.
Entry 02: Planetside
Having every atom of my being rend apart through the vacuum of space made me sick, but when the red haze lifted and a cool breeze swept across my hairy face, I felt more at ease. I looked down to see if I was all there and found the terrain quite hospitable; the ground appeared to be soil, with pink flowers sprinkled across grassy hills. Tall vine-like trees with bulbous purple leaves stretched around me up to a grey sky. In the distance, rocky mountains spanned the horizon, fissured with rivers. I could have done much worse.
A cursory search of the surrounding area revealed no fauna, but just over the first hill I found several ripe stalks of tomatoes. A lush planet indeed, I thought, if such a succulent fruit was to be found growing abundantly in the wild. Days spent hurdling through the vacuum of space had worn me thin, and seeing no sign of danger, I immediately began tearing the plump red orbs from their vines, devouring them in ravenous hunger. But before I could finish breaking my fast my sharp ape senses caught a strange scent, then there was movement.
I looked up from my perched position to see a monstrous creature charging towards me. It was a burly purple beast, bigger than I, bear-like yet reptilian, with large spikes protruding from its head. My heart raced as the creature lumbered closer and closer; I could only assume it was unaware that my impressive commander’s stripe denoted years of survival and combat training; still, the creature seemed unfazed. I fumbled through my pockets in search of anything with which to defend myself. The world grew dark as I was enshrouded in shadow. I looked up to see the ferocious monster descending on me with vicious intent, blocking out the sun above. At the last possible second, I drew the shard of a metal stowed at my hip and leaped forward with a howling slash.
The beast was wounded, stunned by my attack. Hoping to end the encounter quickly I gripped the sword tightly and aggressed. My second strike landed firm, stunning the creature once again. As I stood there, weapon raised to make the final blow, a screech erupted from behind. I turned at the last second to see another of the violet creatures attack. I only caught the deep burning blue of its eyes before its entire mass crashed into me. The force knocked me back. I was stunned at first, but my instincts quickly kicked in, and I ran.
Like any good ape commander, I knew the odds and I knew my weaknesses, one of which is the inability to fight two rabid alien monsters who have me in a pincer formation. Using my highly-developed simian reflexes, I prepared myself for another charge if only to leap atop my attacker’s shoulders and off into a full sprint. I did not slow, nor did I look back. My legs pounded into the ground and I continued to sprint, leap, and climb across the land and over the hills until I was forced to stop, not from exhaustion, but by something far worse than a couple of wild beasts. Before me stood a large concrete and steel complex, many meters high. It would be an imposing structure anywhere, but here, out in the reaches of a nowhere galaxy, it was not only a surprise, but frightening. It would seem that the Minikong’s reach had extended further than I thought possible.
Entry 03: The complex
I was dumbstruck to find myself light years from my homeworld, far from the tyranny and war of the Minikong throne that I had fought against, trained to defeat, and finally escaped from, only to stand on a small planet on the rim of a deserted galaxy, in front of a stark, unmarked Minikong outpost. What could they be doing here? Why?
The door looked bulky and reinforced; I had no tools that could break through, but as I approached for a closer look, it slid open. I was surprised, but kept my wits about me. As I stepped inside I could smell a stale odour in the still air. From floor to ceiling, dust clung to the bricks of the walls and covered the surface of desks and shelves. The entire place seemed to be abandoned, with only a dull electrical hum running through the equipment. In front of me, affixed to the wall, was a large image of the tyrant Minikong dictator, Minister Buttercup, underneath which was the word “obey.” I felt my heartbeat rise with anger. I would do anything to bring down the Minikong. With that thought in mind I scoured the laboratory, hoping it would yield some answers as to what was going on in such an isolated planet, and how I might put an end to the Minikong’s reign. Each room was filled with shelves of beakers, vials and test tubes, all empty; bookshelves were bare apart from a few empty folders. The computers that had not been smashed were blank. Finding nothing on the ground floor — apart from a packed lunch of bananas — I descended into the lower levels to continue my search. As I reached the lower floor, the hum of electricity grew louder. A bulky door stood before me, locked. With no other means to procure entry, I smashed my fist into the keypad, and as if by design, the thick metal slab parted. What I saw was nothing short despicable. In front of me stood rows of large diagnostic tanks, each housing the body of a simian suspended in a thick green fluid. I stepped through the room in horror, my eyes darting from tank to tank, locking my gaze with each ape. With great anxiety, I crept close to one of the tanks. Each was fitted with a monitor and bending down to inspect the small screen, I was saddened to see no sign of vital signals. My heart sank. Each face seemed calm in sleep, but their bodies revealed all manner of malformation or tampering. I could not imagine why such a laboratory would exist. Were they experimenting on apes? I could not stand to be among these poor souls any longer and retreated through the once sealed door. I could not bear to think that these once proud apes would be turned into lab monkeys. The cruel hands of the Minikong would pay. Using my matter manipulator, I closed the door and crushed the lock tight.
Entry 04: Distressed
I climbed up the stairs, trying to put the horrors of the basement aside. With each step, my anger grew and I became more and more resolute to put an end to the Minikong’s injustices. I would expose their betrayals and remove Minister Buttercup. I might be stranded on a small outer-rim planet, but I was also surrounded by Minikong technology, and I would use every scrap I could to get out of this system.
For two days I rummaged, trashed, and built; I had to scrounge for every ounce of iron and wire, every circuit board and every scrap of food. By my fourth night on the planet, I hacked together a distress beacon at last. I was exhausted, relieved but tired. I climbed onto the roof of the complex and affixed the beacon to the highest point. With my heart beating I flipped the switch and was ecstatic to see the signal light respond. I climbed back down to rest as the sun disappeared over the distant mountains.
I was awoken after dawn by a loud explosion. I leaped up from my cot and ran outside to investigate. In shadow, I looked up, my ape jaw agape at the sight of a giant flying saucer hovering over top of the complex, a smoking black scar beneath it where my beacon had been. My heart sank as I began to realize that the reaches of space were far more hostile that I thought. It would not be an easy journey; I had to be careful not to fall into the jaws the opportunist aggressors.
Suddenly, white-hot beams bolted towards me. I sprinted back into the complex in time, hearing the ground scream and sizzle behind me. I knew I would have to play a cat and mouse game with these aliens to survive. I readied myself for action and affixed a hardened shard of steel to the end of a rod. If I could pierce their ship’s outer hull, I would be able to damage the components within, possibly immobilizing it.
Darting from the threshold, I sped out into the open. With a quick turn of my heel I reversed direction, avoiding a barrage of energy shots. My mind became clouded with adrenaline and I leaped cleanly up the side of the building and onto the low-flying craft. With an overwhelming primal urge, I let out a mighty howl and drove my primitive spear deep into the plates of the ship. I jabbed and stabbed again and again, rending holes and tearing wires. From atop the wavering saucer I could see a small cockpit, clad in glass. My cloudy eyes stared at the unfortunate creature within. I could see the fear in it’s small glossy eyes as I continued to batter the ship in rage. Perhaps it was its surprise at the ferocious ape atop his ship, tearing into it with unstoppable fervour, but I could tell from the glint in his eye that he had seen my command stripe.
Before long the delicate instruments had been exposed and my tearing had caused considerable damage. With a few creaks and zaps the saucer began to wobble, tipping from one side to the other. I leaped to the ground below and watched it careen into the concrete outpost, taking a chunk of the building with it. Tired and relieved I dropped to my knees and howled once again, victorious.
Sitting there, the rain began to fall and I felt open and vulnerable. I had not intended to find such hostile rescuers. There was no telling who else heard that signal. This planet was no longer safe, I would have to find a way out of this system, further into the unknown space.
With care I began searching through the wreckage for useful components. Luckily the alien technology was not too unfamiliar. I was able to scrounge a teleportation unit and a fair amount of fuel. With these I would be able to get back to my ship, still in orbit, and prepare it for travel. Perhaps things were not as bad as I thought.
Entry 05: Into the stars
Standing once again on the bridge of my ship, “Stella,” I began to reflect back on my experience on Alpha Rho Leo 0257 II. I recalled how the disastrous breakdown of the ship had led to the unfortunate discovery of the Minikong facility, how the revelation of their experiments and the extent of their evildoings had pushed me forward. All of my exploits had been fragment of circumstance and my own ingenuity.
Now, refuelled and ready to take on the challenge of bringing down the Minikong. I strapped myself into the pilots’ seat and pound my fist onto a big round red button the read “Random.” I would trust in my luck and my instincts that this ship would get me where I needed to go and that I would one day soon be witness to the smoking rubble of the terrible fascist apes who drove me away.
My head shook with a shutter as my mind returned to reality. I sat at my desk, mouse in hand staring at the screen in front of me. Moments ago I had been millions of lightyears away, in both time and space, as a ruggedly handsome are commander, but now only my good looks remained.
Starbound is just one of many examples of games that incite player-driven narratives. These games have far more in common with a garden than sandbox, they do not just create landscapes or elaborate façades but worlds in which to grow, experiment and explore. I hope those of you have been following this mini-series have found something you enjoy about it because that is exactly what these games will do for you on a much more regular basis. You do not have to look to games to provide with non-stop level-clearing, gear-grinding action. In a proper framework the only thing you need are a few queues to sparks your imagination and create a story all your own with far more meaning than any other.