Backburner Month 05: Albulaan

This is an entry from a list of projects I hope to some day finish. Return to the backburnered projects index.

What is it? A video game: a scifi sandbox farming-sim game after my own tastes, one I've had kicking around in the back of my head for a long time.

The premise of the game is that you're a farmer who has moved to a new, uninhabited-by-sentient-life planet: there's a little settlement, and you get only sporadic contact with the core worlds for supply drops. Your primary job is to start building and maintaining your farm, and for that matter, understanding how and what to farm: the native plants and wild creatures are alien and unfamiliar—and procedurally generated for that save file—and you'll have to use a combination of laboratory analysis and practical experimentation to figure out which plants are edible, which plants are usable for medicine, which plants are usable for building materials, and so forth.

This will involve a combination of infrastructure-building and exploration. Infrastructure-building means, more or less, building out and maintaining a farm, but also expanding the little settlement to support more people, building homes and ensuring there's enough food and supplies for the sporadic new arrivals. Exploration would let you find new plants, new creatures, maybe even new places for settlements. Ideally, exploration will be slow and intentional and a bit difficult but not punishingly so: I plan to eschew any kind of combat, so the challenges would be around exploration and juggling resources like food and shelter, along with dangers like traversing rapids and bouldering up mountains. The world would be finite and exploration won't be a solution to all the problems a player would face: instead, you'll eventually develop the ability to do selective breeding of plants to come up with new, more-useful variants: cross-breeding varieties to select for larger yield or more resistance to climate variation and so forth.

Visually—at least subject to my own ability to implement it—my plan was to create a world inspired loosely by the paintings of Eyvind Earle, with lots of stark geometric shapes and sharp blocks of striking color. The look of the buildings would borrow heavily from the great concept artist Syd Mead and also from the building ideas of the futurist Buckminster Fuller. Of course, this graphical style was more than a bit aspirational, and I confess in my prototypes I never actually got to the point that it looked like it did in my head: I've since considered whether this game would be better served with a Roguelike-inspired grid of simple pixel art tiles, like Caves of Qud or the Oryx tiles for Brogue.

Why write it? My original ideas here actually far predated the survival sandbox games of the present day. When I first entertained ideas about it—in the mid-2000's, when I first wrote the name Albulaan in a notebook—my major inspiration was Harvest Moon: my original desire was to have a Harvest Moon-style farming sim game with procedural and exploration elements, a game where you couldn't simply look up in a wiki (or, at the time, a strategy guide) which crops were the best or where to go to find resources, because those crops and resources were unique to your own save file.

At this point, there are many more games in the genre that actually get closer to the game I want, although not quite bringing the same focus I'd want. There are plenty of more mechanical, infrastructure-based games like Factorio, plenty of more combat-focused survival sandbox games like Minecraft, plenty of expansive procedural worlds like No Man's Sky. I should be clear that the Albulaan of my dreams is not actually like any of these: I'm not interested in Factorio-style factory optimization, Minecraft-style resource extraction, or No Man's Sky-style tech trees. The gameplay of Albulaan should feel a little bit more like a Stardew Valley: daily farm maintenance coupled with some side activities and cheerful chats with settlement NPCs, with a bigger world and a set of traveling mechanics taking the place of Stardew's combat-focused mine levels.

Admittedly, one personal pet peeve I have about many of the games in this same space is that they try too hard to include every possible mechanic and end up with an awkward and subpar version of many of them—like Stardew Valley's clunky and static combat system, or Animal Crossing: New Horizons' tedious attempts at crafting mechanics—and that's one reason why I explicitly described Albulaan above as lacking things like combat mechanics: I genuinely believe there should be more games that don't try to tack on every possible way of interacting with the world, which is why my goal for Albulaan is to do farming and exploring and world-generating well, and that's about it.

Anyway, I do think several of my ideas for Albulaan are still distinctive—like the selective breeding of procedural plants—even if they're less unique than they would have been in 2005. If nothing else, it's still a game that, if someone else created it independently, I would want to play.

That said, I'm also not 100% sure which aspects of this idea will remain intact when I return to it. For one, I've gotten more and more uncomfortable with the colonialist and extractive aspects of some of these games, and I'd love to figure out a way to design Albulaan in a way that can mitigate some of these concerns. The fact that the world is necessarily finite—and consequently certain resources are also finite, and the player must think about conservation and renewable resources—might help here, but it's not a silver bullet that handles all (or even most) of the work of removing the colonialist underpinnings from a game like this.

Why the name? The word al-bulaʽān (ألبولعان), which literally means “the two swallowers”, is the Arabic name for two stars in the constellation Aquarius: specifically Nu Aquarii and Mu Aquarii. My first notes about Albulaan date back to my high school years, when I did some Flash experiments with the intention of creating procedural animals for it: at the time, I chose the name arbitrarily from a list of star names, and I've used it as my working title since.

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