I was talking with a gaming buddy recently who missed the whole space sim experience in the 1990s. He's a Star Wars fan and a real-life pilot pushing 40, so it surprised me to learn that he'd never heard of Wing Commander, Freespace, X-Wing, and the like. My jaw really hit the floor as our conversation turned to current games and I began to evangelize about Star Citizen and Chris Roberts.
"Who's Chris Roberts?" he asked, with a straight face.
To be fair, Roberts probably isn't a household name just yet. Game designers in general rarely get the rock star treatment afforded to A-list film directors, novelists, and other auteurs, and Roberts caters to a niche that is well, a niche, and one that is also getting older. Something as ambitious as Star Citizen cries out for a huge audience, though, and if you're on the outside of Roberts' fandom and wondering what all the fuss is about, allow me to tell you what I told my buddy.
And let me qualify it with a certain disdain for celebrity worship, too, though I can't help but have enormous respect for Roberts' previous work and for the stated aims of the Star Citizen project. Put simply, if I had any inclination to be a game designer, Roberts would be my blueprint.
In today's accessiblity-obsessed gaming landscape, immersion has basically become a four-letter word. In many ways, it competes with roleplaying for the right to be called gaming's most reviled redheaded stepchild, particularly in the MMO and multiplayer arenas that Star Citizen samples. MMOs are no longer concerned with virtual world building, and most MMO players aren't looking to leave their real lives behind for a few hours as much as they're looking for a 20-minute diversion and a progression-fueled sense of faux achievement.
Roberts' games, on the other hand, literally wrote the book on immersion. His original Wing Commander titles came with an in-character manual called Claw Marks that disseminated gameplay information and served to draw players into the world of the Vega sector and the war against the Kilrathi aggressors. Claw Marks featured tactical and ship-related discussions, the latter of which was presented as Joan's Fighting Spacecraft, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Jane's All the World's Aircraft, which has been an aviation institution since the early 20th century.
Claw Marks also boasted lengthy dossiers on notable pilots and even advertisements for live entertainment on board the carrier Tiger's Claw. "The TCSO's coming to Vega Sector," the pamphlet said, "with dancers (normal and zero-g) and the lovely Saranya Carr, star of Luna Jones, Jumpscout!"
In addition to Claw Marks, Wing Commander boxes shipped with glorious blueprint-style three-views of the game's various fighter craft. All of these ended up on my bedroom walls -- hey, I was 14 -- and aside from nostalgia, the point I'm getting at is that Roberts strives to make you feel like you're in his games rather than simply interacting with them. "I'm trying to build a world that has such detail and such texture that you forget that it's a game, which is always my goal," he explains in Star Citizen's original reveal video.
Gamers weren't the only ones impressed by Roberts' commitment to immersion. LucasArts released its seminal X-Wing opus in early 1993, two years after it saw what was possible thanks to Wing Commander. Ironically, the space dogfight at the end of the original Star Wars film heavily influenced the creation of Wing Commander, which in turn led to X-Wing and its much-loved sequels TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, and X-Wing Alliance.
Each of these games also featured in-character manuals and eerily similar mechanics, beginning with the Farlander Papers in X-Wing and culminating with the extensive backstory developed for Alliance protagonist Ace Azzameen.
Now, I hear what some of you are saying. Thanks for the history lesson, Jef, but how, if at all, does any of this relate to Star Citizen? Well, first of all, Cloud Imperium recently released the gorgeous Aurora and an equally gorgeous in-character info packet designed to show it off to prospective buyers. Is a SC-themed Claw Marks analog in the works, too? Let's hope so!
The devs have also been going absolutely bonkers on the lore section of Star Citizen's official website. There are really two lore sections, in fact. One is Spectrum Dispatch, a collection of in-character news feeds, historical documents, and a Writer's Guide. The other is Time Capsule, which is exactly what you'd expect: a timeline of significant events in the Star Citizen universe (which incidentally is our universe approximately 900 years in the future).
The Writer's Guide is particularly noteworthy because it represents a vast storehouse of knowledge about everything from Star Citizen's alien races to its politics to its social issues and media organizations. The stated aim of the guide is to "help aspiring writers conceive of stories that fit within the developing Star Citizen canon." In a nutshell, Roberts and company are so into immersion that they're dedicating at least one staffer to not only fleshing it out but making it painstakingly accessible to fanfic scribes!
Who does that, really? Can you imagine a typical MMO developer caring about whether or not a player's fanfic fits into the (extremely dense) overarching world lore?
At any rate, it's still too early to tell whether Star Citizen will deliver on its hugely ambitious gameplay goals. I wouldn't bet against it, though, since Chris Roberts has a long track record of space sims that are both quality games and impressive escapism. And clearly Roberts hasn't lost his lust for immersion, which is reason enough to keep an eye on SC even if you're not a sci-fi or space sim nut.
Whether it's interviews with Chris Roberts and the Cloud Imperium team or tips and guides for pushing your ship's performance envelope, Stick and Rudder is your inside source for news and commentary on the world of Star Citizen. Join Jef Reahard every other week during the run-up to alpha, beta, and beyond.