Despite spirited opposition that has come to dominate the year’s headlines, there remains ample reason to be hopeful that games will evolve to tell new, more diverse stories, with pathbreaking mechanics undergirding it all. Consider Cincinnati-based game developer Loreful and their new game Ambrov X which was kickstarted just this past Tuesday. Under the direction of Lead Designer Ben Steel, and based on the classic feminist sci-fi Sime-Gen universe series, by Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Jean Lorrah, Ambrov X promises an involving story premised on an abiding, mortally dangerous relationship between two members of the eponymous Sime and Gen species. Through the lens of this fraught partnership, the larger political story of an action-adventure plot set in deep space is told. The bond between your protagonist and their companion seems to be the beating heart of this story; Jennifer Helper minces no words:
“How much more intense could your relationship be with your followers if they were more than friends, more than romances – if they were both a part of your soul and the greatest threat to it?”
And yes you did read correctly; this project is erstwhile Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler’s next act, cheerfully announced in a Loreful press release. She is consulting for the company at present and, provided they reach the first stretch goal on their Kickstarter project, Loreful intends to bring her on board full-time as their Lead Writer and Narrative Designer for Ambrov X. Her ability to tell a challenging story will hold her in good stead here, I think. Hepler has long been an advocate of probing personal relationships for narrative grist, up to and including romance irrespective of gender; I could certainly see why this project would appeal to her. “The setting allows you to play with the difference between romance and sexuality,” she said when I asked her about Ambrov X and its source material, “and [it lets you] ask questions like: Can you be in an intense and physical relationship with someone without it being sexual? Can love help someone overcome the desire for violence, even if it is a basic part of his nature? and How much of yourself can you give up to another while still remaining you?”
Ambrov X’s feminist sci-fi pedigree is fascinating to say the least; such fertile ground for science fiction/fantasy storytelling is rarely used in most modern gaming. From the Earthsea books to Kindred, there’s a lot of stories out there waiting to be told through a medium that they were born for. What might the world of Tiptree Award nominee N.K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms look like in digital? Or the enchantingly haunted streets of Ersin, from Amanda Downum’s Necromancer Chronicles? Alas we do not know yet, but Ambrov X promises the first hints of an answer by giving life to an old and rich tradition too long in coming to the world of video gaming.
It also contains one more noteworthy promise. Last year I praised Ms. Hepler for setting forth a vision that ought not have been as militantly controversial as it was: a gaming world without violence. She was pilloried for asking an obvious and useful question: if we can skip the dialogue that advances an all-important story in an RPG, why can we not skip the combat? The question, mistaken for a forceful attack on the very foundations of fun, merits a ludological answer. Ambrov X may have one, if its lofty goals come to fruition. The Paradigm Conversation system promises a choice of something other than mere dialogue options: it promises to change your game’s very idiom. Will you be violent, or diplomatic? Will your approach be scientific or philosophical? What sorts of challenges will your character confront in order to grow and advance the plot? Will violence be your idiom of progress? Will scientific research? Some concatenation of all the above?
Hepler explained it to me by way of analogy to past RPG choice mechanics, saying she wanted the emphasis to be on material outcomes rather than just flavourful dialogue alone, “By not tying other game bonuses to what you pick, it encourages players to move beyond wanting the ‘Aggressive Hawke’ playthrough and more toward thinking through each dialogue for what outcome you want right then. Hopefully, it will let players explore many different ways to resolve situations instead of feeling pushed by the game systems into making consistent ‘Paragon’ or ‘Renegade’ choices.” The Loreful Kickstarter page says of the system that it “answer[s] the question of Story vs. ‘Kill 10 Rats’, but without sacrificing gameplay. When you receive a paradigm quest, we are asking you, ‘How do YOU want to play this?’”
There is a sense here that, if this system meets its goals, these choices will have a significant, experiential effect on the gameplay itself. Hepler added that, “You can think of it as less like choosing a personality for your character (which seems to beg for consistency) and more about choosing a tone for your side quest (which is more rewarding the more diverse and textured your decisions are).”
My mind reels with questions, and apprehensive anticipation. Think of the arguments and discussions one might have about delimiting the boundaries between philosophy and science! (Or maybe I’m the only one excited about that…) If well written, the game could offer a fresh look at classic feminist SF through the lens of everything we have learned since; the game mechanics are promising a lot, and I can only hope that the independent funding Loreful is procuring will allow them the creative freedom to make it all happen. Most of the promises of Ambrov X are all too redolent of what most story-based RPGs bullet-point on the back of the box, but there is reason to be hopeful.
When talking about the role of combat in Ambrov X, Hepler told me she was keenly aware of what most RPG players know all too well– that much of the vaunted length in most AAA RPGs comes from forced, grindy combat that she frankly calls “speed bump combat.” Instead of artificially inflating the length of the game through repetitive grinds, she says Loreful and Ambrov X will provide an alternative that dovetails with the game’s unique distribution, “by presenting Ambrov X in short, digestible episodes, we’ll eliminate that issue right off the bat,” she says. “If you’re making a game that’s 3 hours long, the problem will be squeezing in all the highlights, not stretching it to fit.”
The Kickstarter will keep kicking until October 5th.