As you look down on the Earth that lies quite serenely below the Soviet space station, it’s would be easy to forget that this game is set in September 1986 at the height of the Cold War. It could just as easily be the ISS in the modern day or some futuristic space station, as opposed to the fictionalised historical space station you’re presented with. Look closely, though, and the more utilitarian design of the Soviet era becomes clear, and peeling back this veneer of serenity and peacefulness within the void of space gradually reveals a mystery to solve and a key decision that will shape the course of history for all those residing below.
As you float through the modules that make up the space station, it feels stupid to call this a “walking simulator”, but it does pretty much fulfil all the criteria except the requirement for bipedal motion. Pretty much all the other walking simulator standards are there though, as you explore the space station, finding notes, messages, tapes and more left behind by the crew who have seemingly vanished. As you learn about them, their stories, their motivations, you hunt for them as well. They must be somewhere on the station still, but where? As you search for them, you’re constantly in communication with ground control, but this isn’t a cut and dried story, and doubts may sink in as to who’s telling you the truth.
All the way throughout development, the four-man team of Pixel Spill have been obsessive over authenticity. The entire space station has been created to Soviet specifications, but then expanded with extra, fictional modules in a manner that would theoretically connect and work with the real world technology, while in-game items like the cassette player have been styled after a real Russian cassette player.
That authenticity spreads to other parts of the game, with the spoken dialogue available in both English and Russian – sadly there won’t be a The Hunt for Red October-style transition, though it was considered. “If we weren’t doing the full Russian VO, I think we would do that,” Jim Booth, Producer at Pixel Spill, said. “The original idea was that you’d start the main game on the launch pad, with the ground controller talking to you in Russian. Then they go, ‘Hey, are you listening to me?’ and that’s the switch.”
Beyond that, their soundtrack composer has gone to the lengths of importing a mid-80s synthesiser from Russia and figuring out how to make it work to provide the game’s soundscapes, rewiring the synths to work on US voltages. He even went as far as to create a faux 80s Russian techno song!
“We have been working with a lot of specialists to get the best out of different aspects of the game that we know as a small studio we can’t do ourselves,” Jim said. “For the sound design, we’re working with a small studio in London called Cassini Sound, who’ve worked on advertisements and short films, and they’ve started doing games as of a couple years ago. We’re not their first game, but I think we’re their first game that’s sold on Steam and has a big press thing going on. With a name like theirs, they’re pretty pumped about it!”
It works, as well. While you’re in the cramped confines of the stations, there’s a certain hum to the station, a noise that accompanies the electronics and machinery that’s idly running. There’s also moments where they can play and explore quirky little ideas within this space. For one thing, there’s the simple joy of being able to grab some of the detritus floating in the station’s confines and then throw it around, exploring the game’s amusing space physics. Beyond that, there’s computer terminals that not only let you interact with the station and read through logs, but also let you play a rendition of Pong, as well as a 4-bit Russian propaganda game with some of the crew’s high scores for you to try and beat.
There’s a big divide between exploring the interior and traversing the exterior of the space station. It’s not just the shift from the claustrophobic interior versus the aching openness of space. Moving around within the station is oddly quite freeing. You don’t need to worry about holding onto things or propelling yourself off other objects, as Pixel Spill reasoned that it’s better for the game if not entirely realistic. You can freely send yourself into a spin and corkscrew through the module, banging into walls, picking things up and throwing them to play with the physics.
“We changed the movement compared to Gamescom,” Jim explains as I madly spin in the game. “You push forward with the right trigger and then you stop yourself with the left trigger, so you’ve got more control over how you get around. […] You do still have to be within detectable range of a surface, it’s just that because it’s so confined, it’s quite a bit easier to push off. If you’re in the middle of the module and you’re pushing forward, you will find that you have to maybe face the wall, so you can push off from the wall behind you.”
All of this is disguised to you, the player, letting you effectively move freely. Venture outside and it’s a completely different matter. The game sounds different, with a perceivable ambient noise that somehow creates a feeling of vacuum, broken up as it is by the muffled sounds that pass through your space suit whenever you grab hold of handrails. In contrast to the freedom inside of the space station, you have to carefully move from handhold to handhold. There’s no safety line here, so making a single mistake, misaligning your push to the next haphazardly placed handhold for example, can easily see you spinning off into the vastness of space.
There’s a need for a certain degree of caution that’s exacerbated by the ad hoc placement of handholds and railings along the outside of the space station’s hull. As was explained to me at Gamescom last year, this was very much how the Soviet space programme worked during the Cold War, with certain things such as this left as a kind of “It’ll do” fallback when necessary.
One of the biggest improvements since I last saw the game is the addition of hands reaching out and interacting with objects. They’re there on the lower reaches of your vision almost all the way through the game, reaching out to pick things up, opening airlocks, and with more dynamic movement in cutscenes. The only omission at this point in time is that there’s no hand reaching out to grab a handrail when on an EVA.
Modelling hands and animating them in a realistic fashion is naturally rather tricky, having to get them to appear in the constrained view of a TV or computer screen and not feel like bizarre oddities. To that end, they’ve now teamed up with Mocap.pl, who did some of the animation work on Shadow Warrior 2.
Jim admitted, “We don’t have hands on handrails yet, because we’re still doing it. We’re in alpha right now, moving towards beta, and the hands on the rails is still a technical hurdle, but we’re working with some specialists who do animations and hand stuff, so we’re really hoping that it’s possible! […] That’s one of the biggest things that’s changed since we last spoke to you.”
Partly a concession to the need for surety with the animation and the dangers of failure in outer space, they take control away from you at times for animated interactions and cutscenes. Had they realised how important hand animations were to the overall experience – I’ve no doubt that almost every journalist asks about this – they would certainly have started working on them earlier in the cycle.
“It’s simply a case that we’re [four] people,” Jim said. “The budget is what it is and the game is what it is. We want to make a game that’s got a good story, and we don’t want to sacrifice dev time for that. We have one programmer, so… you know… he doesn’t sleep enough as it is!”
There’s definitely a feeling, as I play the game and speak to Jim, that they’ve been on a journey of discovery through development. It’s also fascinating to see how wide they’ve been able to reach out in order to get the help and grounding that they need, from script doctors for authenticity, to the aforementioned sound design and animations, and beyond. It’s allowed what is a small four-man team to punch well above their weight.
It continues to evolve as they polish, refine and add to what they currently have, but what they’ve created so far is already looking excellent and with a fascinating story. With an eye to release in later this year for PC and Mac, I’m eager to see more.