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Starflight 3 aims for classic sci-fi storytelling in a new part of space

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The 1986 space exploration game Starflight was a remarkable thing. It set players off on a trek through 270 star systems, each with multiple explorable planets, to harvest resources, colonize worlds, deal with alien races, and solve a star-spanning mystery—all of it contained on a floppy diskette that wouldn't have enough capacity to hold a single photo taken by an average mobile phone today. It was basically primordial Mass Effect, and it was brilliant. 

Today, indie developer HumaNature, founded by original Starflight co-creator Greg Johnson, took the first step toward (finally) making Starflight 3 with the launch of an $800,000 crowdfunding campaign on Fig. New species, systems, and planets are planned, but the core gameplay mechanics of the original games will remain: Assemble, maintain, and grow a diverse starship crew, then lead it across a handcrafted galaxy, making friends (and enemies), solving problems, and trying to understand what it all means. 

Alien interactions, which were given a fairly superficial treatment in the first two games, will be an area of particular focus in Starflight 3. Johnson said he's inspired by films like Arrival and David Brin's Uplift novels, and wants to incorporate truly alien races into the game rather than just "people in alien suits," with completely non-human perspectives on the universe and themselves. The plan is to make those alien natures integral to Starflight 3's overall story—if you want to really know what's going on, you're going to have to get to know some folks from outside your neighborhood.   

"You have to dig deep into how they understand things if you want to unravel the mysteries of what the universe is, what we are," he said. "I don't want to give anything away, I don't want to tell you too much of the story, but it gets very deep."

The original Starflight dev team. (Image source: Mobygames)

The original Starflight dev team. (Image source: Mobygames)

Starflight 3 will start off with a crisis (of course) that's left Earth locked down under quarantine—but you, the intrepid space captain, manage to slip away and set about cleaning up this latest mess. It's a fairly standard videogame setup at first blush, but as you dig into matters you'll discover that the problem you thought you were solving is maybe not actually the problem at all. 

"You come to find out as you get out there that it's much much deeper than that, there are twists and turns that keep flipping the whole story on its head, upside-down, until you realize that it has its roots in the whole source of the galaxy and who we are," Johnson said—at which point project lead Anthony Vaughn stepped in to keep him from spilling any more beans. 

Vaughn said he's been poking at Johnson to return to the series for years now—Starflight 2 is his "number-one game of all time"—but it's only now that their workloads have allowed them to get together on it. And while these old-time game resurrections are sometimes hamstrung by hassles over rights and ownership, getting the green light for Starflight 3 was no problem at all: Rod McConnell, another designer and programmer on the original Starflight, owns the property and was happy to see the project go ahead. 

"I called him up and said, 'Hey, we want to do this, would that be cool?' And he just laughed and said, 'Haha, you are Starflight, of course, do whatever you want—it's yours'," Johnson said. McConnell still owns the Starflight property, but getting the Starflight 3 ducks in a row was "super, super-easy." 

The Starflight 3 Fig campaign has been in "Backstage Pass" mode—sort of an early access mode for investors and people who have signed up for Fig—during which it pulled in just shy of $100,000. The public campaign has a goal of $800,000, and runs until September 27. If all goes well, very tentative launch target has been set for the end of 2020. 

Andy has been gaming on PCs from the very beginning, starting as a youngster with text adventures and primitive action games on a cassette-based TRS80. From there he graduated to the glory days of Sierra Online adventures and Microprose sims, ran a local BBS, learned how to build PCs, and developed a longstanding love of RPGs, immersive sims, and shooters. He began writing videogame news in 2007 for The Escapist and somehow managed to avoid getting fired until 2014, when he joined the storied ranks of PC Gamer. He covers all aspects of the industry, from new game announcements and patch notes to legal disputes, Twitch beefs, esports, and Henry Cavill. Lots of Henry Cavill.