‘Star Control: Origins’ Is Keeping Game Galaxies Weird

James Cottee
Games PC Gaming
Games PC Gaming

Star Control II is one of the best PC games of the 1990s, yet for decades now the Star Control franchise has languished in obscurity. In beginning Star Control: Origins, Stardock set out to create a true spiritual successor, and reboot this beloved franchise for the 21st Century.

We recently had the chance to chat with the lead producer of Star Control: Origins, Patrick Shaw. Given that not everyone is familiar with this series, the first and most obvious question to ask was: Just what is Star Control? What’s the appeal?

“The best part of Star Control: Origins is that you can explore the universe,” Shaw told us. “There are hundreds of stars and thousands of planets to visit, weird and wonderful aliens to meet, combined with a really great story. It’s amazing that you can land on a planet, look into the sky and not only see your mothership but nearby planets in the distance. Aliens remember the choices you’ve made and respond accordingly. It’s a living universe that you get to play in.”

Perdition’s Flames

Combat in Star Control builds on the arcade classic Spacewar!, where two ships duel in a gravity well, constantly shifting orbits and curving their shots via the slingshot effect. In Star Control every ship has a gimmick, such as homing shuriken mines, or space marines that can board the enemy ship and start wasting her crew. Origins introduces a new range of ships, and new weapons to master.

Alien ships battling in planetary orbit.
The personality of each alien species is reflected in the weapons and abilities of their starships.

“My personal favourite weapon is the ‘Black Hole’ gun. First of all, it’s a gun that lets you shoot black holes. How many games let you distort space-time for fun? Game mechanic-wise, I like it because the black hole’s gravity temporarily changes the battlefield.

“I can use its gravity well to knock enemy ships off course as well as crushing them. There’s also a lot of control where to place them — you press and hold to fire off the black hole ‘shot’ which it doesn’t explode until you release the button. If your ship has enough energy, you can use this control to box in your enemy with a trio of black holes.”

To Boldly Go

The story will thrust players into a succession of Star Trek-style first contact situations. You’ll have total discretion when handling these delicate negotiations, provided you keep your prime directive in mind: looking out for #1.

“Your overarching mission for the game is to find allies to help protect humanity from various threats. How you accomplish that is completely up to you. You can be benevolent and cooperative, or extremely self-serving. Are you meeting and helping these aliens because you genuinely want to help, or are you using them for your own needs? You can make these alliances in a variety of ways, and depending on your choices you will arrive at the end of the main storyline with many true friends or almost none at all.”

What set Star Control II apart from so much of the competition in the ’90s was its humour — it was one of the funniest games money could buy. Much of this comedy emerged when you attempted to communicate with some genuinely alien forms of alien life: translucent creatures floating in the clouds of gas giants, inscrutable inter-dimensional fish, hippie bird-men, and more.

Concept art of an aquatic alien race, the Mukay.
Races like the aquatic Mukay will challenge your preconceived notions of what alien life may actually be like.

Star Control: Origins will introduce a huge cast of brand-new aliens, and Patrick assured us that they’ll be satisfactorily mind-boggling. “From amorous space slugs to sentient germs to hyper-intelligent coral, we’ve got ‘weird’ covered. We believe the actual universe is very different than what you’d expect and we have tried to capture that essence in many creative and story-driven ways.”

It’s been 26 years since the launch of Star Control II, so we were curious about the extent to which the past quarter century of science fiction output has influenced Origins. It appears that the overall tone has not changed too much. “The most significant influence is Star Trek in its various iterations, but throughout the development process, we’ve also been influenced by The Matrix, movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and various science fiction novels.”

Providing a clue to the tone of future DLC content, Stardock CEO Brad Wardell recently tweeted out a classic scene from Star Trek VI, suggesting that grand geopolitical turmoil inspired by real world events could be on the cards:

In the Pipe, Five by Five

Dispatching dropships to investigate the surfaces of hostile alien worlds is a core pillar of Star Control gameplay, and this mode has been beefed up considerably for Origins.

“In addition to collecting resources, you have to avoid hazards (magneto-quakes, space tornadoes, etc.) that can damage your lander. The alien critters on the planet are not friendly to visitors nor are the robotic drones who guard ancient alien ruins and relics. You can also upgrade your lander to kill critters or to jump over chasms. And what’s great is how the planetary gameplay fits in with the other game systems such as RPG elements, quests, and alien interactions.”

Exploring the surface of an alien planet.
There are thousands of hostile alien worlds to explore, brimming with life, mineral resources, and alien artifacts.

Patrick’s team faced major challenges in rebooting Star Control, and one of the biggest was balancing the tension between being realistic and being fun.

“In the ‘real world’, our solar system is gigantic but is mostly empty space. Flying between planets based on ‘realistic’ distances and scales would be, well, boring. So we had to strike a good balance between the actual solar system distances and what felt right as a player. We also made an early design decision for the planets not to move in their orbits around their stars. Players liked having a familiar layout of stars for navigation and no one liked Jupiter crashing into their ship when they were considering their next move.

“Same thing with our planets not being to scale in planet exploration — we felt that it was a lot more fun if you could reasonably explore and collect all of the resources on the planet in a few minutes before returning to your larger adventure. Finding this balance was both challenging and fun for our designers.”

The Undiscovered Country

After years of fan speculation, at this year’s E3 Bethesda finally announced the long-rumoured Starfield. Not long after, HumaNature announced a crowd-funding campaign for Starflight 3. It seems that space exploration games are coming back in a big way. When we asked Patrick why, he started to wax philosophical.

“I’ve been reading a lot of classic Jules Verne novels recently. These books are filled with crazy adventures beneath the sea, to the centre of the earth, or to the moon. Only a hundred years ago when these books were written, the world seemed so much bigger and these adventure stories were just on the edge of being plausible. Yet, in a relatively short period of time, technology has shrunk our world and these stories feel outdated. But the craving for adventure and discovery of new places remains.

“Space exploration games (including Star Control: Origins!) tap into our yearning for adventure, the same one captured by stories a hundred years ago. As our world gets smaller, our imagination gets bigger and we start looking for new places to explore. What would it be like to visit the Martian surface? What aliens live on ice worlds? If humans are just a medium sized mammal, what do other aliens look like and act like? These questions fire our imagination and Star Control: Origins gives you the chance to see one (slightly weird) version of how the universe may be.”

Finally, we asked Patrick whether he was optimistic about the destiny of the human race.

“Humans are capable of both great works of wonder and great stupidity. I don’t know how it will shake out in the end but it’s going to be an awesome ride filled with adventure.”

Star Control: Origins will launch for PC on September 20.

James Cottee
Australian writer and voice actor. James Cottee's work has been published by The Sydney Morning Herald, PC PowerPlay, IGN, Good Game Spawn Point, and other fine media outlets.