Our friend roBurky made some lovely games. We asked him about them, and he answered in English. In Part One, our discourse serves to divulge details regarding SOS Mod – the result of roBurky’s self-styled ‘tinkering’ with the Notrium engine.
roBurky: I consent to this activity. As you’ve come all this way.
Mythrilfan: Right. when was the last time you played Space Quest?
roBurky: Space Quest? That was the long series of adventure type games where you died a lot, right?
Mythrilfan: Yes. and walked around a strange, hostile alien planet looking for parts to fix your crashed spaceship. Emergency escape pod, to be exact. Like, you know. SOS.
roBurky: Ah. I did play the opening to a couple of them when I was young. But I don’t remember a bit like that. The looking around an alien planet for spaceship fixing bits is taken straight from the original Notrium.
Mythrilfan: I guess asking about how the SOS differed from Notrium would be silly because I should seem professional and say I’ve played the main Notrium game as well. Nevertheless, I was amazed how much it resembled SQ, even in graphical style. Space Quest, of course, didn’t have any real, constant combat in it. SOS did. Is it even possible to complete it without cheating?
roBurky: Someone who gave me email feedback claimed to have completed it. I was always more concerned with actually getting people to get past the hurdles of learning how to play it. The ending and goals were just placeholder elements I put in, with the intention to expand it heavily later on with randomly generated goals every time you started a new game. But I got such little response from anyone I showed it to, I lost all enthusiasm for it. There are a huge number of things wrong with it, and it is certainly not something I would choose to create today. It started it something like 5 years ago. Just tinkering with things because it was fun to tinker. It was only last year that I made a concerted effort to turn all my tinkerings into a playable game. I am completely certain it was far more fun to create than it is to play.
Mythrilfan: I guess that could work great though, because the environment you’ve carved out is absolutely stunning. I don’t think I’ve ever – I do mean that – played a game where the surroundings seem positively *evil*, and you can feel it with your whole body. Only Fallout 3 and STALKER come close, but STALKER gets way too easy after a while and Fallout 3 seems idiotic, so they don’t surpass SOS. How did you come to the conclusion that it should be as evil as it is now?
roBurky: That was a reaction to the developments of Notrium. When I first played Notrium, one of the striking things about it was how lonely that planet felt. Just you, struggling to survive, and the planet doing its hardest not to help.But then as later versions added more stuff to the world, it moved away from that, and became more of an action game. You went from starting in a crater in the middle of nowhere, to starting in the house of a hermit that you’d just crashed in to. there were hundreds of people on the planet. It was the whole survival aspect that appealed to me, so I decided I was going to make my own take on the original concept of Notrium.
Mythrilfan: Are the bastards in the Northern map robotic survivors of previous landers? They seem rather out of place when compared to the angry slugs everywhere else.
roBurky: I did have a science fiction backstory to the world in my head, that I planned to reveal through the dataspheres scattered over the planet in the style of System Shock 2‘s audio logs. I was always worried about my own writing abilities, though, and whether anyone would really care. That was part of the reason I was going to put them in the dataspheres, so it was all optional. The idea behind the machines was they were guardians left from a previous age. That pretty much everything on the planet was creations of a previous, more technologically advanced civilisation. I don’t know if you figured out the blue plants?
Mythrilfan: I always thought they were large and pretty active crystal formations until I read the spheres. Am I the only one who’s done that?
roBurky: Ah. They were initially just a trick I was putting in for old Notrium players – there are blue plants in that with the same graphic that recharge your batteries. So I put some in that hurt you, so old Notrium players would see something familiar that they think is good, and then get a shock.
Mythrilfan: About that: what amount of the graphics do you estimate you recycled from Notrium?
roBurky: About 95% of the stuff I used was just something from Notrium used for a different purpose. Some of them I edited, like the flying creatures in the desert are heavily cut up and twisted versions of the brown aliens in Notrium. And the sparkling flies from the swamp are edited versions of the same original graphic. I quite liked working with a limited pallette of stuff. It made me get creative with how I used it. If I wanted to add a new creature, I went looking through the Notrium textures folder for a graphic I hadn’t used yet, and then sat and thought about what I could do with it that Notrium didn’t do.
Mythrilfan: Swamps, deserts: is there a story behind the transitions of maps? The environments are pretty different, from a murky swamp area you can run into an agonizingly hot (or cold at nights) desert in just a few seconds. was it just something that was there for the game or did you originally plan to do it more gradually or cardinally different?
roBurky: Well, the position of all of the maps, and the position of everything with the maps is random. That was another thing that Notrium moved away from that I wanted to bring back – the way that every time you started a new game, everything was different. I thought about transitional areas, but I wouldn’t have been able to do that without losing some of the randomness It was meant to be something that you would try, die, and restart like a Rogue-like.
Mythrilfan: Wait, it’s random?
Mythrilfan: I didn’t even realize it, I treated it more like a somewhat linear adventure. Damn. in that case, the randomizing algorithm is pretty good, because it felt fluid, believable, as if it was placed by a human. I didn’t even consider that. I did complete it, just to clear things up, but I 1) used savegames a lot and 2) noticed that there were weird “cheat keys” which came in handy often. now I think I even want to go back to it. I never uninstalled it either.
roBurky: … Did I leave my testing keys in? Oops.
Mythrilfan: They were quite useful, so i’m not complaining. And since they were hidden, i’m assuming not every person would find them. UNTIL WE PUBLISH THIS, HAR-HAR
roBurky: I was only really designing it from the perspective that the player would restart when they die because that’s how I would play it. Because I hardly ever manually save in games And there’s no autosave in Notrium
Mythrilfan: The constant availability of the savegame function is probably something that ruined Far Cry 2 for many though, and I can see what you wanted to do with this.
roBurky: I have been thinking about going back and seeing what it would be like if I removed the ability to die. Because I’m far more proud of the world and the creatures and how all that interacts than I am with the survival mechanics.
Mythrilfan: I’ve wanted such a game for long, so it’s a good effort. THAT is radical though. I was thinking along the lines of “did you consider forcefully disabling the save function?”
roBurky: If I could have, I would have. I would have made it into a “save and exit” type thing. Or at least, I would have when I started. Not sure if I would now. Would need a lot more variety for that to really work. So you’d be guaranteed of discovering something new every time you restarted, instead of trying to rebuild one of the limited items you had before.
Mythrilfan: Do you sometimes think about going back to the project?
roBurky: I’d need a clearer idea of what went wrong and what went right. I was working on it full-time at one point because I felt like I was creating something great. But I’ve had a serious lack of feedback from it. It’s hard enough getting anyone to try it, but even those that I have convinced to play it haven’t been able to give any useful criticism. Particularly, the hurdle of the inventory controls puts so many people off. It feels like I might be better off remaking it from scratch as its own thing than continuing it as a Notrium mod.
Mythrilfan: Do you have an idea of how many people tried it?
roBurky: Hardly anyone, I think. Although I didn’t spread the link very far. By the time I’d come out with it, there weren’t even many fans/modders of original Notrium to play it.
Mythrilfan: That’s a shame, it’s a pretty remarkable game.