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Only Speaking Professionally | Incensed

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Forgive my indulgence, but today I’m all about my slice of the world.

Australia hasn’t had an adults only classification for very long. R18+ was introduced here January 2013, and since then only a handful of games have received the classification. Mark Serrels over at Kotaku Australia recently wrote a very extensive and incisive exploration of the political side of the classification struggle, which I recommend you read if you’re not up with Australia’s classification system.

But all that’s background stuff.

South Park: The Stick Of Truth was released to quite a warm critical reception. Our own resident South Park tragic Simon Squire gave the game a 9/10. But the game wasn’t the same worldwide. Europe and Australia received cut versions, based on feedback from respective classification boards. The details are a little hazy, but Britain’s PEGI system seems to be saying it would have accepted an uncut version. In Australia, though, it’s a lot more clear-cut.

South Park: The Stick Of Truth was refused classification on September 19 in Australia. A second, cut version was submitted and again refused on November 7. Another, further cut version was submitted and finally accepted into the R18+ category on November 21. The criteria under which the game was refused classification had to do with depictions of sexual violence, child sexual abuse, and very high impact and offensive depictions of thematic content.

Namely, Randy and the New Kid getting anal probed on a space ship, which were deemed to be sexual violence, and scenes in an abortion clinic, which were the very high impact thematic content.

I understand that anal probing can be interpreted as sexual violence. And sexual violence isn’t good. In fact, it’s pretty bad. And when it’s against kids, you’d better believe I’m going to be grumpy. But when it can be displayed on TV under an MA15+ rating, yet has to be removed completely for a video game, I’m getting a sense of double standards.

Another sequence that apparently got removed involved an abortion scene. Now, as far as I know, abortions are still legal in pretty much all of Australia (although some bloody idiots are trying to get rid of that too). The act itself isn’t really deemed immoral under Australian law, so this part of the decision is up to the personal values of the minority on the classification board who find abortion immoral, which is interesting. While what is in The Stick Of Truth is somewhat… anatomically incorrect… I don’t particularly see the difference between it and similar scenes within the TV series.

I’m not saying the content viewed in context is or is not appropriate – that’s entirely beside the point here. What I am saying is that there is a clear double standard between what is depicted in TV and video games.

It comes down to the word “interactive”.

At what point does a viewer become active? Literary theory has treated readers as active participants for a long while now. Part of that whole postmodern thing. You read something, you internalise and interpret it, and that is participation. But where is the line between “active” and “interactive”?

Are choose your own adventure books “interactive”? Are visual novels “interactive”? Are point and click adventures “interactive”? Are first person shooters “interactive”? At what point does a text become interactive? In all of the above you interact with systems to influence narrative outcome and character action. You can even take it one step further and suggest that the way you individually visualise a scene you’ve read in a novel as you read it is a form of influence over narrative and character.

So why are we judging the video game medium based on an arbitrary and non-unique feature that has not been effectively described in academic, philosophical, legal, or pragmatic terms?

Some psychologists have suggested that the interactivity of video games can influence the way material is internalised and interpreted. I won’t debate their findings – I’m no psychologist. But others have found that there is no heightened impact too. It’s a conflict of studies, and we’re all waiting in the wings.

I do think it’s good to be safe, especially when children are involved. I think that rating systems are great, and, when implemented and enforced correctly (that’s a WHOLE other issue), they provide a necessary societal good. Freedom of expression is great, but not all art is harmless, and those who are unable to interact with problematic material in a reasonable way should be protected.

But I question whether essentially identical material should be treated differently by classification boards based entirely on the medium in which they exist.

And while we’re talking about the Australian Classification Board…

Plants Vs. Zombies Garden Warfare got an M rating.

Yep, apparently it’s as violent as Prometheus (alien birth scene anyone?), or the Pirates of the Caribbean films (skeleton pirates), or Die Hard 4.0 (Bruce Willis’ “acting”). While none of those are particularly violent, it’s a little silly to put them on the same level as Garden Warfare’s herbicide.

I can appreciate that the members of the classification board that are rating these games may not be the most familiar with the medium. And I understand that there is room for interpretation. But when Plants Vs. Zombies Garden Warfare is getting an M rating? That’s a little bonkers.

I don’t expect perfection, but I’d appreciate at least a little bit of consistency people.

Former Editor in Chief of OnlySP. A guy who writes things about stuff, apparently. Recovering linguist, blue pencil surgeon, and professional bishie sparkler. In between finding the latest news, reviewing PC games, and generally being a grumpy bossyboots, he likes to watch way too much Judge Judy. He perhaps has too much spare time on his hands. Based in Sydney, Australia. Follow him on twitter @lawksland.

Features

The Maker of 2019’s Must-Have Interstellar RPG Within the Cosmos Talks Gameplay, Lore, and the Future

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Within the Cosmos

Some indie games look impressive enough to match anything coming out of the AAA studios. Within the Cosmos fits that bill to a tee. Every screenshot from the project shines with ethereal beauty, and the description makes it sound like a marvellous mash-up of Deus Ex, Mass Effect, and Halo

This RPG casts players as a would-be colonist intended to seed human life away from what seems to be an apocalyptic interstellar war.

To find out more about the promising project, OnlySP reached out to developer Francis Debois, who went into great depth about the gameplay, structure, and the processes involved in production across the last five years. 

OnlySP: I wanted to start by asking about the gameplay. In the marketing you’ve mentioned that objectives can be completed through stealth, combat, or diplomacy, which is always a plus for an RPG. Is that multi-path approach available for every mission, and how free-form are the player’s options?

Debois: The missions in the game generally give you multiple ways to affect how the mission unfolds, whether it’s through dialogue or how the player approaches the mission. Also, the options available to you are governed by the type of character you create. If you have a character that’s high in Intelligence, you might be able to hack a control panel that opens a door to a room that you’d otherwise have to fight through to get to, or if your Charisma isn’t high enough, and you try to convince them to leave the area, they might not listen to what you have to say, and they’ll become hostile, or you can simply avoid all of that and find a way to sneak inside!

OnlySP: From what I understand, the RPG levelling mechanics are tied to modules on the character’s suit. Can you tell us more about how this system works and maybe provide examples of some of those modules and upgrades?

Debois: Modules are essentially “perk points” that you can use to upgrade your character. Every time you level up your character, you will get a module you can use to enhance/alter your character. The perks available to you are tied to your attribute points. So, if your Agility is high enough, you can “spend” a module and get the “Light Steps” perk, which makes your footsteps much lighter, therefore harder for the enemies to hear.

OnlySP: The game also has a stat system, which sounds a little like S.P.E.C.I.A.L. from Fallout. Is that an apt comparison? Will players be able to improve and modify those stats through gameplay and, if so, how?

Debois: Yeah, it’s a similar idea to how S.P.E.C.I.A.L. works in Fallout or similar games. When the player starts the game, they will be given a fixed amount of points that they can assign to their attributes. So, if you decide to max out your Constitution and Agility, you’ll have a character who’s agile, sneaky, and strong, but that would come at the cost of not having much Intelligence, Charisma, or Perception. So, you’re really gonna have to think about what attributes you favour, or you could put a roughly equal amount into all of them and have a character that can do a little bit of everything but not a master of everything. It’s up to you. I feel like that system will really create the desire for players to have multiple playthroughs of the game, and still have each playthrough feel like a different experience.

As far as improving and modifying those stats… I’m still trying to get the balance right. There might be one or two instances where you can upgrade them, or get temporary boosts to them, but whether you can improve or modify them beyond that is still being determined.

OnlySP: While upgrading, will players be able to respec their character’s abilities at all or are they locked into the upgrades they use?

Debois: No, they won’t be able to respec. Once you select an upgrade/perk, that’s what you’re locked into.

OnlySP: If I recall correctly, I’ve read somewhere that Within the Cosmos has a linear structure. Does that mean players won’t be able to revisit previous locations? 

Debois: You WILL be able to revisit previous locations. It’s linear in the sense that you can’t visit a new region, or planet that you have no narrative reason to visit yet. For example, the first planet you go to in the game is Alios, the second planet you visit is Berith II. If you’re right in the beginning of the game and you just got to Alios, you won’t be able to just go straight to Berith II until you’ve reached the point in the story where it makes sense to go there, but once you go there, you can go back and forth between those planets as often as you’d like. Also, I used the term “linear” as a way to get the point across that it’s not a huge open sandbox or anything. The game is very story-driven.

OnlySP: Speaking of locations, the game has the character visiting a number of planets. How many planets are there, and how have you differentiated each of them?

Debois: There are three planets in the game. Each one is aesthetically different, with different fauna, different factions, and the architecture of each planet reflects the dominant faction or factions on that planet. Aside from those locations, there are other places you’ll visit for a mission or a series of missions.

OnlySP: Looking at the Steam Greenlight page, there’s mention of vehicles and survival mechanics, but those seem not to have made it to the final version. Can you maybe explain how the development process has resulted in changes from the game you initially set out to make?

Debois: The direction the game was headed when I created the Greenlight page was completely different to what it ended up being! Initially, I intended to make an FPS with survival mechanics, but as the game progressed, and I started writing more of the story, I realised that survival mechanics didn’t really make sense, and it negatively impacted the experience. There were many things that were added and cut out in the end, so vehicles, and the survival mechanics were just two of the many things that simply didn’t end up feeling right as the game really began to take shape. As I wrote more and more, I felt like an RPG would be the best way for players to experience the game and the story.

OnlySP: You’ve mentioned that the game should take between eight and ten hours to complete. Does that factor in all the content available in the game or just the main missions?

Debois: 8-10 hours is a rough estimate of what I would say an “average” playthrough would be. Which is someone who has completed the main story, and did a few side missions. If you decide to do everything possible in the game, it will certainly take longer than that, but if you decide to strictly follow the main story, it will be shorter than that.

OnlySP: As I’ve been following Within the Cosmos, I’ve felt that it looks a bit like Halo and sounds a lot like Deus Ex. It’s got me wondering what you feel as though it’s most similar to and what sort of inspirations have shaped the look, feel, and overall tone?

Debois: Oh, there have been so many inspirations! I love the FPS RPG genre, so Deus Ex was a massive inspiration, as was Fallout: New Vegas. Those are two top tier FPS RPG games that I absolutely love. Space-based games have had an influence as well, such as Halo and Mass Effect. They helped shape the game in one way or another. I’d say the biggest inspiration behind it all has been Star Trek, I think the story and lore will reflect that to some degree.

OnlySP: Within the Cosmos is set against the backdrop of an interstellar war. How much of that background lore will players be privy to as the experience goes on?

Debois: The interstellar war is the reason that the player, and the factions are there in the first place. You will be exposed to the history of the war by reading some of the logs in the game, and through some characters you meet, etc. The war is what ties everything together. As you play through the game, you will see that even though you’ve escaped to this region of space, which is far away from the war itself, you still feel the effects of it. What you decide to do can really influence how the war plays out.

OnlySP: Meanwhile, the main story follows an individual sent to safety to preserve the human race. We’ve seen similar ideas of species protection and propagation in the likes of Fallout and Mass Effect: Andromeda. How is Within the Cosmos distinct from those earlier games?

Debois: Well, I really don’t like to compare Within the Cosmos to other games, but Fallout is more of a sandbox, and Mass Effect is more of a story-driven action RPG. Within the Cosmos falls somewhere in the middle of that.

OnlySP: As I understand it, Within the Cosmos, is entirely self-funded, self-developed, and self-published. Did you ever consider crowdfunding or partnering with a publisher to help get the game across the line sooner? Why or why not?

Debois: Not really, no. Some people suggested that I should try crowdfunding but that was something I was never interested in for Within the Cosmos. This was really a game that I wanted to make myself, so funding it and publishing it myself felt the most natural to me.

OnlySP: I know there’s still a little while before Within the Cosmos launches, but what’s next for debdev?

Debois: Once Within the Cosmos is out, I’m going to listen to the feedback from the community, and just work on updating the game with more content as time goes on. I really want to give this game all the support I can give it. Anything after that, we’ll have to see what happens! I would love to work on some of the other ideas I have, some more RPGs. There are other games that I really want to make, but after dedicating nearly five years of my life to this game, I’m not sure I will have the financial means to be able to do this again! 

OnlySP: Finally, do you have any final comments that you’d like to leave with our readers?

Debois: I’d really like to thank those who have been giving the game compliments, and those who have been providing feedback! It all really means a lot to me, and proves that all the years of hard work that I have inputted into the game, has been all worth it!

Thank you all for reading this, and for having an interest in Within the Cosmos! I really hope you check it out on Steam, wishlist it, and play it when it releases on 1 August!


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