The case for scientific realism

One of the things I love about space 4X games and sci-fi in general is the constant effort to maintain a sense of scientific realism in what is essentially a futuristic fantasy setting. It’s as if all we agree to suspend scientific disbelief on a few core items that are necessary to advance to the story, but anything else is frowned upon.

The Star Trek franchise is famous for their scientific rigor, and the Master of Orion franchise follows suit since it is basically set in a Star Trek-like universe. With that in mind, these are the items that I think are most important to maintain in Java MOO:

1.  Realistically evolved races

A lot of players snicker at the “animal” races in MOO, but I think they are more scientifically credible than people realize. Natural selection and the evolution of species is a scientific fact, except perhaps for a few denialists, and species will gradually adapt to survive in their environment. And guess what? Terrestrial environments will be similar across star systems because they are driven by fundamental chemical and physical processes that are the same everywhere. Planets with large, water oceans are common in the  universe because water is the most common non-elemental compound in the universe. It’s everywhere.

So while the Mrrshan are not evolved from actual Earth felines, it is plausible to suggest that a cat-like predator on another planet could have evolved into the Mrrshan, and that we view them as a “cat race”. There is also an artistic effort to avoid the trope of “alien = human body + alien head”. Star Trek has to do that, of course, because human actors were required to play aliens in the pre-CGI days. In Java MOO, however, Klackons will look like ants, the Bulrathi will look like bears, the Mrrshan will look like cats, the Alkari will look like birds, and Darloks will be phase-shifters.

All of the race backstories in Java MOO are being created from scratch since there were none provided with the original game. The only exception to the “evolved species” rule is the Silicoids because they are an atypical, silicon-based species. Their origin as an intelligent species is left intentionally mysterious. Their reproduction is unique and outside of natural selection. In addition, they are the oldest race in the galaxy. The plan is for all of the racial backstories to be fleshed out through game mechanics in a 2nd expansion of the game, but that is still quite a ways off.

2. No death stars

ok, just stop. Death stars are so scientifically non-credible that they could only be created in a fantasy sci-fi universe like Star Wars. Force use is very cool and will definitely be in Java MOO, but death stars and planet destroyers will not. They were introduced into the MOO franchise with MOO2, so I have the option of ignoring their existence and will do so. If you want to see how ridiculous the death star trope has become, just watch the latest Star Wars movie where they dig the rotting corpse of that horse out of the ground, prop it up, and then give it yet another round of beating.

3. No hablo Inglés

Alien races that are able (and willing) to speak to us in our native language really breaks immersion for me. Klackons are ants and don’t have vocal chords. Silicoids don’t even have heads! Sakkra and Mrrshan have no lips. I’m not even sure if the Darloks have a body.

How are these races even able to speak a Human language, much less English? I get that voice acting is cool in games, but it will be greatly restricted in Java MOO to those races where it makes sense (generally those with mouths and tongues). What you will instead experience is an alien speaking in some unintelligable language with the words  “Receiving…” and  “Translating…” in the text box.  Then you will see the English text of what they said. That to me is more realistic.

Non-English translations will be funded at some point after the first release.

4. No alien cohabitation

Species comingling will be patterned after MOO1, not MOO2. In other words, there won’t be any. Given what we know about biological life, mixing two ecosystems that have been separated for a long time (in this case, forever) is exceedingly dangerous. Besides, this is a sandbox game. Who trusts a completely alien race to come hang out on the planet just a few years after contact?

Actual contact  between races will be restricted to establishing trade routes and spying.

That’s about it for now.

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5 thoughts on “The case for scientific realism”

  1. Any spying in the SF world will be probably similar to the way its being done nowadays, just with more tools at their disposal.
    Alien visitors wont do much spying themselves, they’ll recruit local agents through bribery or blackmail to do it for them. (Darlocks being possible exception)
    Today, virtually all diplomats and ambassadors are spies. They enjoy diplomatic immunity, and might be at most expelled, its their local agents who do heavy lifting, and are at risk of jail or execution if caught.
    So, I guess nominal diplomats and traders will do the spying, since there wont be dedicated spy unit as in MOO2.

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  2. Alien cohabitation is messy business for game rules. It worked in MoO 2 with some GUI inconveniences (try to click on that one unconquered second race figure in the middle of 42 figures overlapping with each other) but MoO 3 showed just how impractical it is. Planets with multiple races were unterraformable because each race had different ideal environment. On the other hand I enjoy reading fan fiction on MoO 4 forum which regularly depicts multiracial populations.

    Speaking of scientific realism, what is your opinion on FTL travel and communication?

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    1. Obviously, FTL travel and communication are impossible in the real world. Those are two key scientific “advances” that we are generally expected to suspend disbelief in so that the story can be possible.

      With regards to multiple forms of FTL travel, such as a different form for each race, I gave a lot of thought towards. For example, star lanes, hyperspace and jump drives. I had systems designed on paper for each of these. The problem with them is when you allow each race to learn (or steal) them multiple types of travel. If you allow that, then you have to make the FTL techs distinctive enough to matter.

      And that’s root of the problem. Getting from “Point A to Point B” is fundamentally a simple strategic problem with little depth. If you start trying to split that up into different techs (“Star Lanes are faster, but restrict movement options”, “Jump drives are instant but have a cooldown”), then all you are really doing is making the player juggle between 3-4 different ways to optimize a problem that has little depth to begin with. After all, he just needs to get a ship from A to B, but now he has to work more complexity into his limited number of ship designs, for example. In the end, it takes the player’s focus away from the actual game (looking outward to the other races) and into a management process (looking inward to manage his empire).

      I suspect that the variable number of FTL drives falls into the “More of a good thing must surely always be better” concept. It’s additional complexity without any real additional depth.

      The later expanded version of Java MOO will definitely have some new strategic elements… hopefully presented in novel ways.

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      1. In 50 years or so since first Star Trek general public has come to terms that space travel is not a simple and cheap thing and best SF authors do explain how is it possible in their story. Arthur C Clarke was probably most rigorous at not allowing any kind of FTL and time travel. Isaac Asimov spreads the explanation through multiple stories. There is no math formula for explaining how to convert ordinary matter to tachyons and/or enter hyperspace but the given explanations are far from “magic happens”. In MoO on the other had you just do the Star Trek warp drive thing and improve it by some sciencey sounding STL techs. MoO 2 is extra guilty because it gives you an option to start the game in pre-warp age only to hand you “invention” of warp drive by researching nuclear drive. We in real world kind of already have nuclear drive but it’s speed is nowhere near 2 parsecs/month, not even on log-log scale.

        In the strategy game there is not much room for exposition and in MoO setting it would probably be boring to fight through Einstein’s physics, a little issue of the gamma radiation, osteoporosis, muscle atrophy and gravity dependent digestion (if you are a bird) before successfully landing a first colony ship. But elaborating the chosen FTL travel method can lead to interesting implications. There was ST:TNG episode where certain region of galaxy was too frequently traveled through so anomalies started to appear. Some scientists claim that Alcubier drive would obliterate everything in front the ship by accumulating and accelerating lose matter. In Asimov’s novels ships traveling through hyperspace are repulsed by mass in the real space but it works the other way around too so ships in hyperspace can push stuff in real space, like a whole star in the Nemesis story. All of those ideas can be used in the game without removing or redefining standard warp bubble FTL travel.

        Issues with interplanetary communication is also more exposed to public these days so is there a way to express them in game? MoO 1 had hyperspace communication tech and MoO 2 had gradation of it. For my own project I’m pondering an idea where FTL communication would boost research by allowing star systems to cooperate with more distant systems, sort of like how trade works for money in most games.

        All in all a lot of cool ideas can emerge from reflecting upon tropes 4X games take for granted.

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  3. When I was younger, there was something rather “cool” about playing as Dinosaurs…in space.

    There’s an almost ineffable quality regarding games such as MOO that enables them to achieve their peculiar “cult” status. Personally, for me at least, I think it’s their ability to enchant those almost primordial childish fantasies…even as an adult. I still experience a psychological tickle of wonder and awe when I think of space dinosaurs.

    Usually upon meeting the space dinosaurs – certainly in MOO2 – their first response might be something like: “We’ll grind your bones into soup and bathe in your blood”. Five seconds later establishing communications: “Our most esteemed galactic neighbour, why don’t you come on over to our place for wine and cucumber sandwiches”.

    Is that what it’s like talking to a space dinosaur?

    How can you possibly gauge relative social nuances between different species in a first contact situation?

    Should squishy species such as humans expect to be clawed and bitten as part and parcel of “normal” and even amiable communications with a talkative dinosaur?

    There’s going to be some squishies who would be “into” that kind of thing one way or another and others who are going to be mortally offended. On the contrary, personal space – and the respect for it – might be ritualistically sacrosanct entailing its own issues.

    With such potentialities in mind, the communicative abilities and empathies – or lack thereof – regarding just several individual diplomats at the hypothetical galactic table could decide the fate of billions.

    I don’t know…but games like MOO sparked my imagination as a kid and opened my mind as some of the best science fiction is wont. It’s the “out there” and fantastical experience I look for when escaping from reality and games like MOO fit the bill.

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