The fact that it took so many years for a game development team to create a game based on Lem may be surprising, but it also is very, very awesome. Lem's books – unlike many other sci-fi ones – focus more on reflection on humanity and philosophical disputes than action, which would arguably be easier to translate into gameplay. Nevertheless, the Krakow-based Starward Industries studio has picked up the gauntlet and will try to prove that Lem is not only worth reading, but also playing.
You surely already know that they are making a game based on a book by the master from Lviv – we wrote about it a few times and even visited the studio to chat with the devs. Due to the courtesy of Starward Industries we meet again – this time, the developers have provided us with a piece of playable code and I have already had the opportunity to see what's what in The Invincible. What you will find below are my impressions, but I also didn't waste the chance to ask the developers a few questions again, as the demo whetted my curiosity, and, most of all, my hope for a really good, interesting role-playing game.
I'm aware that not all of you have read Lem's The Invincible, so I will make sure I avoid any spoilers and keep my opinions on a rather general level of details – the planet we're going to visit hides many fascinating secrets.
Here we are in space
The demo consisted of two stages, fragments of which you might have already seen in the trailer, but not everything was revealed back then. These are not stages from the very beginning of the game, as evidenced by the fact that the main character – Yasna – already has some knowledge about the secrets of the planet called Regis III. We can also quickly learn that she doesn't belong to the crew of the Invincible, nor the Condor. To dramatize the story even more, Starward Industries tells the story of a different mission – so we can presume that during the game, we will come across traces of previous expeditions, and maybe even manage to meet them. The introduction of the third ship/crew into the story is so significant, however, that I asked Marek Markuszewski, project lead and CEO of Starward Industries, about it:
Gamepressure: You expand the story quite significantly by introducing, among others, the third space mission to touch down on the planet, as well as adding factions that were not in the book – all this, as I understand it, to "energize" the setting and better translate it into a video game?
Marek Markuszewski, project lead & CEO of Starward Industries: Yes and... no (laughs). Introducing the third party allows you to show the story from the book in a micro scale, emphasizing the individual experience, clearly outlining the relationships of the heroine with her small team. Thanks to this procedure, we can also provide excellent, suspenseful and stimulating reflection, entertainment that's appealing both to readers of Lem and people who haven't read The Invincible nor his other books yet.
The Invincible resembles the cherished Firewatch from the very beginning – only with more beautiful and modern graphics and introducing some incredibly immersive animations. The first impressions are really fantastic – we stand in the middle of a desert gorge, the wind blows the sand from high rocks, and the atmospheric, minimalist music fuels the atmosphere of mystery and adventure. When we look up, we see a beautiful, alien sky. It looks just like I imagined this unlucky planet when reading the book in my youth.
In the first of the available fragments of the game, we tracked a lost convoy – we didn't know exactly whether it's a convoy of our mission or not – the fragment was supposed to familiarize us with the mechanics of the game, rather than reveal what the Invincible will be all about. At the beginning, we see a vehicle that we can enter, and even start it to ride for a while. We can also choose a detour route and climb some rocks. Finally, we reach the convoy, where we conduct a brief investigation using two tools – a detector that allows tracking people, and a device that allows to look underground. Both these tools, as well as all the machines and vehicles we encounter in the game, have a nice, analog, retro-futuristic vibe and design (as befits Lem).
This design design perfectly fits the convention of Lem's book, where, instead of digitization, we were dealing with heavy, oiled machines and analog equipment. Instead of themes from modern, hackneyed films, books and SF games, we get a vision of the future that harkens back to the older sci-fi. I asked where the developers drew inspiration from when inventing these unusual devices.
Our goal was to develop an original, characteristic aesthetic of the world, which would not only serve as the background of the events, but would also complement the storytelling. When creating the art style of a game based on Lem, including the devices, we were mostly inspired by atompunk. Our art director – Wojciech Ostrycharz – drew inspiration from the collection of illustrations characteristic for book covers, the 1950s and 1960s design, illustrations by Chris Foss as well as actual equipment used in those years. So, creating the tools was a challenge, yes, but also a fun journey back in time. We analyzed how the devices worked or could work before the digitization era, what movements should be made to operate them, and at the same time what they should look like in order to not only be a functional, useful element of the game, but also to be a separate component that builds the retro-futuristic drama landscape, which takes place on Regis III.
Lem fans should be thrilled because the creators approached the source material with great care, as evidenced, for example, by the lack of displays on electronic devices. For example, the maps in Lem's books were made of paper and stored in tubes, so Yasna – despite the fact that she flew to this planet in a veritable spaceship – uses exactly that kind of map, marking important places on it with a marker pen.
During the journey – like in Firewatch – we are constantly accompanied by a radio companion, our superior, astrogator Novik (from the words "astronaut" and "navigator" – that is, the ship's commander). We talk to him, share our observations and thoughts, trying to unravel the mystery of the planet and the disappearance of people. It's hard to say anything more than that Novik's and Yasna's voices sound good, and the lines that are spoken nicely fuel our curiosity.
The fragment itself doesn't reveal much in the way of story – it flaunts the fancy graphics, beautiful art style and a few gameplay solutions. It feels like a technical demo rather than a game proper, so I suspect that pretty much everything is still prone to change. However, based only on the presented fragments, I am ready to say that the Invincible will be primarily about the story. Again, similarly to Firewatch, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or What Remains of Edith Finch, the most important journey will be the one, during which we'll gradually get to know an interesting story based on Stanislaw Lem's classic novel. So you won't find any combat nor survival here – the game will maintain the feeling of being in constant danger purely with narrative and atmosphere.
This doesn't mean, of course, that this is some kind of auto-pilot game that completes itself – it will most likely consist in climbing, finding your bearings, using various beeping devices with controls to help determine and map out the important details – we will certainly solve puzzles, look for secrets and try to reconstruct the events that were supposed to have occurred on Regis III. And that's quite enough for me, because... it is Regis III, one of the most interesting planets invented by Stanislaw Lem. Invincible is more of an adventure game than an action game. In order not to divulge the details, let me just say that there's a deadly danger hiding on this planet. So, I asked Starward Industries if we could defend ourselves against it or if the only solution would be running away. The answer was rather mysterious.
This "threat" you're asking about is a very important element of the story. Contact with the aforementioned "force" completes the moral and philosophical dilemmas that we present to the players. Without revealing too much, I just want to stress that we plan to be consistent when it comes to the emotions and ideas that derived from uncovering the secret of Regis III in the book. Any actions related to the threat on the planet will be at the discretion of the player.
People dealt this fate to people
The second stage was a short fragment showing other people with whom we could interact (which is not so obvious in this genre). Yasna climbs a high ledge and has a really beautiful view of some kind of a base (was it her own?) from above. Soon, however, a mysterious stranger accompanied by a robot takes her captive. He takes her to his base, where we meet other individuals and discover the what the ruthless planet is capable of.
That's where the stage ends, but it confirms one thing – the plot of The Invincible video game will not be identical to the book – the authors, in order to make probably the most adventurous novel by Stanislaw Lem even more adventurous, expand the story with a few threads that will be central to the action. We don't know anything about if and how we will meet the Condor and the Invincible missions in the game, but we learn about the two, separate factions of humanity, as well as about the themes that may be pivotal to the main plot.
The book tells not only about the hazardous expedition of the mighty Invincible, "A class II cruiser, the largest vessel of the fleet stationed at the base in the Lyra constellation," which set off to save Condor's even more unlucky expedition that went off the charts almost immediately after landing on the planet Regis III. The seemingly transparent backdrop of the novel was humanity depicted as a race of conquerors – powerful, advanced, convinced of its special role and greatness in the universe. An "invincible" humanity. In the end, it was, of course, a mirage. Step by step, Lem made the reader realize how all this power and primacy of the rational, great, and analytical mind of man shatters in face of a strange, incomprehensible form of "life" on an alien world.
The talented creators at Starward Industries may try to elaborate on this original idea. Yasna at one point criticizes the incredibly powerful weapons they brought to the planet, even though humanity is not in any conflict. The motivations of the astrogator Novik himself are also not entirely clear. Perhaps – and this is just guesswork on my part – we will examine the parts of human nature that are obscured at first sight – meanness, greed, lust for power, and we'll try to confront our ideas about human supremacy with the unpredictability of the universe.
One of the game's distinguishing features, an element of narration, and at the same time an absolutely obligatory factor of this genre, i.e. narrative-driven, hard SF, is the philosophical and scientific discourse, which in the case of The Invincible is part of the game. That's right. We draw handfuls from Lem's philosophy and rely on his ideas that are still novel in many respects. We plan to clearly amplify the book's messages, giving exposure to anti-imperialism and pacifism, which are both rooted deep at the heart of The Invincible. However, we want to adapt this content to the needs of the players and the requirements of the medium itself, i.e. have a system of decisions and consequences, allowing players to arrive at their own conclusions.
It's impossible to judge the extent of activities that the game will offer upon release after such a brief encounter. The creators let me drive a vehicle in the game for a while, but whether there will be free exploration with that vehicle, or it was the only such occasion in the entire game is hard to predict for now. Markuszewski assures, however, that "players will be able to use the rover for purposes other than driving during their struggle with the hostile planet." Nevertheless, I wouldn't expect a huge emphasis on this element of gameplay here. Still, this is a game that focuses on the sense of journey and uncovering of the plot. Some people call them "walking simulators," and I'm never entirely sure how ironic this is.
Although this particular novel by Lem is one of his most hardest SF, I was afraid that The Invincible would turn out to be a "self-completing" narrative game with not a whole lot of engaging gameplay. My short adventure with this game didn't exactly prove me wrong – but it showed me that this concern is irrelevant. The heart of the game, as in Firewatch, is walking, talking, and solving puzzles, but all of it takes place in such a mysterious setting and in such organic way that it will be difficult not to finish this adventure once you get started. The immersion provided by the animations of climbing, using heavy levers and switches worked so well that became genuinely excited for what's to come in 2023, in the full version.
We like to say that The Invincible is Firewatch on steroids. In fact, Campo Santo's masterpiece is our great inspiration. However, The Invincible is a completely separate narrative entity with it's emotional center of gravity lying in a different place. We're all about the richness of a scientific and dramatic story, in which the choices really matter when it comes to the outcome of the game. We plan to allow the player to undertake various activities closely related to the narrative, such as driving the rover that we previously mentioned. Interactions prepared for players, such as the use of atompunk tools, commenting on the environment, or dialogue choices, all deepen the immersion. What's more, in some parts of the game, the emotional stance contained in the lines of dialog spoken has a real impact on the player's situation in a given location.
Of course, I tested an unfinished product, but those several dozen minutes spent on Regis III proved a critical thing – Starward Industries aren't making a hermetic, quirky game that only die-hard fans of Lem could enjoy. The Invincible is primarily a video game that's entirely dedicated to the story it tells, oftentimes emphasizing the iconic, though not easily digestible (hence more rewarding) legacy of Stanislaw Lem. Invincible is an adventure filled with secrets of the unusual planet Regis III, during which we will get to know – or be remembered about – one of the most interesting ideas of the best Polish science-fiction writer. For me, it will be a must-play in 2023, a game that every fan of fantasy and a good storyline should try come the release date.