Voyageur: Impressions

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First, a massive disclaimer: Voyageur’s author Bruno Dias is a friend. Also, I often do work for Failbetter, which provided support for Voyageur via Fundbetter. In addition, Voyageur uses procedural text generation features that draw on things I did for Annals of the Parrigues, and I had a number of conversations with Bruno about the game while it was in development. That said, I will try to be as useful as I can, since I’ve been asked for more of an assessment than the simple announcements I’ve been posting.

What is Voyageur? This is a systematic quality-based narrative with procedurally generated textual descriptions, trading, and perma-death — though in the right circumstances you can leave a substantial legacy to a future captain.

To unpack that a bit: you start out on a planet with a little money and a few supplies and something called a Descent Drive. A Descent Drive is alien technology that moves faster than anything made by humans — but only in one direction, towards the center of the galaxy. If you want to take a trip on one, you are never coming home.

So you set out, and each time you do, you have the ability to steer a little. You can typically pick which of 2-5 available planets you want to see next. You know one or two facts about them. Sometimes those facts are enough to tell you which planet is going to be the best place to sell off your current cargo or drop a passenger; sometimes you’re pretty much taking your chances. The descriptions of the planets, as well as the crew you pick up and the trade goods you acquire, are all procedurally generated. Planets have governments, cultures, climates. Trade goods have different levels of quality and other features that make them appealing on different worlds. I particularly enjoyed some of the trade good descriptions that hinted at the surrounding culture: Sea urchin substitute. Generic locust steaks. An artwork consisting of AR decorations overlaid on electronic components.

Every planet lets you buy supplies and trade goods in the market. Some offer other possibilities: local sights to see and politics to engage with, biological samples to collect, shady back alleys in which to buy illegal products. In a few places, you can actually go on an extended expedition, though only if you have built up enough of a crew to come with you. There are also some menaces — pirates attack on many of your jumps, and though there are ways to get better at resisting them, I initially lost out on some major profits because they were constantly taking my stuff.

From a gameplay perspective, there are moments distinctly reminiscent of Failbetter’s work: options labeled as “a matter of luck: likely to succeed,” like luck checks in Fallen London; the opportunity to turn in “planetary surveys” of places you’ve visited, a little reminiscent of Port Reports in Sunless Sea.

The quantity of narrative is differently balanced, though. There are unique events in the Voyageur world, but there are no unique planets: each one is procedural, and none of the planets really has a storyline the way that ports in Sunless Sea have storylines. On the other hand, there are several possible real endings for Voyageur, and a longer-term big ending to find, which took me some persistent play and saving up to reach. As the devlog puts it

Because the worlds you visit are procedurally generated, Voyageur features nomadic storylines with chapters that will settle wherever they find appropriate ground.

Part of your personal story is about how your knowledge and experience of many worlds becomes in itself a resource. (Once I told an academy of learned Star scholars a pack of lies about worlds they would never see: they paid me handsomely, and I invested the cash in building a smuggling compartment into my ship.)

Meanwhile, Voyageur‘s UI is clear, streamlined, and attractive, and the game is backed with sound effects that suggest isolation and distance: technological beeps and boops, footsteps in a metal corridor, a windscape. It’s restful to play; it’s rare to run into seriously escalating risk and also impossible to get stuck, per se, which makes it a good casual-contemplative piece.

The solitude, austerity, and the lack of interpersonal storylines reminded me a little of Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home: but where Heliopause is about seeing sights of astonishing astronomical beauty, Voyageur is more about socio-political tourism. The planets you visit are aligned with one of five philosophies (Ladder, Hammer, Dome, Chrysalis, and Star), which affect how they view personal and social rights, governance, and the best way of living in harmony with the physical environment. Ladder planets are often crawling with AR decorations. Dome planets terraform extensively; on Chrysalis planets, people engage in extensive body mods. (You can buy yourself new, more graceful limbs on a high-tech Chrysalis world.)

Meanwhile, it’s a universe where Earth-bound culture has mixed and disseminated beyond recognition; a planet with a Japanese name may have a leader who sounds Hispanic, and be part of an Indian-sounding collective. If there were any mappings of Earth cultures to the Ladder/Hammer/Dome/Chrysalis/Star aspects, I didn’t detect them. That is also a kind of world-building, I grant — though I found that it worked a little counter-evocatively for me, in that I wasn’t able to draw on linguistically-cued aesthetics to help me imagine what a given planet might look like. Still, as a projection of what humanity might become, it makes a certain sense.

I wouldn’t have minded a few more mid-game story unlock elements. This is something that’s quite hard to judge in a QBN story: when do you have enough content for it to work? But in my play arc, at least, I found a few items to save up for and unlock in the early game; then spent a while trading in a somewhat aimless way; then hit a patch again with more to unlock and accomplish. A few major story reveals (main-narrative reveals fro my crew members) happened all at once on a single planet, too, and I wondered if those shouldn’t perhaps have been spaced out a little more for best effect.

Finally, so much of the game’s conceptual core and story moments are about politics and the implications of economy that I wished for a few more mechanics that operated outside the simple trading exchange. There are some revolution-related story beats, and some moments when you can e.g. harbor a refugee — and it’s possible that there were some further story unlocks I might have reached if I’d just driven some of those stats higher. But I would have liked to be able to interact mechanically more with the themes that were so extensively developed through the procedural generation system of the game.

But I know that if my main criticism is “I wish there were more of this,” I’m not really complaining all that much.

Voyageur is available on iOS and Android. [Edited to add, since I’ve been asked: I played on my phone and it was completely workable in that format. Tablet-sized device not required.]

(This really needs to be compared with House of Many Doors, also a Failbetter-funded-and-influenced game with procedural text components. My play time has been constrained lately, but I definitely want to come back to that as well.)

8 thoughts on “Voyageur: Impressions”

    1. i agree! very reminiscent of 80 days, especially in the way that you only just touch on all the events going on around you, by virtue of having to carry on travelling. it creates a very certain kind of atmosphere that i’m unsure how to classify.

  1. Emily, thanks for reviewing this – as a big Parrigues fan from way back I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it so far. For me, this kind of travelogue exploring alternate cultures and locales is where well-crafted procedurally generated text can really seem to shine. Being able to draw on a wide variety of nuanced content and situations from fields such as sociology, politics, geography, and history and recombine this in unexpected ways can result in content that is inherently more interesting and thought-provoking than other mediums such as procgen graphics.

    The societal concepts (Hammer/Star/Chrysalis etc) reminded me favorably of the unique thematic categories from the Annals like Beeswax and Venom. However there’s also something to be said for letting content be generated from many layers of these categories that are hidden rather than explicit.

    Overall I think Voyageur suceeds more as procgen literature than as a game in itself. (To be honest, most of the Failbetter oeuvre is really about exploring evocative prose descriptions of exotic settings, rather than the gameplay mechanics being a real focus of interest.) Tasks like the mycelium expedition got repetitive quickly – there must be some way to make procgen maze-like content like this more interesting (perhaps the text contains subtle procedurally generated clues hinting at what lies behind alternate pathways?) Other interesting motives/goals to further drive engagement could include tracking a fugitive by procedurally generated clues, or decoding a procgen alien language. The characters (crew members) could become a lot more interesting if given a few procedurally generated traits, preferences, relationships, or skills – I’d be delighted if one gluttonously ate all my generic mealworm slurry, there were occasional personality conflicts to deal with, or having experts like a linguist, botanist, or sociologist on board could affect the way you perceived relevant aspects of the content. Lastly, with continued exposure I did find myself wanting more content as repetition inevitably crept in. It would be really interesting to see a project like this with a collaborative twist, where players themselves can occasionally add to and extend the existing content/corpus.

    Anyway, in spite of the minor quibbles above I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it (through >1000 light years so far?) and hope to continue to see more along these lines in future from Bruno, yourself, and others.

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