Children of a Dead Earth: Future War in Space

Children of a Dead Earth bills itself as the most scientifically accurate space warfare simulator ever. And it lives up to the hype.

In the universe of CDE, World War III wiped out the Earth, forcing the survivors to colonise space. The game covers a superpower conflict between the Republic of Free People and the United Sol Trade Alliance, spanning most of the inhabited Solar System. Players take on the role of a newly-commissioned Admiral in the RFP’s Navy, with the plot delivered during mission briefings and in-game radio transmissions. To succeed, players must apply a combination of military tactics and orbital mechanics in a series of increasingly challenging environments.

CDE is a niche game. One part tactics, one part space travel simulator, one part design software and one part puzzle game, there is nothing quite like it out there. Literally everything in the game is faithfully modeled using real-world scientific principles, from Young’s Modulus to thermal conductivity, stoichiometric mixture ratio to arc lamp material. The developer even included real-world reference material in the infolinks.

Being a military sim, most of the missions involve defeating an enemy spaceship or constellation. A few missions, however, are more akin to complicated puzzles, requiring you to get your ship or constellation from one point to another within tight time and delta-v requirements. The last stretch of missions combine both elements, requiring the player to gave a firm grasp of rocketry, orbital mechanics and military tactics.

Resource husbandry is the number one priority in the game: players must figure out how much delta-v to expend to get to their destination in a reasonable time, while still retaining enough propellant to hunt down and engage the enemy. In later missions, players must also strike a fine balance between conserving munitions and overwhelming the enemy’s defences.

Missions are a combination of turn-based and real-time tactics. During orbital maneuvers, players can choose how much game time passes with each ‘turn’. In-game missions run for weeks, even months, making it critical for playability. During engagements, the game shifts to real-time mode, letting players decide ship tactics and targets. With ships and missiles shooting past at high velocities, engagements rarely last longer than a minute. But that minute is packed with screaming flares, desperate full-auto kinetic barrages, dazzling lasers dancing across hulls, multicolored streams of death racing against each other to kill their targets first, and short-lived starbursts of nuclear fire.

There is no hand-holding in the game. Once past the introductory missions, the game leaves you to puzzle out missions for yourself. If you aren’t already familiar with rocketry and orbital mechanics, reading and re-reading the in-game reference documents is absolutely essential. Gamers familiar with Kerbal Space Program will find plotting burns and trajectories a simple task, but since the game utilises an N-body simulator, players must also account for gravity.

This approach extends to the ship and module design sections. Part of the game’s main draws, you can unlock the ability to design custom ships and modules and send them into combat. However, the game will not teach you how to build them; it will simply provide reference documents and leave you to your own devices. While the user interface is pretty simple, every item in-game is subject to the laws of physics. If you don’t possess multiple degrees in aerospace engineering, nuclear physics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics or material science, or at least if you don’t have reference websites handy on a second window, designing ships and modules may well become a game of guesstimation and trial and error. Which, for the patient gamer, can yield incredible rewards.

The main propulsion technology in-game is a nuclear thermal rocket. There are many kinds of NTRs in game, utilizing a variety of propellant mixes for different results. Methane is the preferred propellant of choice for capital ships, offering a balance of exhaust velocity, thrust and mass. Other kinds of rockets are available: chemical rockets for missiles and small ships and resistojets for altitude control and faster spin times.

A number of weapons technology is faithfully modeled in the game. Missiles and drones are long-range strikers, meant to soften (or destroy) enemy formations from afar. Lasers are the main line of defense against them, but they can also be employed to snipe specific ship modules from medium range. Kinetics are the game’s ship-to-ship weapons of choice: railguns are high rate of fire, high accuracy weapons for precision targets, while coilguns fire heavy slugs that blast through armour and kill ships.

Capital ship engagements present a stark view of space war. It becomes a question of how fast and how far away you can destroy your enemy before he destroys you. The game’s tech assumptions prioritises high-velocity, long-range kinetic weapons: the further out you engage the enemy, the safer you will be. There is no dodging incoming fire, not when you are inside a weapon’s effective envelope. The best ships can do is to evade kinetics from a very long way off, or take incoming fire on heavy armor in the hopes of surviving long enough to loose their own weapons. Combat tactics usually revolve around disabling the enemy’s longest-range weapons early, buying time to knock out the remaining critical systems. If the enemy manages to open fire, the only question is how badly both sides will be mauled.

Every weapon and every munition has an equation attached to it. Lasers are continuous wave weapons, doing damage by superheating targets. Their power drops off in an asymptote; past their effective range and they will be effectively useless. Missiles utilize infrared seekers: they will home in on the targets’ brightest radiators — or flares — and too many nukes in too small a space will interfere with each other, leading to much reduced effect on the enemy. Kinetic slugs do not lose power over range, but because they are unguided, ships can (sometimes) dodge them from tens of kilometres out. CDE is the first game in my collection that actually caused my gaming-grade computer to stutter and lag. Suffice to say, throwing huge numbers of missiles at the enemy is not recommended.

Graphics-wise, the game is simple but functional. There aren’t any AAA graphics here, but the art design suits the game’s vision of ultra-hard sci fi. It’s just as well that the textures aren’t of ultra-high quality; calculating trajectories and weapon effects is extremely demanding task as is. That said, every visual is realistically modeled. Exhaust is mostly transparent, only lasers in the visible frequency can be seen, explosions are brief bursts of white spheres, and a barrage of thousands of incoming tracers is terrifying to behold.

Likewise, in-game sound mostly composes of the soundtrack. There is no air in space; you cannot hear anything. Ideally, you should complete your entire mission without hearing any sounds. The sounds a player can hear are the impact of hypersonic rounds, armour crumpling, modules exploding, and crew compartments decompressing.

The most astounding achievement is that this game is developed by just one person. Five years ago I would have said it was impossible. That this game exists at all is a testimony to human ingenuity, and the easy availability of knowledge and software.

The game does have a number of flaws, chiefly the AI. The enemy AI isn’t spectacular. It will launch drones and missiles at you, it will do their best to set up favourable interceptions and dodge yours, but outside of a few missions they won’t do much. Once you’ve locked in an intercept, gameplay boils down to a mad minute of gunfire. Much of the game’s challenge actually lies in setting up burns to put yourself in advantageous positions relative to the target, or just maneuvering so you can intercept your target. In a very real sense, each mission is won or lost on in the design and orbital maneuvering stages. Most annoying of all, even if you wipe out an enemy’s capital ships, if there are still surviving drones or missiles, you must still neutralize them before you are officially victorious.

That aside, the other flaws are minor, such as typos in the written material and the lack of an ability to save your game during a mission. These can be easily overlooked. The real flaw, in my opinion, is that the game has only 18 missions. Ship design is unlocked after the 9th mission, and module design after the 12th. That said, players can retry missions at any time and beat the standards set by the developer. Players can also pit fleets of their choice and design against each other in the sandbox mode. However, this game is single player only.

Children of a Dead Earth is highly recommended for players seeking an ultra-hard science fiction space warfare simulator, with the patience (and knowledge) to model ships and modules using real-world scientific principles. It is not a game for everyone, but for its target audience, it is a highly rewarding experience.

Sunrider Academy: How NOT to Write A Romance

Sunrider Academy is a spin-off from the Sunrider series. Set in an alternate universe, Sunrider Academy reimagines the main characters as high school students. The Sunrider series is a collection of visual novels powered by the Ren’Py engine, with gameplay sections interspaced with VN storytelling segments. Where the original game was a turn-based strategy game featuring intense battles between starships and mecha, Sunrider Academy is a time/stat management dating sim.

I don’t play dating sims, and visual novels only rarely. If not for its tangential connection to the Sunrider series I wouldn’t even have picked up Sunrider Academy. That said, I enjoyed my overall experience with the game. But it could have been so much better.

In Sunrider Academy, you play the role of Kayto Shields, Vice President of the Student Council. In the beginning of his second year, he promises his kid sister Maray that he would get a girlfriend. When he goes to school, his childhood friend Ava Crescrentia, President of the Student Council, charges Kayto with turning around three sports clubs in danger of being disbanded by the school. And, Kayto has to keep his grades up to retain his position. The player must juggle Kayto’s studies, club affairs and love life over an increasingly hectic school year.

The common route, spanning the first few months, is chock-full of in-jokes and moments of hilarity. When you choose a girl to pursue, the humour gives way to drama, teenage angst, and romance.

Or tries to.

While Sunrider Academy delivers competent stories for all four routes, it is hamstrung by its Japanese influence. Sunrider Academy relies on a number of well-established VN, anime and manga tropes: the overachieving childhood friend, the moeblob, the genki girl, the emotionless girl, conveniently contrived clumsiness leading to predictable perverse positions, and so on. Tropes are not bad in of themselves, but the developers relied far too heavily on them to carry the plot instead of building on them to build better stories.

To illustrate this, I’m going to break down the romance routes in the story. Warning: unmarked spoilers ahead!

Chigara Ashada

I’m a pessimist, so I’ll start with the worst route: Chigara’s. Chigara is the captain of the science club. She’s a genius, but she’d rather be a baker. She is also meek, innocent and girlish, the very definition of a moeblob.

The conflict in her route is driven by her twin sister, Lynn. Where Chigara is a genius, Lynn is not. Where Chigara is all sunshine and bubbles, Lynn is broody and depressive. Chigara just wants to get along, but Lynn wants to take everything from her sister. After all, Chigara is the favored daughter — created by their parents to be the perfect girl.

As the story progresses, Lynn tries to impersonate Chigara and steal Kayto from her. Worse, Chigara gives in to her sister’s whims, allowing Lynn to take her place in the Academy. It gets to the point where Kayto can’t tell who is who anymore. [To be honest, neither could I; somehow Kayto could read them better than me.] This could have been the setup for a psychological thriller.

Instead, the story is resolved in an extremely convenient fashion: as Chigara coaches Lynn to act like her, the sisters find common ground to bond, and resolve their differences. By the story’s end, they have made up and stopped impersonating each other.

Heartwarming, certainly, but with one problem: Kayto had nothing to do with it.

Throughout Chigara’s route, Kayto becomes increasingly passive, focusing solely on his club responsibilities and studies. The entire resolution occurs off-screen, delivered only by exposition. The final reconciliation was also unsatisfying: it’s hard to imagine that Kayto would suddenly welcome Chigara back into his life after the sisters put him through so much emotional stress. The more likely and realistic outcome would be Kayto cutting ties with the Asadas permanently.

This is a romance story, though, and there must be a happy ending. There’s a simple fix for this: have Kayto refuse to give up on the Asadas, and instead push them towards reconciliation. Have him engage both sisters throughout the route, and convince them to make up. This makes him involved in his story, giving agency to the player. This would be far more emotionally satisfying than simply having Chigara say they made up.

Ava Crescentia

Ava is a perfect embodiment of the overachieving  childhood friend: she is the top student of Sunrider Academy, the President of the Student Council, and a stickler for the rules. She is cold and harsh towards everybody, demanding every student to obey every regulation, no matter how inane. Her default expression is a frown, and she almost never smiles during the story sections. She bosses around everyone she meets, earning the ire of the entire student body, and picks out Kayto for particularly difficult duties (taking charge of the problem clubs is just the beginning!).

So why is there a romance?

Kayto’s motivation is obvious. Being neighbours, they have a shared history stretching back years. Plus, Ava possesses certain ‘assets’ no hotblooded male will fail to notice. But Ava? There is no hint that she is interested in Kayto, or even respects him as a person. She is almost always seen giving him more work or berating him or otherwise treating him as an extra pair of hands to clear the never-ending pile of paperwork.

The moment she took the opportunity to make out with Kayto came as a shock, to him and me. She had been nothing but harsh and domineering, and he in turn (mostly) placative and resigned. Kayto himself thinks she sees him as little more than an insect. Why is she suddenly interested in him? Why is he interested in her?

Near the end of the game, she hints that she came to love Kayto because he had always supported her. But that doesn’t ring true with me. Loyalty and support are hallmarks of friendship; romance requires more than that.

The Kayto-Ava dynamic just isn’t convincing enough. Instead of a hard-won love, I see the classic signs of emotional abuse. At the very least, I see Kayto being a hen-pecked husband and an unhappy marriage.

To make this romance work, the route needs two major improvements. There needs to be more signposting of Ava’s intentions and emotions. She has a sugar and ice personality, but the writer focused on the ‘ice’ aspect to the exclusion of ‘sugar’. The script needs to make her attraction to him more obvious from the start, giving Kayto hope that he has a chance.

As for Kayto, he needs to be stronger and far more decisive. He comes off as a Typical High School Boy, which is the wrong approach to take. For instance, after a key moment of intimacy, he said, “Well, after we did that, I thought we were going out.” This comes across as wishy-washy and utterly cringeworthy. A better line would be, “After doing that, why wouldn’t we be going out?” This signals strength and places the ball in Ava’s court, forcing her to examine why she did what she did and to face her growing attraction to Kayto. Likewise, he should stand up to Ava whenever she makes idiotic decisions instead of quietly following orders and getting into worse trouble.

Women like Ava only respect people as strong as they are — any less and they simply will not give the time of day to, much less consider as a romantic prospect. To make this story work, Kayto has to step up his game, and Ava has to show more vulnerability.

Asaga Oakrun

This route is a marked improvement over the other two. Instead of high drama or contempt, this route is filled with passion. Asaga is the very model of a Japanese genki girl, and she drags Kayto right into her orbit. He mans up and proves himself worthy of his affections.

Eventually. The weakest point of the story is in the middle, when Kayto finds himself overwhelmed. Asaga becomes increasingly intrusive, and her personality leads to clashes with other clubs and the Student Council, causing Kayto more trouble. It all comes to a head during a climactic Student Council meeting (puns very much intended), and Kayto decides to break things off with her.

Fortunately for all involved, the lovers reconcile quickly. But a bit too quickly for my tastes. Kayto stomps angrily away from the relationship, Asaga apologises in tears, and they make up.The remaining drama in the route is due to external shenanigans, which reinforce their feelings for each other — but not necessarily how they act. What I would have liked to see is how they influence each other for the better: Asaga becomes less impulsive and puts in more effort in paperwork and studies, while Kayto lets himself relax and be more spontaneous. This is only vaguely hinted at the penultimate story section, the day before the Most Definitively Final Exams.

Sola

Sola in this game is a mysterious girl adopted by the head priest of the city shrine. She speaks with a flat register, but uses formal and sophisticated vocabulary. Unlike the other routes, this one is tied intrinsically to the main Sunrider storyline. This Sola is in danger of being erased from the universe, and Kayto must find a way to save her.

This route was the route released as the public demo, and the devs clearly put in a lot of time polishing it. The route mixes moments of drama, intrigue and tenderness. Unlike the other routes, this Kayto isn’t wishy-washy or indecisive: he swears to save Sola, refuses to give up on her no matter how hard she tries to convince him to abandon her, seeks solutions, and at the climax confronts a de facto god — and wins. Likewise, Sola also shows character growth — though I have to say, it’s easier to show character growth for someone already established as a flat, if eccentric, girl.

This route would have been magnificent, but for the ending. It boils down to Kayto telling the abovementioned god to give Sola back, and the god agreeing just like that. There is no drama, no sense of resistance, no insight into the god’s motives or actions. It just happens. A far more satisfying ending would have Kayto debating the god — and winning. A crowning moment of awesome is a far better fit for the game than a deus ex machina.

Gameplay and Story Segregation

Sunrider Academy is a stat management game, and the gameplay layer is painfully segregated from the story elements. During the girls’ routes, there are moments when the characters are betrayed or in emotional distress. Yet, somehow, this doesn’t affect the stat building sections. Kayto can continue to improve the stats of a club led by a girl who hurt him as though nothing had happened. This is, frankly, quite jarring — but this may be due to engine limitations.

Throughout the game, you are given plenty of opportunities to interact with the girls. You can give them gifts, engage in conversation with them, or attempt to charm and flirt with them. During the common route, this is key to raising their affections, which unlocks their individual route. But afterwards, save for the girl you’re pursuing, this mechanic has exactly no impact on the story that I can tell.

More than that, there seems to be no penalty for flirting with or charming a girl who isn’t your girlfriend. None of the girls show signs of jealousy, and there is no impact on your chosen girlfriend’s affections. When you think hard about it, it kills immersion.

Not for Dating Sim Fans

The developers took a gamble by jumping into an entirely new genre for their spinoff. While I recognise their courage, I think they have much to learn about writing convincing romance stories. In romance VNs, players want to see the hero and heroine(s) grow together, to be given a sense of agency through meaningful decisions, and to experience a realistic facsimile of romance. This requires excellent storytelling and a keen insight into human nature beyond faithful recreations of anime and manga tropes. VNs are novels: they live and die by their characters and writing, and the writing here isn’t up to scratch. Further, I think the devs could have tried to close the gap between gameplay and storytelling, improving overall immersion.

Ultimately, if you’re not a fan of dating sims or stat management games, Sunrider Academy offers repetitive clicking through huge swathes of the game on easy or waifu mode to unlock story content that isn’t quite up to par. Quite fortuitously, on Steam it’s currently being offered at a 60% discount. But to properly enjoy the game, you need a walkthrough or risk missing key events necessary to propel the game.

I think Sunrider Academy will appeal mainly to people who enjoyed the main series. The writing isn’t as tight as I would like it to be, but fans would appreciate the humor and references. Gamers or VN fans seeking a plausible romance should look elsewhere, or at least wait until the game is on sale.

 

On the Radar: Children of a Dead Earth

Children of a Dead Earth is the most promising science fiction computer game I have seen since Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. It tries to do for the genre what I attempt to do with my forays into science fiction: to create a compelling vision of tomorrow based on real-world science.

Storywise, the game is fairly unremarkable (at least from what the developer has released so far). In the not-too-distant future, humans have colonised the Solar System. Two or more factions come to blows. The player, representing one of these factions, commands a constellation of warships to defeat the enemy across the breadth of inhabited space. While CDE is basically a Real Time Strategy game IN SPAAAAAAAAAAACE, where the game truly shines is its dedication to realism.

The developer, Q Switched Productions, boasts that Children of a Dead Earth is the most scientifically accurate computer game ever made — and lives up to the claim. Unlike other space games, the game uses an actual N-body simulator, allowing precise modelling of orbital phenomena. On the developer blog, the developer explores the science behind the game. Everything from propulsion to nuclear power to weapons to ammunition to radiators is described and discussed in painstaking detail without losing the reader in an avalanche of technical jargon. That alone is worth the time to read through the archives.

Every ship, every component and every weapon is fully customizable based on scientific principles. You can do everything from deciding the armature material for coilguns to optimizing the operating temperature of a nuclear reactor to the type of armour your ship is made of — but you must have a solid understanding of physics to do it properly. You can, for instance, design and mount a 100 MW violet laser, but you must be prepared to shed the ferocious amount of heat it would generate, figure out how to power the rest of your ship, and mount secondary weapons to complement the laser. As the developer points out, even a laser as powerful as that isn’t a doomsday weapon, merely a long-range weapon with a specific tactical niche. If you have mass or cost constraints, you have to compromise somewhere.

Delta-v and orbital mechanics play a critical role in the game. The cunning space captain will employ maneuvering burns that will place his squadron in a superior position, force the enemy to expend his delta-v reserves, and minimise his own propellant expenditure. Ploughing through swarms of drones and clouds of missiles, then charging straight into the guns of the enemy ships in a death-or-glory attack is a surefire recipe for disaster. Better to trick the enemy into wasting his long-range weapons, knock out critical components from a distance, then close in for the kill. Or, even better, force the enemy to expend all his propellant, leaving him dead in space, without even firing a shot.

This dedication to realism means that a game like this will never be published by any of the big game companies. Take a look at these gameplay videos.

 

 

The game won’t hold the player’s hand. It won’t dumb anything down. The graphics look like they came from the late 90s or early 2000s, but they are adequate for gameplay — and truthfully, there is something hypnotic about watching streams of tracers trace an arc around a planet to strike a faraway target. Instead of focusing on flashy visuals, slick presentation, shiny doodads or impossible-but-cool special effects, the developer concentrated on realism and natural outgrowth from scientific principles.

CDE does not appeal to the lowest common denominator. It demands the player to live up to it. At the same time, it can teach the player a thing or two about science — made abundantly clear in the developer blog. It’s not an AAA game, nor is it meant to be; it’s for the hardcore geeks who’ve been waiting for a realistic space war sim.

In this sense, CDE is very much like Kerbal Space Program. They aren’t the prettiest games around, but they are intellectually rigorous and grounded in physics. These games aren’t just entertainment; they will inspire the next generation of scientists and sci fi creators.

In all honesty, If I had stumbled across the developer blog before writing FLASHPOINT: TITAN, the story would have been written much differently. I can see the developer blog joining Atomic Rockets and Rocketpunk Manifesto as the go-to resource for hard scence fiction spaceships.

You can find the game’s Steam page here. The community has greenlit the game and it’s expected for a 2016 release. I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to it. After all, for most people, this is entertainment — but for me, it’s for research.

 

A Tale of Two Devs

The recent furore over Blizzard’s Overwatch and Beamdog’s Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear illustrates two very different approaches to game design and response to criticism.

Blizzard’s Overwatch is an upcoming multiplayer first person shooter. The original controversy began when people complained about a victory pose employed by the game’s first revealed character, Tracer, claiming that it turns her into a sex object. Blizzard quickly apologised for the so-called ‘butt pose‘, and replaced it with another victory pose…itself based on a pin-up.

I think the original complaint was overblown to begin with. Overwatch is Blizzard’s intellectual property, and they are free to design characters as they please. A bunch of pixels on a two-dimensional screen is hardly worth getting riled up about, but it’s what Social Justice Warriors do all the time.

Blizzard’s response is one for the textbooks. I don’t know enough about the game to decide whether the original pose suited the character in question. But I don’t see any wrongdoing there, and there’s nothing for Blizzard to apologise for. On the other hand, the new pose took the perspective off Tracer’s rear, defusing the original complaint, while retaining the aesthetics of the game and character, and gave anti-SJWs something to smile at. Blizzard turned a potential crisis on its head, showed its respect for its target audience, and even generated good PR for itself.

Dragonspear, on the other hand, was a mess. It was set in the Baldur’s Gate universe, in between the original and its sequel. The franchise has an existing canon, an established universe, an entrenched culture — and Beamdog inserted social justice memes into the series.

While designers are free to design what they wish, Beamdog interfered with the creative vision of another team of developers — and not in a way that built up the canon. Instead, they subverted the game universe to push their ideology, practically shoving it down gamers’ throats. For example, there is a transgender character named Mizhena. She says:

“When I was born, my parents thought me a boy and raised me as such. In time, we all came to understand I was truly a woman. I created my new name from syllables of different languages. All have special meaning to me; it is the truest reflection of who I am.”

The mindset revealed in this explanation points to a modern Western progressive mindset, one that is concerned about tolerance, gender fluidity, and casual linguistic appropriation. Most tellingly, the player character can only react in three ways: express approval, move on to another subject, or end the dialogue.

This is something you might expect to see in San Francisco, circa 2016. But tolerance, gender fluidity and casual linguistic appropriation have not been established as part of the in-game culture and memes of the original Baldur’s Gate. This is clearly a naked attempt to subvert an existing IP to shove politics down gamer’s throats.

When called out on it, Beamdog’s CEO doubled down, claiming that he will stand behind his staff. Beamdog proceeded to crack down on ‘harassment’ and ‘abuse’ on its online forums, banning users for thoughtcrime. The company also called for people to post positive reviews of the game online — which is a naked attempt to manipulate rating systems.

If people want to make social justice games, they are free to do so. It has never been easier to create, publish, sell and market a computer game in history. But Beamdog subverted an existing IP, disrespected its original creative vision, and alienated its target audience. And the icing on the cake: the game itself is buggy, riddled with glitches, and breaks other mods. Gamers may forgive social justice themes in games; they will not forgive broken games.

Beamdog’s approach is characteristic of social justice warriors: they subvert existing IP to ram their ideology down fans’ throats, they double down when called out on their behaviour, they lie about how good their work is, they project their insecurities and tendencies towards harassment on people who call them out, and if their new IP is fundamentally broken in some way they will redirect attention on the cultural conflict.

Developers should be like Blizzard: either create fresh IPs or build upon existing IPs, respect their target audience without backing down to SJWs, and focus their efforts on the game and the gamer.

Gamers care less about social justice than game mechanics and playability. Gamers do not want to be lectured or preached to; they want to have fun and escape the real world for a while. Developers who fail to recognise that are failures.