Transient Skies is a space exploration game of moderate size written in Twine. It is the sort of game that should be played all the way through, because playing it only midway to a somewhat repetitive part would sell it short.
[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]
The story starts with a short introduction, which establishes that the main character needs to leave behind her declining home world if she wants to join the ranks of a galactic civilization as an explorer. Her decision to turn her back on her own society and shift allegiances to advance her own interests did not weigh as heavily upon me as the author may have intended, as I really didn’t see much choice here. For the story to make any headway, this has to happen. Nonetheless, it is understandably something that continues to resonate in the main character’s thoughts and there are callbacks later in the story, so it is an important scene.
The player will spend a significant portion of time in the middle part of this game as an explorer. In the framework of the story, the protagonist is one of many traders who eke out a living by hopping from world to world in their spaceships, extracting raw materials, and selling their cargo at trading stations. In addition, these traders supplement their incomes by submitting data, for example, scans of new species, to the galactic database. The player will need to spend at least some of their revenue on fuel for this ship. Additionally, various ship upgrades are available such as ablative shields (needed to make planetfall through certain atmospheres), defensive weapons, and even warp drive.
Programmatically, this part of the game follows a loop structure: land the ship, have various encounters until some resource constraint, e.g., space suit oxygen or power, force a return to the ship, fly to next destination, refuel when necessary, optionally trade in raw materials for credits and/or purchase upgrades. I have played and enjoyed many games that are nothing more than this core coupling exploration with economy. It particularly put me in mind of a text-based trading game that was popular when I was in graduate school: GalTrader. Incidentally, there is still a site where that game can be played online.
During the introduction and the first part of the space exploration portion of the game, the story advances linearly, with hyperlinks at the bottom of these pages linking to the next screen. During exploration, once a ship has landed on a new planet, the various environments, beings, and resources encountered are described briefly, and the player has some minimal ability to interact with the objects encountered, for example to shoot attacking monsters, scan friendly ones, and harvest raw materials. After multiple encounters, this begins to feel a little procedural, but it is generally well done.
A few things dawned on me as I was flying along, happily contributing to both the space economy and advancing knowledge of the galaxy. First: why are there weapons upgrades? In my first several forays into space nearer my home world, I did not encounter any other ships, which makes sense — space is big. However, I figured that trading posts wouldn’t be selling pricey missiles and lasers unless someone had need of them. So, my first purchase was a laser upgrade.
Good thing, too: not long afterwards as I continued to fly coreward through increasingly sketchy volumes of space, I had my first run in with the dreaded space pirates and was able to give them a drubbing with my fancy new laser.
The next time I hit the trading post, I gave the missile upgrade a good look, but couldn’t afford them, having blown a fat bit of cash on the lasers. I also began to realize just how expensive the warp drive was. Given my rate of advancement, would I ever be able to afford the drive upgrade? And without it, jumping a few lightyears at a time, would I die of old age before getting to the core? For that matter, if space pirates attack even infrequently, wouldn’t my luck eventually run out? Existential crisis in space: what am I trying to do? Am I not ultimately doomed?
My soul-searching anguish was short-lived: soon after, space pirates caught up to me, and this time, there were more of them. I went down in flames on a planet. From a metagaming perspective, I expected to find some sort of trading station where I could get a new ship, perhaps with a bank loan, and get back into the business as a spacefaring trader. However, I am glad to report that this was not the case.
Crashing on the planet opens a new chapter of exploration, which realistically focuses on immediate needs: oxygen, water, shelter, and food. The game weaves a careful balance with regard to maintaining forward progress versus railroading the player’s actions. I imagine this is particularly hard to do in a game written in twine versus using a parser engine. Most of the parser-based systems are built around a world model in which directions and rooms are core objects. In this game, the player moves around by clicking directional hyperlinks, but to maintain incremental progress and avoid exposing content too early, this proceeds in stages. Not every direction link is presented during the initial walk about. On one hand, this is artificial and constrains free exploration, but I did not find that I minded because it kept me on track to address pressing goals in a rational order.
In my opinion, the part of the game spent on this planet is the best part of the game: some resource and exploration puzzles and interaction with both the natives and a final run in with the space pirates. I enjoyed the action sequences, but particularly the dialogue scenes. It is established early on in the story that folks in the galactic civilization employ a lingua franca consisting of restricted vocabulary marked up with gestures meant to convey emotive context (yes, space-emoticons :-). These non-verbal symbols convey the speaker’s intent, mood, deference, etc., and back and forth conversations in this stylized language did make me feel like I was communicating between alien cultures.
Finally, in the very last bit of the story, the player is presented with three options, essentially, keep going forward towards the unknown, stay on the planet where they crashed, or go home.
Story: 7. There isn’t much story to the exploration phase, which is the bulk of the game, but the bracketing intro and final scenes after crash landing are well written.
Voice: 7. The voice is neutral; most of the game is action driven and in the here and now, the exception being the main character’s reflections about her home world.
Play: 7. A fun, fast-paced game. No issues about how to keep moving forward; choices were a little constrained at some points.
Technical: 8. This game told a larger story and with much more interactivity than most twine-based works. It certainly kept track of a number of variables and early decisions continued to reverberate through later structure.
Polish: 8. There were some spelling issues, particularly the sort that might evade a spell-checker, and minor grammatical errors. My impression was that these became more frequent later in the game, which is not unusual since most works are written top to bottom and earlier parts get more polished. That said, the quality of writing was consistent throughout. The number of errors should be taken in relation to the size of the work — there is a lot of writing here and I’m sure a lot of work went into this story; the rate of error is low.
Preliminary Score: 7.4