Brian McRae, the creative lead of the three person team behind Fenix Fire’s Osiris: New Dawn, said the most fascinating thing I heard from a developer at PAX West at the outset of our conversation, right as the game was booting up.
“The funny thing is, I actually don’t like survival games very much.”
McRae repeated this multiple times throughout the 15-or-so minutes I had with Osiris: New Dawn, which I found so fascinating because, despite the statement, Osiris: New Dawn is very much like many of the other survival games and simulators that have become so popular over the two years. Starting from a crashed ship on an alien world (in the demo on the floor, the alien world was much like the one seen in all the key art – very Mars), you must claw your way to a sustainable existence with nothing but your wits and a space pickax. You gain Things, in this case minerals, by bashing your space pickax against rocks, and then use them to Craft other Things. Those Things become settlements, vehicles and weapons. You use them to fight against hostile creatures and hostile players. You have to find food and drinkable water. This is a survival game.
But that is also not giving Osiris: New Dawn fair credit. It has all of those things, but Osiris isn’t quite just those things. And consistently throughout the demo, Osiris revealed large and small things that undercut, in the good way, the otherwise typical survival game experience.
The first of those was before we even entered the game, at the character creation menu. On the left side of the screen, there was a faction selection system. One option was the Outlanders, a collection of space pirates and rebels, and the United Nations of Earth (or UNE).
“So this was one of the first things we came up with, was this structure of the game you’re about see. In the multiplayer version of the game, you still start crash landed on a planet, but you’ll be on a planet with all the other members of your faction,” McRae said. “And the other faction, they’ll be on another planet.”
Sure enough, after the demo’s start, McRae directed me to look up, and there was a visible planet in the sky. “You can go there, and kill them and take their stuff.”
If this seems slightly more specific than traditional survival games, where much of the actual objectives for doing things are left up to player imagination and emergent gameplay, that’s something Fenix Fire sought to integrate throughout the game’s design. The demo began not with waking up on a beach or being left immediately to your own devices, but with a problem you must immediately solve – a breach in your spacesuit. Then, the game gives you an item tutorial. And then, it gives you an objective list (all of these things can be turned off in the pre-game options). Build a shelter, here’s how you do it. It extends to the gameplay – McRae touted the extensive animation and movement systems built into Osiris for both first person and third person perspectives. That seems an odd thing to brag about, but when in combat, it’s remarkable how good the combat actually feels from both POVs – like actual, properly designed gunplay rather than the slapdash animation clashing of Ark: Survival Evolved or Day Z. Part of that is the class system – there are different character classes, each with specific benefits in combat, exploration, and others.
If this is sounding suspiciously like a traditional game, that’s what Fenix Fire is aiming for. McRae, after I acquired a rover and drove across the landscape, started talking about the physical locations on the planet’s surface, which weren’t randomly generated like many survival games. “We wanted a little bit more of that specific experience, I think. I grew up with Nintendo games, I worked at Blizzard for a long time as an artist. I wanted to design these landmarks and worlds so that it felt like players were exploring something that felt designed.”
So the worlds of Osiris are not procedurally generated, though there will be more than one according to McRae – not every planet will feel like Mars, and two faction’s planets can be entirely different environments with different types of materials – but there are procedural elements. The enemies encountered in the demo, Starship Troopers-esq bugs, have procedurally generated behaviors in order to respond to different player actions, seeking different types of cover and pursuing different types of actions depending on how many of them there are versus how many players are around and what they’re carrying. Jurassic Park’s raptors were a reference point, according to McRae. Enemy locations and types will change constantly, and some act more like natural barricades you cannot defeat, like the colossal worm that lept from the sand halfway through the demo. Actual natural elements in the world, like minerals used to craft everything from buildings to droids to spacecraft to dangerous plants with sharp barbs that can puncture your suit, have procedurally generated elements and positions.
“I did play Ark,” McRae admitted when I pressed him on game influences, “but we didn’t really set out to emulate or take influence from other games.” Instead, Fenix Fire set out to emulate the feeling of a specific subsection of sci-fi films. “We looked at The Martian and Prometheus, we looked at Interstellar. And we tried to take the experiences of watching those movies and adapt them.”
Normally, a developer claiming they didn’t take influence from similar games in a genre, especially a genre so saturated with copycats, is worthy of a cocked eyebrow. And perhaps that could still be the case with Osiris: New Dawn – it is, for better or worse, built in a vacuum from similar games or not, a survival game. You have played something a lot like Osiris before. And yet, there is something else to it, something that lends a little more credence to stated goal of emulating films. It shares the feeling of being an actual environment that’s been crafted, like there are goals and a wider universe beyond what you and your friends create, like it has been designed rather than a pool of randomized elements put together and left to the players. Will it get the balance between player creativity and helpful guidance correct? Are these things enough to make Osiris: New Dawn stand out in a newly saturated genre? Impossible to tell. It could, though, and that’s more than enough reason to pay very close attention.