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'Outreach' is a space adventure game set in the Cold War

Engadget Engadget 20/08/2016 Nick Summers

© Provided by Engadget

A renewed interest in spaceflight has sparked a wave of video games looking at the harsh realities of living in space. We've had Adrift, a near-future survival epic similar to the film Gravity, and soon Tacoma, a story-driven exploration game set inside a space station in 2088. Now, you can add another title to that list: Outreach, the first game from independent developer Pixel Spill. Whereas Adrift and Tacoma are set in the distant future, Outreach looks to the past, exploring the tail-end of the pivotal "space race" that took place between the US and the Soviet Union.

Presented from a first-person perspective, you play as a lone cosmonaut that's been sent into space to investigate a military station. Russian officials have lost contact with the people on board, so it's unclear if the crew is alive or how much of the craft is still intact. If you think that sounds like the opening of Dead Space, a horror-centric game from 2008, you're absolutely right. But the two games are vastly different, both in their scope and subject matter. In Outreach, you have to quietly float inside and outside the space station, looking for objects and conducting repairs set out by ground control.

Look closer and you'll see evidence of a mission that doesn't jive with what the Russian government has been telling you. Audio logs, written documents and personal items will shed light on the different crew members and their experiences on board the ship. Pixel Spill says it's a political game about propaganda and how technological innovation was presented near the end of the Cold War. You'll begin to question the orders given by your superiors, and have to decide which account -- the official line, or the fragmented one being told by the environment -- is correct.

"In that way, we're hoping to emulate the kind of political and broadcast environment that was present in the 1980s on Earth, during the Cold War," Pixel Spill's Christopher Bingham told me at Gamescom. "We're creating a microcosm of that media frenzy when you weren't really sure what was true and what wasn't, and what either side were working on."

The small, British developer says the game is a little like Gone Home, the critically acclaimed walking simulator by Fullbright. Bingham said there's also "a bit of L.A. Noire" in its DNA, because you'll be acting as a detective and asking questions as you spend more time in space. I would also compare it to Bioshock, because the story encourages the player to doubt their mission and the person they're constantly communicating with.

"At the end of the game you'll be asked to make a decision that has consequences," Bingham hinted. "If we've done our jobs correctly, that decision is going to be different for different players. It will be emotional and entirely removed from gameplay -- it won't be a decision about winning or losing or unlocking some new mode. It will be a decision that you've reached as an individual based on what and how much you've discovered while you've been on the station, as well as which characters you believe."

The team has spent countless hours striving for historical authenticity. The story is mostly fictional -- it builds on a few conspiracy theories about "lost" missions that were never disclosed by the USSR -- but it's rooted in the technology and politics of the time. Pixel Spill's artists have looked at the suits and spacecraft designs of the 1980s, and replicated them with just a dash of creative license. Unlike most space games, which feature fantastical technology, Pixel Spill wants everything to feel real and rudimentary. Storage panels creak and transmitters frequently fall offline. You're always one small break or technical fault away from death.

The time period and its technological shortcomings are exposed during space walks too. If you lose your grip or jump in a peculiar direction, you'll die instantly -- there are no chords or thrusters to save you. Handles will glow when they're close enough to grab and you'll need to judge when to push off and drift to another part of the space station. The astronaut will float in a straight line with zero opportunity for course correction. To survive, you'll need to execute each jump with expert precision.

There's no oxygen supply to worry about, however, and no hands to show what you're holding onto. Both omissions, while disappointing, are realities of the game's budget and the size of Pixel Spill's team. With only 10 employees -- a bunch of which are part-timers -- it's decided to focus on the atmosphere and story instead. Bingham said: "A technique like that, it looks great but it doesn't necessarily add anything to the gameplay, and we have to weigh up as a small team whether it's going to be feasible."

If Outreach was set in modern times, it would feel pretty uninspired. Pixel Spill has been smart to choose an era largely unexplored in video games, and focus on a nation that is often ignored or conveyed as the villain in pop culture. The Soviet Union played an integral part in the space race -- it put the first human in space and conducted the first space walk, after all. These achievements were conducted above a fragile and ever-changing political landscape, one filled with dangerous and distrusting nations. Presenting that tension through the eyes of an astronaut could, if done correctly, provide a fascinating story and perspective for the player. I can't wait.

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