“What mighty contests rise from trivial things.” – Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, 1712.
In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi posed a question as the continuation of an earlier conversation with colleagues about extraterrestrial life. Trivial as it seemed, that question—“Where is everybody?”—raised a line of scientific enquiry that remains unanswered almost seventy years later. The Fermi Paradox, which the question has since become known as, examines the apparent contradiction between the likelihood of intelligent alien life and the lack of evidence to support its existence.
Scientists and philosophers have probed at this problem in the years since it was first voiced, forwarding an array of theoretical solutions including the Rare Earth hypothesis, the probability of mass extinction through either natural causes or self-destruction, and the zoo hypothesis. Later in 2017, however, a new voice will speak to the implications and potential causes of the Fermi Paradox; a game development studio called Black Hive Media is taking the universe’s silence as the central theme of its sci-fi action-RPG, Kova.
OnlySP recently spoke to husband-and-wife duo Blake and Mandy Lowry, the artist and programmer of Kova respectively, about exactly how the Fermi Paradox will play a role in the game, the ramifications and complications of discussing real-world scientific theories in interactive entertainment, and how development of the game is progressing.
“Perhaps life is rare.” – Ian Whates, Paradox: Stories Inspired by the Fermi Paradox, 2014.
Much science-fiction media, whether bombastic (see Star Wars, Mass Effect, and their ilk) or meditative (as in Contact and Arrival), either deals explicitly with the idea of first contact or presents interactions with aliens as a matter of course, but comparatively little looks at the silence of the real universe. Kova will break with this tradition and take that quietude as the central theme in a quest that seeks to “find out just why exactly has mankind been unable to reach or communicate with another intelligent life form.” Adding another wrinkle to this core question is the game’s far-future setting; in Kova, humanity has explored the stars and set up a multitude of colonies and interstellar outposts, however extraterrestrial intelligence remains out of reach.
The game begins with the lead character, Kova Rimor, crash-landing on a hostile alien planet—a “happy accident that kicks off the story arc,” according to the Lowrys. While attempting to fix her ship with materials gathered from the planet’s surface, Kova uncovers a mysterious beacon, setting in motion the events of the story.
Although the developers are coy about the character’s journey, they have provided an overview of the conflicts between three major factions: the Intergalactic Alliance Authority (IAA) represents governance and state control, OM1NOUS is a rebel group, and TRIADYNE stands for business and the market economy. Players can choose to take on sidequests for any of these three groups, and these missions, alongside NPC dialogue, “will go into detail the great lengths humanity has gone to find intelligent life.” As each faction has its own philosophy, the divergent conversations with their representatives are intended to provide players “a sense of the effects [the search for alien life is] having on our species.”
“Science and literature are not two things, but two sides of one thing.” – Thomas Huxley, Huxley’s Autobiography and Selected Essays from Lay Sermons, 1910.
While Kova will thus adopt a rather typical science-fiction setting, Black Hive Media is engaging with modern-day science and socio-political concerns through the Fermi Paradox and the inevitable xenophobia arising from interracial contact. In an industry ruled by bombast, Kova is aiming for thoughtfulness and the Lowrys believe that its apparent uniqueness “is likely because games with these themes . . . are risky.”
“It’s hard for us to show what Kova is in trailers because, well, first it’s very early in development . . . but more importantly games that require build up and dialog[ue] aren’t quite as exciting on the surface as aliens in ships blowing up things (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) They are harder to market.”
Taking contemporary science as a core narrative element or gameplay device, rather than the more glamorous science-fiction devices and abilities such as Assassin’s Creed’s Animus or Remember Me’s memory manipulation, has its benefits. According to the Lowrys, “exploring contemporary science in games has some cool potential to reach new demographics. Maybe introduce concepts that some gamers have never heard of or thought about before.”
Alongside introducing players to new theoretical concepts, Black Hive Media also wants to offer a new gameplay experience. The side-scrolling metroidvania is hardly a new phenomenon, and, indeed, the two franchises from which the genre takes its name (Nintendo’s Metroid and Konami’s Castlevania) began as 2D adventures. While Kova adopts the non-linear design heritage of such titles, the game will also incorporate a comprehensive suite of RPG elements, ranging from skill and ship upgrades to new weapon types. “In a lot of ways,” say the Lowrys, “we’re setting out to bring a matured formula to the 2D side-scrolling genre.”
“Without atmosphere a painting is nothing.” – Rembrandt
In recent times, some games, such as LittleBigPlanet, have increased player agency by adopting a 2.5 dimensional aesthetic, allowing the character to move between planes, but Kova will not utilise this approach. However, Black Hive Media says that players “can expect a good amount of verticality and spatial exploration in the other worlds, which we have yet to show off in much detail. That said, the different planes (like seen in the demo) will allow us to engage with the users in other ways, especially in setting the atmosphere.”
The aforementioned demo showed off the first world of the game, and, although much more is promised, Black Hive Media remains early in development on Kova. From the outside, the projected December release date seems impossible, but the team has faced challenges just as great, such as developing “Count Crunch’s Candy Curse on mobile devices . . . in only two months for six different platforms.” Together, Blake and Mandy Lowry have more than twenty years of experience working on a wide range of platforms and are supported by “an experienced team that has a vision and works fast.” As such, Black Hive Media is “very committed and confident [that it] will hit development milestones.”
Kova is currently in the final days of a Kickstarter campaign, targeting a December 2017 release for PC and a console launch next year.
While we all wait for the game’s release, Blake and Mandy Lowry would like fans to consider one of the statements from the Fermi Paradox: “An intelligent species that has overcome its own self-destructive tendencies might view any other species bent on galactic expansion as a threat, thus will destroy other intelligent species as they appear.”
A general comment on humanity or a clue to the mysteries of Kova?