I’ve always dreamed of creating a fantastic space ship simulation along the lines of what I’ve described in my xVRM Manifesto, something I wrote years ago. In the past month, working alongside Kenneth Bowen and Andrew Armenia for my Experimental Game Design class (taught by RPI’s Professor Ruiz), that dream took shape in a project called Atropos.
Inside of a structure best described by Vicarious Visions’ Karthik Bala as a “space shanty”, three players work together to pilot a virtual spaceship through a virtual world. The tactical officer, working at the left console, can fire missiles and lasers, scan of targets, start electromagnetic, biological, and radiological sweeps, and both hail and accept hails from other ships in the game world. The navigation officer, working at the right console, is responsible for flying the craft and has the ability to engage a FTL (faster than light) jump, allowing the players to jump across large areas of space. The command officer, sitting in the center, can monitor the status of the ship and other scan targets via the center, dual screen display, and is responsible for communication with NPCs over the radio (the device with the phone handset).
Overall, Atropos was a major success. We managed to have it fully set up for the exhibition component of the RPI Game Symposium and took home 5th place, as well as drawing a fairly large crowd and running about ten teams of three through our 15-minute mission. Players were instructed to destroy a ‘radioactive asteroid’ in a nearby asteroid field, and were then ambushed by Captain Nagel, a pirate with somewhat aggressive intentions.
We were able to incorporate a few interesting concepts into Atropos that I’ve wanted to try out for a while. We were able to use a number of interesting interface peripherals, such as a flight yoke and two foot throttle lever for flying, a giant potentiometer and lever for firing the laser, a dual-screen CRT for providing ship status and scan information, a radio that players could talk to NPCs through, and a dot-matrix printer (which everyone absolutely loved) for providing a physical copy of mission briefing and de-briefing for players to take with them after the game was finished. By fully enclosing the ship, we had complete control over lighting and sound, which consisted of an incandescent bulb for main lighting, a red CCFL for emergency lighting, and a fairly loud speaker set. When the players’ ship was damaged, the lights would ficker as explosions sounded; when the players were ambushed, they were plunged into darkness as the lights turned off, their screens turned black, and alarms sounded. When players used their FTL drives, the lights would flicker while the screens “glitched”, and our obnoxiously loud and over-phasered warp sound effect played.
In addition to an over-the-top interface and ridiculous special effects, Atropos features absolutely no artificial intelligence or pre-scripted events aside from special effects timelines. As the fourth player, the game master is responsible for controlling all other ships and events that happen in the game, along with improv-acting out the dialogue that all NPCs have with the players. Using video-portraits and creative voice acting, we brought the NPCs to life and held interactive dialogues with the players, allowing us to both immerse the players and give them in-game assistance on some of the more confusing technical aspects of the ship.
Although working with such a large project on a short timeline was somewhat exhausting, I am extremely pleased with how everything turned out, and will most definitely be exploring the simulation-LARP genre much more in the near future.