Monday, March 11, 2013

Starflight II: Nonconvergent Evolution

Somehow this was the fittest thing to survive on its planet.

The theory of convergent evolution says that the same biological traits can develop in entirely different biological lineages as long as the environment is favorable to the development of the trait. Thus, we see wings on both bats and butterflies, opposable thumbs on both primates and possums. Some evolutionary theorists argue that given predominant environmental conditions, certain evolutionary stages are essentially inevitable. One day humans may become extinct and dolphins may become the dominant intelligence on the planet--but when that happens, dolphins will have evolved to look a lot like humans.

Courtesy of DeviantArt user MrNinjutsu. Good luck sleeping tonight.

The theory is convenient for science fiction authors looking to explain why their alien races basically look like people. Since it would cost too much to make the main character a giant spider, and you wouldn't be able to empathize with him anyway, convergent evolution--on a galactic scale--serves as a convenient lampshade for human aliens (Superman, Centauri), bumpy-forehead aliens (Klingons, Newcomers), and humanoid aliens (Narns, Cardassians). Farscape managed to build an entire main cast of aliens who, though one was a plant and another was a frog, were still all bipeds with recognizable faces, opposable thumbs, eyes, noses, sexual organs on the lower half of the body, and the ability to digest the same foods.

Arthur C. Clarke has a great passage about this subject in 2001: A Space Odyssey, drawn from the debates he and Stanley Kubrick had with several scientists:

"What would intelligent extraterrestrials look like?" [The biologists] divided themselves into two opposing camps--one arguing that such creatures must be humanoid, the other equally convinced that "they" would look nothing like men.

Settling for the first answer were those who believed that the design of two legs, two arms, and main sense organs at the highest point, was so basic and so sensible that it was hard to think of a better one. Of course, there would be minor differences like six fingers instead of five, oddly colored skin or hair, and peculiar facial arrangements; but most intelligent extraterrestrials...would be so similar to Man that they might not be glanced at twice in poor lighting, or from a distance.

This anthropomorphic thinking was ridiculed by another group of biologists, true products of the Space Age who felt themselves free from the prejudices of the past. They pointed out that the human body was the result of millions of evolutionary choices, made by chance over eons of time. At any one of these countless moments of decision, the genetic dice might have fallen differently, perhaps with better results.

Freed from the budgetary constraints of modeling and showing the aliens in action, Starflight II falls clearly in the second camp. We've got intelligent aliens that look like depressed marsupials, googly-eyed worms, furry things with multiple eyes and tentacles, clouds of gas, and a cross between a mushroom and a jellyfish.

And yet as inhuman as they are in appearance, they seem very human in their needs, desires, and flaws. Among them, we have almost every human failing, from hubris to cowardice to despair. Starflight II's thesis seems to be that intelligent extraterrestrials might look a lot different than people, but they act essentially the same.

"I said, 'Die, heretic!' and I pushed him off the bridge."

The relationships, histories, and secrets of these alien species form the core of the game's quest. My mission (or my initial mission, anyway) is to puzzle through this nebula to figure out how the Spemin managed to achieve such technological superiority in so short a time frame.

As in the first game, enemies are encountered through random exploration, with a much greater (near 100%) chance of encounter when approaching their home systems. Some have a pre-spacefaring level of technology, so interaction with them is limited to planetary trade. Others fly around through the universe, and encountering them offers options for dialogue and information-gathering.

Encounters and dialogue proceed in Starflight II identically to the first game. When you encounter an alien ship, you can hail them or wait for them to hail you. Either way, you have the choice of three "postures" to take with them: hostile, friendly, and obsequious. Depending on the race's disposition (and perhaps other factors), different stances will yield different results. The screen shots below show three different hailing postures.


It's been a long time since I played it, but I feel like in the first game, there were more significant consequences to the postures. I find that in this game, I get the same basic information no matter what posture I use, and no one has attacked me for being hostile. Admittedly, though, I haven't tried every combination with every species, and my normal default is "friendly."

These are the species I've encountered so far, along with relevant hints on the main quest. My recall here is facilitated by a "Playback" command on the "Communication Officer" menu, which provides a transcript of all the conversations I've had with the various species. As in the first game, aliens often cut off dialogue before all options are exhausted, meaning you have to parlay with them multiple times to get all their intelligence.

1. Tandelou. The Tandelou occupy the section of space where starport was built. They are currently embroiled in a civil war between two factions--the Eshvey and the Eshvara--and each says the other can't be trusted. The cause of their schism is so far impenetrable, as they both claim to believe something called Thdok-Bryg-Ahhh (which appears to be some kind of ritual) and "universal harmonious discord." They also both keep asking whether I've ever sold "god-masks" or destroyed any of the other faction's ships, and I'm not sure what answer they're looking for to either question.


The Spemin first visited them five years ago, and it was apparently before the Spemin aquired their fancy new weapons, since the Tandelou found their lack of faith disturbing and destroyed several of their ships. Ultimately, though, the Tandelou found the Spemin "lovable," perhaps because they look like the Tandelou in their larval stage. The civil war may have something to do with an artifact that the Spemin stole from them; I'm told that the return of something will end their war.

They frequenly mention their "sun-brothers," the Lowar, who are now extinct but gifted the Tandelou with the Gorzek (below).

2. Gorzek. I'm not sure if Gorzek is a group of entities or a single entity, but it's a metallic artificial intelligence given to the Tandelou by the Lowar before they were destroyed. I'm not sure exactly what its function is, but it wants me to end the hostilities between the Tandelou factions by the "most valuable thing" stolen from them. The Gorzek can't talk to me or offer me anything useful until I do this. It gave me coordinates to a planet where I can supposedly find it, but I haven't gone yet.


3. Humna Huma. A trading and diplomatic species who first encountered humans in this part of the galaxy and sold them the star maps with the trading beacons. They don't like the Spemin, and they have also noted the Spemin's sudden acquisition of dangerous technologies. They say it resembles legendary technology from an ancient, extinct race called the Leghk.


Every time I meet them, they ask me to give them Shyneum fuel, though there doesn't seem to be any penalty if I say no. They miss the "golden age of trade" of about 450 years ago, when they had bases on every planet with a sentient race.

4. Umanu. The Umanu are a hostile race living in the cloud nebula. They betrayed and destroyed the Lowar, and the Tandelou consequently avoid them.

5. Dweenle. The Dweenle are a perpetually pessimistic and depressed species who haven't given me a smidgen of useful information, preferring to spend our conversations moaning about this and that. The only reason I know their name is because it shows up in the "playback" log. No posture seems to provide anything but bellyaching.

He sounds exactly like one of my former co-workers.

I've also encountered planetside species called Tarn, Chichifa, and Lieu Vadish, but since none of them have ships, and the only place to engage in conversation is in space, I haven't been able to learn anything from them. I assume they're not really important.

I'm grateful for the Humna Humna beacons, because it never would have occurred tome to try to trade with whatever this is.

I've explored about one-third of the map, and frankly I had expected to meet more species by now. It's a little disappointing when I hail a new group of ships and it turns out to be someone I've already talked to extensively. I can usually tell who they are by their response to the initial hail.

Ah, yes, the Dweenle again.

From my various conversations, plus a couple notices in starport I have three places to visit:

  • The location of the "most valuable thing" stolen from the Tandelou by the Spemin.
  • The remains of a Lowar spacecraft.
  • Ruins of the Leghk species, where the Spemin may have obtained their technology
  • An anomaly in space from which no vessel returns.

Although I haven't finished outfitting my crew or ship yet, it seems sensible to make continued exploration and trade a part of my questing and not a thing in itself, so I set off to the closest of the coordinates--the ruins of the Lowar vessel--but that forced me to cross into the cloud nebula, and the moment I entered, I was attacked by something (the Umanu?) and killed.


Thus, I've decided to skirt around the top side of the nebula, stopping at trading points and logging planets along the way. It's a little brash of me, because unless I can find successful trade (or a continuum flux), I'll run out of fuel at some point on the trip. But aliens' penchant for buying species found on their own planets means that I'll probably be able to get by (and I suspect the developers included this feature for this reason). By next time, I should have more on the main quest.


38 comments:

  1. I found that trading in life forms was not very lucrative. Finding out who demands what and then supplying it is the most lucrative.

    Have you found/bought any useful artifacts yet? There was one in particular I liked, since it made logistics easier.

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    1. I used to find that lifeform trading was actually fairly decent. The Tandelou Eshvara world was particularly good for this with plentiful lifeforms that sold for a decent price, such that the main reason for the world being there was as a cash cow for ship upgrading.

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    2. But the life forms always left such a stinking mess in the cargo hold.

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    3. In my next posting, I mentioned the System Scanner and the Flux Scanner. These are the only two artifacts I've found.

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  2. The Dweenle sound an awful lot like Marvin the paranoid android.

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  3. Indeed, the reason for the life form trading on the planet is to always ensure that you can get fuel to get off planet.

    It is however pitifully slow when compared to what you can get for other goods, like Petrus says.

    There is at least one civilisation which actually expects you to be hostile towards them, btw.

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  4. I think that, you should try and reach the derelict ship. (If I remember correctly there is something valuable waiting to be found in it. But I may be wrong. But it ties to a certain species, sudden ascent to superpower status.)

    And there is still an new alien race to be found. And your disposition, plays a significant role in communicating with them.

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  5. What with this new journalistic tone? I feel it since a few post back.
    And now, the trick about scientific trivia as an intro to futuristic crpg? You worth more than that Addict. We love you, dont overdo it, you dont need it.
    If you plan to sell your posts to the NY Times, disregard this stupid comment.

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    1. I personally like that - there is nothing wrong with trying to get some serious journalism out of this. There are too many dumb journos trying to cover computer games out there.

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    2. I second the value of the extra information. It adds a lot to the blog and definitely separates it from other blogs. I personally really like the first-person perspective of the particular player writing the blog, as opposed to the universal player. In other words, don't take yourself and your thoughts out of the blog Chet!

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    3. I thought this was an enjoyable post, his tone was personal as always and when he dipped into the trivia it read as trivia he was genuinely interested in. These touches of our dear addicts personality that bleed through in his posts are what makes the blog, not just a dry focus on the games themselves.

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    4. Yeah, I am really enjoying the writing style. Rock on, Chet.

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    5. I've been rereading the entire blog. He often switches between styles. That is part of what makes his writing interesting. If there are a few posts that you don't like he will switch back to another style at some point.

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    6. Damnit now I sound like a troll. I always like his post. And for sure appreciate trivia about evolution (who doesnt). But it just sounded kind of forced in here. Like "what could I write to entertain those nerds on my blog" Hence my comment about not "overdoing" (or over-thinking) it: We'll love what he write nevertheless.

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  6. I think you are hitting on why I preferred the 1st starflight, the second one didn't seem as well paced. Don't get me wrong they are both far better than most other games, but this one just played slower to a young me. Maybe I should try playing them both again and see how they stack up in my older perception.

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  7. Is there anything wrong in bringing in a subject or thought related to the things being experienced when playing the game in course (specially if it is something relevant, as I think this "scientific trivia intro" is), and in doing so expanding the scope of what is being discussed? I don't think so.

    Would you rather prefer a boring journal-like posting in the line of "I went there and did that and then I went somewhere else and did this other thing"?

    I really like to read something else here than just a text version of a "Let's play", whether it is an analysis on the game mechanics, a discussion on the current CRPG genre being played or some tangential subject the Addict seems happy to bring on board.

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    1. This comment was meant as a reply to Nathan's comment above... I guess I missclicked.

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  8. A couple of places to explore if you are a bit lonely would be NNE of the Nebula and the SSE slice of the map closer too the edge.

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    1. Some more places to explore would be the entire rest of the map. It seems that Addict has gone through the leftmost third, and I'm sure he'll get through the rest in due time without being told where to go.

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    2. Trust me, the map is big enough that those regions are still plenty big. He is guaranteed to meet one race eventually, and I think the other is required. It's been over 15 years since I've played this game so, vague pointers is about the best I can offer.

      Odd thing is that he really should have visited an area already that would have in caused him to run into a fewer more races, I almost wonder if he is playing a bit too carefully ;)

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  9. Lets try to be a bit less spoily in our advice to addict. I trust that most of the hints we are giving him here he would figure out himself, and in giving him these hints before he asks we may be reducing some of the fun of discovery he enjoys.

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    1. I'm definitely enjoying reading through his playthrough and seeing him discover everything, and I agree that some of the comments here are a bit spoiler-y. I know I'm jumping at the bit to talk about everything, but limiting my comments to what he's already seen and experienced.

      On that note, as suggested, posture is still a significant part of communication, so don't be so dismissive of it just yet. Alien comms are a different colour for each species, but their speech structures are different enough to tell them apart anyway.

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    2. The alien speech is clearly a different color for each race if you can see the colors, but honestly I didn't even notice that while reading the post, so it's probably not noticeable at all if you can't see much difference to start.

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    3. I agree. I never would have noticed the different colors if Spiro hadn't mentioned it, and I still can't see the differences in some of them. But as Spiro says, you can usually tell by the initial dialogue who the aliens are.

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  10. Are you going out of your way to try the different communication postures with the different races? You might be surprised at the results. In fact, my memory is that Starflight 2 is actually the game that makes more of a point of making each posture useful with someone or other.

    I really need to play through these games again. I was too young to tackle them without the help of walkthroughs, but now it's been long enough that I don't remember much of anything specific other than the endings.

    Also, I believe you've got the wrong impression of what the Thdok-Bryg-Ahhh is or relates to.

    There's a lot more stuff that you're going to discover when you explore the 4 things on your to-do list.

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    1. Yes, I'm trying to mix it up. Hostile definitely worked best with the Spemin, after I'd destroyed a few of them.

      Yes, in a further conversation, I got the impression that Thdok-Bryg-Ahhh is a ritual rather than an entity.

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  11. Hey, off-topic to the post, but relevant to the blog: did you intentionally set up your RSS feed to only show the last three posts? I've been using the feed lately to actually keep up with you instead of forgetting about you for a month and then binging on a dozen or three posts all at once. But I still only check once a week or so, and you write so quickly that I sometimes have more than three posts to read. Any chance you could increase the feed to at least five items? (Ten would be even better for context.) Thanks!

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    1. I follow via Google Reader and haven't noticed the problem. I guess Google's servers are better about checking for me in the background, and remembering entries it's seen before that are no longer in the feed.

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    2. A few months ago, I had a problem where the feed stopped working entirely, and the cause seemed to be that I was exceeding some max size. The only way I could fix it was lowering the number of postings to 3. Between this problem--having to manually check for older postings--and the previous one--no one who reads via RSS getting the feeds--I think I'm going to have to go with this as the lesser of the evils.

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    3. Huh, okay then. You just write long posts, apparently. :) Good problem to have. Thanks for the reply.

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  12. I loved the comments and pics on the alien races. I'm not sure, but I think there are a bunch more of them. (I've never played the game, so take that for what it is.) By the way, there are at least two more "spenim's" in this post.

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    1. There are definitely more races, but I don't know that there are "a bunch" more.

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    2. I found one more and heard of another. The problem is, I don't know how many different races are just killing me the moment they see me. I wish you could distinguish the ships or something.

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  13. I'm pretty sure it's TandElou, not TandAlou.

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    1. You're welcome, by the way.

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  14. One thing that I'd like to note here, is that Starflight 1 and 2 had two of the best hintbooks ever.

    They had enough information that you could dodge a lot of the frustration you'd run into during parts the game, but seemed to leave out just enough detail that you wouldn't spoil the whole thing for you.

    And they were written like captain's logs to boot, which made them an entertaining read just by themselves.

    Of course, I'm a bit biased, I have a display set up in my man cave with my original copies of SF1, SF2, and the hintbooks for both.

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    1. I'll try to check one out after I win. I like hint books like that, that present the spoilers in a creative way instead of just giving them to you outright.

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