A Postcard From... is a column by Jack de Quidt about the people, and the places, and the stories in the games we play.
This is what happens when you begin a new game in space strategy Sol Trader: You select the size of your galaxy and a couple of other parameters, and then your computer's fan whirrs as the game creates an individual. Look, there's her name right there. Alice Murphey. And then another person, and then another. There's Alice's mother, Sixta. Her father, Rory. Leeanna, her aunt.
Soon, the screen is filling with people, with their families and relationships and careers. Alice is suddenly an old woman, and then she's dead, and then her great grandson is running a small spaceport on Venus. The number of individuals keeps growing. Two hundred people, three hundred people. It stops at around something like a thousand. The last people it generated for me were the president of the galaxy, and her husband, and her two children. The procedural name generator decided that family name was "Care."
At this point, with the air of a magician having performed a brilliant trick, the game asks you who your parents are. You choose your age, your face—it's suddenly a normal character creator—but even as you choose whether you were better at mathematics or english at school, you're aware of the sheer weight of individuals pressing down around you. You wonder what the other thousand people are doing.
Then you're given a goal, and off you go into the world. The goal is phrased very bluntly, like this: Become the president of the galaxy.
As the game begins in earnest, it's quickly revealed that the magic trick performed in its opening moments is, in a sense, just a prelude for what follows. One thousand unique characters, each with their own goals, making their own way across the galaxy already constitutes something special. Sol Trader, however, has grander plans. It is as if it has asked itself "what should these people be doing?" Should they be dogfighting? Smuggling contraband across an asteroid belt? Maybe raiding strange colonial outposts… No, no. Sol Trader settles, finally, on the simplest and most exciting answer.
They should be talking.
Sol Trader is, at its heart, a game about conversation. You talk to characters. Characters talk to each other. Information is shared and bought and stolen. This is a game in which knowledge of what school somebody went to might be the thing that gets you a new spaceship, in which hearing that somebody's uncle is dying causes a sudden rush to a neighboring planet to see him before he goes. In some ways it is reminiscent of Crusader Kings II's tapestry of medieval figures, each trying to diplomatically outmaneuver the other, but here the focus is so much narrower.
I say that, "so much narrower", and realize that I just described my aspirations of becoming the galactic president, but in reality everybody has to start somewhere. Sometimes that place involves having very little money, no spaceship, and being stuck in a spaceport on Mars. The soon-to-be galactic president kicks the water cooler and wonders if they have any coins for the vending machine.
So here's what you do: You try and pick up odd jobs where you can, offering to carry some goods to Pluto. If you're lucky, you'll try and take a job from a friend or relative, they'll give you the good rates. You can mention your mother, and they'll perhaps tell you something about how they met. They knew her at university, you see. Then it's time for the kicker, the big question. "Hey," you say, nonchalantly. "Hey, have you got a ship I could borrow? See, I've got to get off-planet."
A lot of an early game of Sol Trader is spent trying to acquire a ship. Choose to start as an older person and you might own one already, but starting out as a fresh-faced eighteen year old I simply hadn't lived long enough to own a ship of my own. No matter. I pictured the events clearly: I'd charm a pal into giving me a steep discount, I'd sail off into the black under my own steam. The galaxy would unfold itself in front of me. I was "very good at talking to my friends," according to the character creator. I was an "effortless conversationalist."
Despite my charm, things did not go to plan, in ways that ranged from "inconvenient" to "actively humiliating." None of my friends wanted to help. Not a one. After a while, even my own mother refused to lend me a ship.
Perhaps she didn't want me to leave.
It's a little better, thinking of it that way.
At this point, in a bar called Wesley's, I ran into a man who knew my father. I don't remember the exact details, but we got to talking. I began with my usual gambit and asked if I could borrow his ship, and he politely declined. Eventually, in the way that conversations in games tend to go, I asked him if there was anything I could help him with, and the meeting suddenly took a turn.
He was looking for somebody, had been trying to find them for a while, and wanted to recruit me to help locate them. He couldn't give me much more than a name, June, but he offered a small down payment to help me get started. It amounted to around $375, and I immediately traveled to the spaceport and spent most of it on renting a ship. It was a Lynx class: small, nippy, not particularly outstanding. It was named The Breakable Lilla and I was overjoyed.
The Breakable Lilla, despite having an outstanding name, was not particularly fun to fly. In fact, at a basic level, not a lot of Sol Trader is particularly "fun." Currently in early access, the brilliant, unusual core of the game is bogged down in fiddly UI elements and perfunctory, hasty attempts to explain them. The developer has spoken at length about these issues and how he intends to improve them, and has recently overhauled the conversation system in its entirety, but as it stands there is a lot of diamond, and there is also a lot of rough.
Conversations play out on a wide, overwhelming grid, from which you can select individual topics. There are many, many things to talk about, and people often don't want to hear a lot of them. You can boast about your accomplishments, or your friends' accomplishments, which might impress somebody in the short term but won't endear you to them for long. You can bring up events in people's lives, births, deaths. You can spread rumors. You can ask if characters have heard of other characters.
Each possible selection is accompanied by several traits—is it about business or family? Is it positive or negative? These traits accumulate over the course of the conversation, and each time a pair of them is made, you conversational partner's opinion of you is affected somehow. In this way the game incentivizes you to keep conversations on topic, rather than dancing around the full spectrum; you'll try and balance bad news with better news to keep your partner on board. When the bar that tracks the traits becomes full, the conversation ends, and that's that.
I realize how convoluted that last passage makes these systems seem. In context, the full spectrum of conversation options laid out before you, it is a little easier to grasp, but it never quite reaches the heights of what it's intended to model: a free-flowing stream of communication and questions and shifting topics.
At its heart, conversation—real conversation—is extremely difficult to convey mechanically. Heavily scripted games by developers like BioWare lean into clever wordplay or evocative individual moments, but lack any capacity to move the conversation systemically beyond what the writers intended. Sol Trader attempts the opposite: its dialogue lacks neat turns of phrase or narrative resonance but each encounter plays uniquely. You enter conversations in this game with goals in mind, you travel across the galaxy to try and find the single piece of information that will undo a rival. There is rich potential here.
I sit in the cockpit of The Breakable Lilla, and, in a cold rush, the reality of the situation washes over me. I have spent most of my money on a ship that I still need to pay weekly rent on. I am hunting a woman named June for a friend of my father. Space is extremely large and I am eighteen years old.
I sigh, and decide to make a start in the only way I can think of; I pull up June's data from the game's dossier of characters. At this point, my eyes go very wide.
June is my great aunt. I didn't know I had a great aunt.
Well. I kick The Breakable Lilla into gear and take off. I suppose it's time to meet my extended family.
The dossier contains one piece of information: June is well known in a particular bar on Venus, so I point the ship in that direction. Flight in Sol Trader is arcade-y—a top down view of my tiny spaceship against a green nebula in the background, AI controlled ships mining asteroids, patrolling, dodging pirates. At this stage, it is almost entirely unremarkable, so it is with some relief that I find the auto-pilot and head for the jump gate. The journey is long, and it is tense. As I travel, the first rent payment for the Lilla leaves my account, and I realize I'm not going to be able to have this ship for very long. I briefly consider stealing it, but the prospect of the game's intricately modeled reputation system becoming aware of this stops me.
It is a while before I land on Venus, where I make my way to the bar. Inside, I ask the bartender if she's heard of June, and my heart leaps when she confirms she has. I scroll through the grid and choose my next option very carefully. Do you know June's current whereabouts? I ask, casually. Maybe I throw in a line or two about how I was very good at conversation at school. "Top of my class."
When a conversation goes downhill, it goes downhill in two distinct parts. The first is the drop itself, the cold water, the disappointment. The bartender breezily lets me know that June was last seen in Wesley's. Wesley's. The bar on Mars where I picked up the contract, thousands of miles and hundreds of dollars of rent payment away. I consider leaving the conversation, but I don't.
The second part of a conversation going downhill is the aftermath, in which all is lost and cannot be regained. I am in a bar on Venus and I'm very poor and very tired. How are you, then? I ask the bartender. She's fine. Busy.
"My father's a pilot," I say, mostly into my glass. I can picture myself so clearly, hunched over on the barstool.
On the other side of the room, the only other person in the bar gets up and leaves.
"My father graduated top of his class," I say.
And then the trait bar fills, and the bartender smiles, and the conversation dries up.
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Header image by Janine Hawkins.