Koen Deetman is part of a generation of developers that is increasingly looking upwards for inspiration. Yet Deliver Us The Moon isn’t focused so much on cosmic concerns as real-world disquietude, the search for a new home a pressing worry in light of global warming, the depletion of natural resources, and escalating societal unrest. Set 50 years hence, it centres on the fallout of a mission to find humanity a new home. It’s a survival game of sorts, but at its heart is a very different driving force: yes, it’s about keeping one astronaut alive, but only so that they might be able to perpetuate existence for the rest of us.
Its story posits the notion that in the near future all the global space programs assembled to form a single entity: the World Space Agency. They built an extensive network of bases on the Moon to assess its suitability for sustaining human life. Those bases are now deserted; the WSA threw its collective hands in the air, abandoned its assignment and withdrew. Your journey to the Moon is very much off the books: it’s a rogue mission to find out why everyone gave up, and whether it would be possible to resume their research. Desperate times, and so on.
It may be a hypothetical scenario, but it’s one that game director Koen Deetman has carefully researched to make it feel plausible. “If we carried on as we are today with Earth it would be [finished],” he says. “So I wondered what if we’d got to that stage and we had to take drastic measures. The Moon is the closest object in our space that we know about, that we’ve visited, and because it’s a dead rock it might actually be the perfect test subject: if life can work out there, then we might be able to find a solution here. And that’s what the player is going to find out.”
A dead rock it may be, but you’ll have more than a barren surface to look at. The WSA bases will reflect the cultural diversity of the rescue effort, though you’ll also uncover evidence of the cultural and political differences that may, in part, have resulted in the dissolution of the agency. “At first it’s a rare example of world peace,” Deetman says, “an ideal world where all these superpowers are working together. But of course that kind of thing doesn’t always work out and people end up pointing fingers at each other.” It isn’t just the usual suspects involved, either: alongside the US, Russian and European teams there are South American and pan-Arabian representatives – and the imminent rise of private space travel will be a factor, too. We’ve seen failed utopias before, but it’s a surprisingly convincing piece of fiction, with a global flavour that also serves an aesthetic purpose. “The Moon is actually very dull,” Deetman laughs, “so it helps that we can make some cool-looking bases.”
There’s plenty of environmental colour, then, but Deliver Us The Moon had a darker inception. It began as a horror game, which KeokeN Interactive was developing in Unity, but it quickly became clear that neither the project nor the engine was capable of doing justice to the original concept. “My brother pitched an idea to us about a guy living on the moon,” Deetman explains. “We were quite interested in the concept alone, and since we loved movies like 2001 and Duncan Jones’ Moon we decided to explore that idea and somehow iterated into this one.”
Indeed, as with Sam Rockwell’s astronaut in the latter movie, Deliver Us The Moon will follow a protagonist who isn’t entirely alone. Unlike the Kevin Spacey-voiced GERTY, however, his robotic ally won’t have a distinctive voice; rather, you’ll have to interpret its requests (Deetman likens its communication style to WALL-E) and even learn how it operates. Though it’s a game led by its narrative, with exploration your primary mode of interaction, you’ll be asked to solve a few puzzles along the way, too. It is, in Deetman’s words, “a little bit MacGyverish” in parts, presenting problems that require a degree of lateral thinking to overcome. Other obstacles, meanwhile, simply ask you to learn how to be an astronaut. “Maybe the best thing about it is that players keep asking, ‘OK, how does this work?’ But that’s exactly how I want them to feel,” he says. Feedback from an early demo version convinced KeokeN to make the learning process more tactile: players, Deetman realised, wanted to interact with everything they saw. Through trial and error, you’ll grow to learn what’s important and what isn’t, and how everything operates. “[Players] feel very proud of themselves that they fixed something, or they managed to start up the robot,” Deetman says.
Which isn’t to say you’ll always have time to stop and think. You’ll need to maintain your oxygen supply throughout, and there will be environmental hazards, too – Deetman touches upon a nuclear experiment that has created irradiated areas, which you’ll have to work out how to negotiate. “It’s interesting,” he adds, “a lot of people bind survival to creation: the idea of building stuff up for yourself. But in space, there’s nothing that can help you but technology. And while technology can keep you alive, it’s also working against you here.”
A combination of KickStarter funding and an arts grant has allowed KeokeN to build something with the kind of production values you’d associate with a much larger and more experienced team: the studio currently boasts just seven full-time staff, with three freelancers working on a part-time basis. But to get the game released in a timely fashion with the level of polish Deetman required, he soon realised it would have to be released episodically. It wasn’t a decision he took lightly, but the benefits were immediately apparent. “We really don’t want to release a broken product,” he says. “Players deserve better than that, so we knew that we had to create time in some way. Being episodic lets us focus more on specific parts instead of the complete experience at once, and secondly, it allows us to listen to our community, and find out what they really like about it.”
With a fair wind, the first episode should launch in August. Five are currently planned, but Deetman envisages the story stretching beyond that – assuming, of course, players like what they see. “The industry is slowly moving away from games as a product towards games as a service,” he says, “so I’m not actually sure if it would end there. If it’s a successful series we might even carry on, not as a real sequel but a continuation.”
Barely has its crowdfunding campaign finished, and Deetman is already imagining a second season. Such talk might sound hubristic, but it comes across as wide-eyed ambition. If it can find the right blend of exploration, narrative and puzzles, Deliver Us The Moon may have a brighter future than the bleak picture it paints of our looming fate.