INTERVIEW: Starward Industries on The Invincible, retro-futurism, and winning over Stanislaw Lem's estate
It takes only moments, but Stanislaw Lem's The Invincible worms unease and loneliness into his reader like a snake charmed out of a basket.
As the titular ship creaks and hisses in its hefty landing on Regis III, the choked desert planet where the crew found the last signal from their sister ship, it becomes immediately clear that something here is wrong - so wrong, in fact, that it could evade our understanding entirely.
It's this atmosphere that made Lem one of the leading voices in hard sci-fi alongside H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov, and as you can imagine, it's one that took years to perfect. It won't stop some from trying - and even in spite of the difficulties standing in their way, there's a chance that Starward Industries have cracked it.
Their pretty fitting name aside, the team behind the video game adaptation of the classic novel, The Invincible, seem to know exactly how to turn the story into an interactive corker. Not only reflecting the ambience that Lem brought to life, but expanding it with new characters and a narrative that bends to its player's will. Talk about a tall order.
The Invincible is the '50s idea of our horrifying future
There might be a lot of game focus laid on the latest outing from Starward Industries, but that doesn't mean that the team had any intention of brushing off Lem's work. In fact, writer Magdalena Kucenty tells GGRecon, that they've made the changes that they have in order to preserve Lem's concepts.
The game sees players take up the space boots of biologist Yelena, a brand-new character that takes over the role of protagonist from the book's hardy navigationist Rohan, all in an effort to preserve Lem's ideas and offer the players more choice.
"We wanted to change characters because, for example, we didn't want to change the character that is already in the books to fit our vision," Kucenty says. "I don't like that. I prefer to make a new character of your own, and don't just take an IP and twist it in a way that fits your vision.
"What we did was take the story, take the planet and transcript to the game with some changes, especially the changes are also based on the choices of the player. The player can play more canonically or more in their own way.
"In the book Rohan was clearly seeing humanity as vulnerable, and this small thing in the face of the unknown; but the player can be stubborn and say for the whole gameplay, 'Yeah, humanity is the best!', and it contradicts the book, but that's the player's choice we give them."
The bizarre horrors of the world awaiting the crew of The Invincible are so impactful thanks to Lem's creativity - and even though that creativity brought him to some false biological conclusions, Starward remained dedicated to his concepts even if sometimes they didn't make literal sense.
"There's methane in the atmosphere [of Regis III] and Lem wrote that the methane is differently built than the methane on Earth, and we spoke to a chemistry doctor, and she said that that's not really possible [...] but we still put it in there because that's what Lem wrote.
"We still were putting it in our game strongly aware that didn't work in that way, as we're 70 years later. We know that now, but we still stick to the retro-futurism of the '50s."
The Invincible is an exception to the Lem family rule
You'd think it's tough enough to develop the game at all, but it turns out that wrangling the rights from the Lem estate was a challenge in itself - but luckily, as Starward's CMO Maciej Dobrowolski tells us, CEO and Game Director Marek Markuszewski's experience on The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine wasn't just a help in the room with devs - it worked wonders when he took the idea to the Lem estate itself.
"[Lem] is like a national treasure and everybody knows him in Poland, it's mandatory reading in school and so on. So, [Dobrowolski] looked into the books and when The Invincible was kind of ready to be adapted. It was such a suited story for a video game, especially that he wanted to do something in the Firewatch/Alien: Isolation kind of vibe.
"He was the first one to get the permission from Lem's son, which wasn't easy. Many people tried that throughout the years and they always got a No. It took him, like, a year, but he convinced Lem's descendant to give it a go."
It's fair enough of the Lem estate to be protective - after all, even though The Invincible doesn't reach the heights of success of his other works like Solaris or Mortal Engines, it still joins the ranks of his slow and creeping stories of existential dread, with an impressive knack for making his reader feel small and insignificant on the canvas of the infinite cosmos.
It's this that makes a project like The Invincible so special, though. For most players, this will be the very first introduction to Lem's work at all, let alone the novel itself, meaning that finally, classic literature can skip the waiting line and come straight to those who can't find the time or struggle to engage when sitting down with a book. And that alone is more than enough to justify the production that The Invincible has undergone so far.
The Invincible is a bold step into literature for video games
The marketing of The Invincilbe wears its format on its sleeve, stamping each poster with, "A Videogame by Starward Industries", and with good reason - the fact that novels of such stature as The Invincible are coming straight into the realm of the interactive medium is something to be celebrated.
If the secrets and mysteries buried in the game are as abundant as in the book, then we could be in for one of the best small-team-led science fiction games in decades. With their lofty ambitions, the Starward team are carving themselves a new path with an attitude to development and level of innovation we haven't seen in many years.
If The Invincible can follow through on its promises, then perhaps we'll get to see hard sci-fi earn a new highlight. Mystery awaits on Regis III, and while we're excited to see what Starward has created, maybe the questions we'll be forced to ask ourselves will make The Invincible much, much, more than we had bargained for.