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Homeworld: Sideswiped by a Story

Why I Love: Snowcastle Games' Thomas French reflects on how Relic's deep space RTS provided a strong narrative through mechanics

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This edition was contributed by Thomas French, senior designer and programmer on the JRPG homage Earthlock at Snowcastle Games. He previously worked at Rockstar Games, where he served as game designer and programmer on Grand Theft Auto 4 and 5.

Often in my daily work I have to talk about great game narratives and every time my brain will immediately offer up Relic's 1999 Homeworld. This offering will often be met by quizzical looks and sympathetic nods, as if I had just made up a game title on the spot or I plucked a title out of gaming's warchest of obscurity.

Those looks don't improve when I start to explain that Homeworld is a classic space-based RTS, where you only control spaceships. You rarely see inside the spaceships, let alone any people, except in a few of the black and white animatics that deliver the narrative. (Thanks brain, why didn't you just offer up The Last of Us so we could all move on?) And yes, on the surface all these things shouldn't add up to make a great narrative, but Homeworld manages to combine all these elements to make an amazing atmospheric gaming experience.

"The genius decision of having your ships persist between missions is core to the sense of survival that the narrative sets up: the last survivors of a destroyed planet on the run for their lives"

By the time I actually got round to playing Homeworld, I was already a fan of the RTS genre, with its frantic clicking, the "on the fly" planning, planning, and re-planning, and the multitasking mayhem that are hallmarks of the genre. Having spent many enjoyable hours playing Warcraft II and Command & Conquer Red Alert, I was well versed in the script: build your base, gather your resources, go forth and conquer. Rinse and repeat. Why I loved Homeworld was that it tore up the RTS script (well at least tore out a few pages), firstly by putting the narrative up front and center. Secondly, and most importantly, it tied the gameplay to that narrative experience.

Here the genius decision of having your ships persist between missions is core to the sense of survival that the narrative sets up: the last survivors of a destroyed planet on the run for their lives. This now seemingly simple design twisted the rinse and repeat formula, because your mothership was your base and your major resources were the ships that came with you... if you had the skill to keep them alive. Yes, you had to gather resources on each mission, but that was not enough to succeed. This unforgiving design decision was criticized by some because they felt player decisions earlier in the game would affect the game later on, and there was not too much the player could do about that. Admittedly, Homeworld does very little to help you once you get started, but this decision for me maximises the impact of the narrative.

Homeworld starts with a bang. Its revolutionary 3D perspective, amazing graphics, and unique interface had me enthralled; just watching your harvesters gather resources was a hypnotic and relaxing experience. Getting to grips with the new control scheme was challenging unless you spent your days in a 3D design package. But by the second mission, just as you were getting comfortable with the controls, it was starting to go wrong for the crew of the mothership. By the third mission disaster had struck.

"No one's left...Everything's gone!...Kharak is burning!"

I was totally hooked.

The haunting futuristic voice of fleet command that delivered these immortal gaming words to the soundtrack of one of my all-time favourite pieces of music, Samuel Barber's "Agnus Dei," was almost too much. I knew Homeworld wasn't made just for me, but it sure felt like it.

Here is where Homeworld comes into a league of its own: its atmosphere.

The music and sound design in Homeworld are amazing and are perfect at aiding the narrative as well as building on the sense of the vastness of space. A whole host of nice audio touches add up to build an immersive world:

● The distorted noisy radio communications when selecting ships.
● The sensors manager screen that resonates with deep space pings as you scan for the unknown.
● The found audio footage of past disasters that befell your people.
● The haunting, almost intelligible, communications of a hostile empire.

Many Hollywood films today still use the same soundscapes and effects that we think of when we think of space and "the future." But Homeworld goes further as only games can, because it dynamically switches from grand soundscapes and wide camera angles to the more intimate humming of spaceships and the clicking of the comms systems when you focus in on a ship. It filled me with more questions about the people on that ship: What are they doing? How are they feeling now that their ship is under attack? (Thanks brain, knew I needed more interceptors.) How many loved ones have each of these people lost? I found myself caring about each and every ship and the outcome of their encounters, because I knew they would be crucial - maybe not for this mission, but for the next mission and the next.

Here Homeworld doubles down on its survival journey theme by adding a second and crucial game mechanic: the ability to salvage enemy spacecraft and make them part of your fleet. Interestingly, the salvage mechanic is presented in a pretty understated way, though to me it plays a massive part in building a story about my own Homeworld experience. Soon my nomadic fleet was comprised of a host of different ship types which had a whole set of stories of their own- such as how I stole that destroyer from the Taidan Empire in a daring raid of interceptors and salvage corvettes. (Good work brain, good work.)

You need to be versatile and flexible because the missions come thick and fast. Downtime at the start of missions is minimal, forcing this sense of unease at the situation you find your fleet in; often enemies are attacking even before all your fighters have disembarked from your mother ship. Without the strong narrative to guide the context of the missions, I don't think I would have been as engaged because it would have just felt unfair. As the narrative twists and turns it always keeps you on edge, but slowly and surely it empowers you from being the hunted and hounded to seeking your revenge and taking your rightful place in the universe. The end missions culminate in epic space battles where you unleash the full might of your forces that you have begged, borrowed and stolen through this epic and harrowing adventure.

At the heart of Homeworld is a theme that many science fiction stories and TV shows have explored: Only by uniting can humans conquer the vastness of space. It speaks to what we want to become, and what we aspire to be. It is about the power of the collective uniting behind an idea and ultimately overcoming adversity. Homeworld delivers on this theme in an awe-inspiring and emotional journey of epic space survival, where every ship counts. That is why I love Homeworld.

Upcoming Why I Love columns:

  • Tuesday, September 25 - Sumo Digital's Emily Knox on Metal Gear Solid
  • Tuesday, October 9 - Perfectly Paranormal's Ozan Drøsdal on Worms: Armageddon
  • Tuesday, October 23 - Sumo Digital's Jamie Smith on Diddy Kong Racing

Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at news@gamesindustry.biz.

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Latest comments (3)

James Coote Independent Game Developer 14 days ago
I frequently eulogize about Homeworld - it's firmly in my desert island discs list.

The story however is the most frustrating thing about the game. It starts by presenting a series of moral dilemmas. Sure you can treat it as an analogy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the rights to return to ancestral homelands vs those of the people already living in those places.

But it goes way beyond that, by adding a whole other layer on top. What terrible crime was so bad that your whole people were exiled, and then later wiped out completely? How long should a punishment last? Over many generations? Should a punishment be applied to a whole people? Who has the right to decide that?

The game then goes on to answer none of those questions!

Instead it slips into a fairly standard good vs evil narrative. It epitomizes the best and worst of games - rendering complex moral quandaries in punch-to-the-gut fashion - yet devolving into "just shooting stuff with bigger and bigger guns."

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Coote on 11th September 2018 7:36pm

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Tom Keresztes Programmer 13 days ago
@James Coote: Homeworld had a sequel, that expanded on the story.
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John Chalkley Talent Acquisition Lead 12 days ago
I can't believe anyone would describe Homeworld as being obscure, easily one of the best RTS games ever made.
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