Review: Out There

Out There featured

It’s eight months since we last checked in on Out There. A lot can happen in eight months. A passenger travelling between Earth and Ganymede can wake up from cryosleep to find himself adrift in an unknown region of space, far from our solar system. A game can complete development and be released. Eight months!

Last August I quoted the game’s billing as “a dark and melancholic adventure in deep space”, and it’s fair to say Mi-Clos Studios have cleaved close to that vision. The game’s brief introductory slideshow establishes that Earth has exhausted its resources and humanity has failed to escape our solar system. That’s a bleak enough backdrop in SF terms: we’re a failed space-faring species.

That’s not enough to stop some mysterious force snaring a passenger travelling to a moon of Jupiter, however, and gift them knowledge of new warp technology. Thanks to this intervention our chosen emissary is able to explore the stars, with the irony being that the rest of our species lacks both that ability and knowledge of his enforced mission.

Out There is a very lonely game. The game might be played on Android and iOS smartphones and tablets in living rooms, train carriages and public locations around the world, but that does not hinder the game’s inherent sense of isolation. Your character is alone, separated from the rest of the species by lightyears and science so advanced as to appear magic, and left to explore a universe that is if not hostile then uncaring and dangerous.

Combat does not feature in the game but that’s not to say there is no threat. The greatest is simply running out of resources: your engines lacking fuel in deep space is as much a death knell as running out of oxygen or your hull’s integrity fracturing. Much of your time in the game is spent managing the delicate act of balancing these three resources. Some of several resources must always be spent in the acquisition of any other, so careful planning is essential. Thanks to your ship’s cargo bays you can carry reserves, but an unlucky mission or two can nonetheless be crippling.

Random events also occur as you travel between the stars. Sometimes these only provide flavour, such as ship’s log entries in which the lost traveller expounds on his theories about quantum entanglement and multiverse theory (if that puts you off, let me just say it’s more interesting than it might sound). Occasionally they’re beneficial – the accidental space whale collision that repairs your hull is a favourite of mine – but most often they present threats such as equipment failure or asteroid collisions.

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The more interesting events tend to be those that leverage the Interactive Fiction background of one of the two minds behind the game, FibreTigre (the second being Michael Peiffert, head honcho at Mi-Clos). More often than not these involve strange alien devices or structures. Players are given several options to choose from which can include simply avoiding the issue entirely. The text can provide hints to direct you toward positive decisions, but more often than not it’s utterly inscrutable – just as exploring incomprehensible alien worlds, cultures and artefacts should be.

Sometimes these random encounters can lead to steps untangling the language of this region of space or the revelation of new technology to the player, allowing equipment to be constructed aboard their ship (provided they have the appropriate raw materials). It’s these rare steps forward that help you feel that you have a chance to reach your destination. Understanding alien words makes it easier to respond diplomatically to their questions, resulting in gifts of rare resources and technology. Advanced equipment helps you take less damage, better exploit planets for resources and extend your ship’s range; that’s just the basic stuff.

Out There can feel relentlessly cruel. Newcomers to the game can easily find themselves needlessly squandering resources through simple ignorance. For example, without specialised equipment you cannot source fuel from a star but this does not become apparent until you try. In fact the game explains very little to you: you’re left to work things out for yourself. As I said, it can feel cruel, but it fits the tone and theme of the game. The universe does not care about you, and the mysterious alien power which abducted you clearly wants you to do some of the heavy lifting.

Further it doesn’t particularly matter if you make a mistake. Failure teaches you the risks of undertaking certain actions and underlines what’s possible or worthwhile. It’s absolutely inevitable that your first voyages will end in failure. Repeated failure educates you in greater success. It’s all part of Out There’s genetic makeup; the roguelike DNA strands that constitute part of its lineage.

Sometimes it’s when things are at their worst that the most interesting events occur. In one playthrough my ship was bombarded with gamma rays, partially frying my traveller’s brain and causing him to forget a technology. In the next system an accident led to a piece of equipment being destroyed… the very same equipment I’d just forgotten how to construct. “I hate everything,” my character cannily observed in his ship’s log. Orbiting the next star, however, I found a derelict alien spacecraft much more impressive than my own and was able to salvage it.

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There are elements to Out There which are more problematic. The game records your highest score but doesn’t retain a scoreboard anywhere, or log details of how that high score was achieved. There’s only the most basic yardstick to measure your progress against. Compared even to older space adventure games like Strange Adventures in Infinite Space (Digital Eel, 2002) and Flotilla (Blendo Games, 2010) it’s disappointingly limited.

It would also be helpful if something in the game explained the three stats various ships are assigned: as it is I’m left guessing what each relates to and the effect different values might have. A tutorial introduces new players to the most basic concepts, but once that’s done you are entirely on your own.

I’ve occasionally yearned for other meta-game components like a lexicon for alien words I’ve learned, although every time I also tell myself that such a feature would quickly drain the mystery out of conversing with aliens. Still, successfully talking with aliens and offering them appropriate gifts seems very difficult to accomplish. I’ve not yet managed to understand what’s been said and respond appropriately in any conversation.

I also sometimes find myself questioning the balance of resource usage. My experiences with the game have always been dominated by fuel shortages, which is more of a clear and present danger than running out of oxygen or your hull collapsing. In games that have been otherwise going well I’ve been brought down by several systems on the trot in which gas giants don’t give up enough fuel to cover the cost of travelling to and extracting from them, or where gas giants have simply not appeared. It’s all part of the randomised nature of the game and its risk/reward scarcity mechanics, but it can feel like a kick in the gut to fail from something so seemingly mundane. Then again, that just means its time to restart and try again.

I should also acknowledge that the game crashes persistently on boot-up on my tablet, which is an imported Novo 7 Elf II from Chinese manufacturer Ainol. However the game runs beautifully and without issue on my Samsung Galaxy S2. As always with Android devices, perfect compatibility can be a crapshoot – which iOS users won’t have to struggle with.

Regardless of the platform you use, however, I can’t recommend Out There highly enough. It will be staying on my phone for a very long time.

[Update: It’s since been brought to my attention that Out There does include leaderboards via Google Play and iOS Game Center. So you can disregard that criticism!]