The first thing Voyageur does is ask you to commit. “All trips are one-way,” the game tells you. “You can never go home again.”
The next thing it asks you to do is decide who you are. Are you an explorer? An adventurer? A fugitive? It’s an important question that sets the tone for the hundreds of thousands of light years you’re about to traverse.
Voyageur is a lonely game. It’s populated with procedurally generated worlds and cultures that you never quite get to know. As you hop from planet to planet, you glean snippets: this world is on the edge of financial collapse; that one brews with the beginnings of a civil revolt. You can pick up crew members but all decisions are ultimately yours and yours alone. Not only that but, as an entirely text-based narrative game, Voyageur requires that you rely heavily on your own imagination.
“Voyageur ended up turning into a game about the different relationships humanity might have to the future,” developer Bruno Dias told me by email, “and because of how the procedural generation works, it traffics a lot more in impressions and general tone.”
Dias drew inspiration from well-known series such as Star Trek and the Mars trilogy, using those concepts and themes as shorthand for the rough sketches of Voyageur’s alien landscapes. From austere spires of ice to the gangrenous Fungal Savannah, your travels take you through the familiar as well as the slightly unnerving, all described evocatively with striking imagery. It’s just what you’d expect from work that’s funded by Failbetter Games, purveyors of fine literary goods such as Fallen London and Sunless Seas.
Voyageur takes on an ambitious task in trying to capture the vastness of the universe, but it encounters some barriers to that goal. This is largely due to the limitations of procedural generation and just how much text you’d have to write to truly encapsulate a galaxy-sized experience.
“Characteristic-based narratives like Voyageur or Fallen London are really content-hungry,” Dias says. “Voyageur itself is already a novel-sized piece of writing, even though it feels shorter than that; people assume procedural generation is efficient, but it’s really a way of getting twice as much content with two times the work.”
“Hurtling into the heart of the galaxy by way of alien technology can seem strangely… mundane.”
After you visit a few planets, it begins to seem like every other world has a team of biosphere engineers, or is shimmering with AR advertisements, or teeming with Terran lifeforms. If you’re short on money, it doesn’t take long to figure out which items to trade garner the highest rewards. After each play through, you can buff up your stats, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into new experiences. In other words, hurtling into the heart of the galaxy by way of alien technology can seem strangely… mundane.
In a way, that’s part of the beauty of Voyageur. Even though you’ve dedicated yourself to a one-way trip—a virtual suicide mission—you still have to deal with the humdrum details of travel, the unremitting sameness of cities all over the galaxy. According to Dias, the game is designed to deliberately eschew the challenges you might expect in other space-faring adventures.
“It’s very ambient and inviting by design, which lends itself to different play styles,” Dias says. “You can try to maximise your income in every port to ramp up money very fast, or you can just make enough to get by so you can focus on seeing more of the galaxy faster, for example.”
Voyageur has already gone through one round of light updates with others to come, with even more planetary descriptions and mid-game content. There’s something Zen-like about the experience of visiting planet after planet and then finding something new, a striking detail or a new event, that catches your eye. It makes it seem all the more precious, and even a little intimate.
“I hope players find a bit of description in a planet or event that really resonates with them,” Dias says. “Because they’re the only person to see a specific planet, I hope everyone finds a bit of serendipity that is particularly affecting, a joke or a bit of drama from the machine that comes up by juxtaposing the different elements the game can put together.”