Strange Adventures is a clever idea for a computer game, and it's an idea that may be of special interest to BYOND programmers looking for some game design inspiration. It's produced by a company called Digital Eel and available for sale on the Cheapass Games web site. And those folks who wince at the thought of spending a handful of BYONDimes for a lifetime game subscription will be happy to know that it's only fifteen bucks. Apparently you have to order it from the Internet, though, which is what I finally did -- at least I couldn't find it in any local computer game stores. In fact, even the local comics/RPG/boardgame store, which carries a wide variety of Cheapass games (and plenty of expensive ones too, heh-heh), didn't have SAIS, and the owner couldn't find it in his distributor's catalog. That doesn't affect my rating of the game; it's just FYI if you're serious about getting a copy.
SAIS puts you in the role of a space pilot with an "erratic record" who's talked into doing a little mercenary space exploration. Despite the unimaginable vastness of Infinite Space, a game of SAIS usually takes less than fifteen minutes --sometimes less than a minute if you're unlucky or inept -- and the map fits on your monitor. You have to put some thought into planning your path through space, because you're working under a deadline. You have ten years of game time to return home and give your sponsor his money's worth; dawdle and you'll suffer serious financial penalties.
The interface is almost flawlessly intuitive-- my only beef is that when you click on an item in a list, although there is a little sound effect to indicate you've made a selection, there's no visual highlight in the list. Everything you need to do can be done with simple pointing and clicking. The whole help system is a single graphical screen that explains the game display, and that's really all the help you need.
So, you fire up the game, name your ship and captain and choose the starting configuration; harder setups reward you with more earning potential. (The game saves high scores and keeps your preferred settings between sessions, so once you've set things up the first time, you can start a new game seconds after the previous one ends.) When the star map appears, you point to the star you want to visit, click to engage the star drive, and see what happens. Sometimes you find space goodies, sometimes you get into combat, and sometimes wacky stuff happens along the way. That's the game in a nutshell. And it's fun.
The space goodies come in a few varieties. There are ship upgrades, rare animals, and mysterious artifacts. Sometimes an artifact is just loot, but sometimes you can actually try activating it and see what happens; usually it'll be accompanied by an evocatively goofy legend that hints at the artifact's powers. The animals may have some effects, too, or at least some animal descriptions hint at that -- but I've played several dozen games over the past few days and I haven't been able to tell for sure yet. Part of the fun of exploration, I guess!
Combat is often over in less than a minute, but it's usually a pretty suspenseful minute. You click on a ship to select it and click again to choose its target (a navigation point or an enemy). If you've acquired allies along the way, you can try fancy strategies with your mini-fleet. It takes many playings to get a feel for the various enemy types and your own upgrades, so you can quite easily go into a battle feeling pretty confident and end up getting your butt handed to you on a platter.
Graphics and sound are great. The graphics are all 2D, and they're distinctive and well-executed. The sounds are a treat too; they aren't numerous, but they're perfect for the setting. Some of the sounds and music will echo in your brain for a while after you're done playing, which is always a good trick. And with the game being as simple as it is, the graphics and sound make a big contribution to the total experience.
Because SAIS is a fairly simple game that nonetheless offers many surprises and the incentive to come back for more, I think it may have some interesting lessons for the BYOND community. After all, the whole thing could be redone pretty effectively in BYOND -- and let me be clear that I'm not advocating a hundred weak imitations of SAIS, but only pointing out that it packs a lot of fun into a simple framework, and some of the techniques it uses can be adapted to a wide variety of games. If I were a better person, I'd make a list of some of the lessons to be learned from it, but I think instead I'll just tell you to buy the game. (In the meantime maybe I'll improve my own games and let you try to spot the influences.)
The bottom line is this: if you're the sort of person who occasionally spends $50 on a PC or PlayStation game, and if you enjoy brief games that keep you coming back for more -- the kind that load fast, quit fast, and let you merrily kill time for 20 or 30 minutes -- you should have no reservations about spending $15 for Strange Adventures in Infinite Space. It probably took some nerve to launch a nice old-fashioned game in this day of Hollywood-style video game production, and the fact that Digital Eel did it, and did it well, should be encouraging to all BYOND programmers.