This is the fourth post in a ten-part series about my ongoing workshop “Creating Consistent SF-Worlds” for the Game Design department at the Mediadesign Hochschule in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part V | Part VI
Again, we organized into teams for practice runs, this time for designing starflight technology. Both teams had to work with a νόστος scenario—that’s “nostos,” the Greek word for “homecoming”—modeled after the narrative structure of the Odyssey but against the backdrop of the aftermath of an interplanetary or interstellar war. One team went to work to design faster-than-light starflight technology for this story, the other team had to rely on any kind of non-FTL technology. Both teams, moreover, had the option of incorporating two different tech levels, i. e., an outdated starflight technology with which the “Odysseus” character went to war many years ago, and an advanced technology with which the “Telemachus” character sets out to find former comrades-in-arms of his/her mother/father who have already returned from the war, and ask them for news. (The player is supposed to play both characters—similar to how the two key characters in Call of Juarez are controlled by the player, whose stories later intersect for the great showdown.)
As it has been the case with similar tasks during my course on dramatic structure last semester, too much time was spend, after all, on fleshing out the story instead of working with the skeleton to design a suitable drive. The problem to stick to the task and not get sucked into storytelling was aggravated for the non-FTL team when I didn’t realize that half the team hadn’t attended our tech session on this topic the week before, which had been especially rich in options for non-FTL solutions.
Now, while we didn’t have enough time to correct for these factors and develop really satisfying solutions, we at least managed to nail and formulate the major challenge. What would keep the “Odysseus” character (and most of his/her fellow soldiers, independently) wandering about, why would they need such an extraordinary amount of time to get back from the war? Solution that featured ship damage, engine malfunction, or breakdown of the navigation system weren’t exactly satisfying because a) none of these solution would explain why so many other ships from the fleet also had trouble finding their way home and b) solutions of this kind always convey a sense of arbitrariness and almost never support the story’s theme, whatever it may be, in any substantial way.
What this story skeleton needs, it turned out, is a starflight technology—FTL or non-FTL, no matter—that is sensitive to how the war itself was fought and won. In the same manner in which the Greeks’ homecoming was delayed or prevented because of what they did when Troy fell (they angered the gods with all kinds of assorted atrocities and war crimes), the problems the ships have on their return voyage must be causally related (in a technical way) to how they defeated their enemy, and thereby support the story’s theme. To design such a solution is certainly difficult. But it’s also necessary, and certainly not impossible.