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A Recognizable Threat – Creating the Thargoid Menace

Elite: Dangerous Interviews - By Ed Orr on October 20, 2017

A Recognizable Threat – Creating the Thargoid Menace

Hundreds of billions of stars, with 3594 known exoplanets already discovered, and you would think at least some of these might have intelligent alien life on them. It is at least a statistical probability, and in another Milky Way the players of Elite Dangerous have stumbled across something that could qualify. Back at the beginning of 2017, the first evidence of an alien race was discovered as an unsuspecting commander was dragged out of Witch Space by the aliens. The Thargoids have since evolved from an won't series of distractions into the central narrative force in Elite Dangerous.

During Frontier Expo 2017 Frontier Games confirmed that the current Thargoid threat will continue to be a serious concern for commanders in the space-faring experience. Since the launch of the 2.4 Horizons update, the Thargoids have refused to communicate with other ships. They have even gone as far as striking humanities first line of defense, Aegis.

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As 2018’s Beyond updates begin to reach us, the escalating nature of the Thargoid threat will become clear, but what does it take to build a credible alien antagonist? William Banes took to the stage at Frontier Expo 2017 to discuss the potential for discovering alien life, and after a lecture on life, evolution, and the possibility of sentience, we had some time to speak to him a bit further on this subject.

One of the biggest factors in creating an effective alien threat is our own expectations and bias. William pointed out that “as we only have one example of life we cant have a formal definition of life, unlike carbon a  It also makes the question of what form life will effectively take fairly difficult to answer. With the idea that life might have some common functions, William asserted that “Alien life is likely to have things in common with our life. It is likely to burn some sort of fuel, and reproduce. We assume this because any life that didn't reproduce would be out-competed by life that did reproduce.”

If William’s proposal that reproduction is a possible common factor, and if species on Earth can develop commonality while still separated by massive evolutionary gaps then maybe we might recognize something in Alien life after all? Despite this possibility, we do not really know what alien life is going to look like. William described the fallibility of this trying to discern what alien life might look like.

“If we see life on another world and it's so different from how we distinguish living things, will we recognize it as a living thing at all? Well, that is an unanswerable question. Until we find it we wont know. Human beings are conditioned to identify things we recognize as living”

Therefore, it might be conceivable that fictional alien life could conceivably be something the human mind might start to recognize, with a common form, reproduction, and the ability to expend energy. It helps to provide a framework for companies like Frontier when trying to balance the competing demands of narrative and reality.

A look at celluloid's track record shows how far this balance can tip towards a man in a suit. While life has proven that it can provide common function in relatively separate species, films like Alien, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek, and Star Wars are just some of the gargantuan Hollywood titles that feature predominantly humanoid aliens. It’s not uncommon to even find alien invaders chatting away in English. The acceptance of this sort of alien sets expectations and provides a pro forma foil for writers to use. It also makes it even harder for teams looking to shatter these expectations more difficult. Frontier’s new Jurassic World Evolution title, announced in a recent trailer, is a homage to Stephen Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park. These have largely managed to help cement the perception of Dinosaurs as huge lizards. Jack Horner, paleontologist and consultant on Jurassic Park, also took to the stage at Frontier Expo 2017 to explain how these ideas are fundamentally outdated. Still, the idea of a feathered Tyrannosaurs Rex, miniaturized raptors, and a blisteringly bright Triceratops have not really had much impact on the public consciousness. The raptors that haunt my childhood nightmares were so evocative that they might be too difficult to shake.

We spoke to Chris Gregory, Art Director at Frontier, and Joe Hogan, Lead Audio Designer, about these conflicting pressures  and constructing the Thargoid threat.

MMORPG: How did you balance the need to strive for some level of authenticity with making the Thargoids, frankly, look cool?

CHRIS: For me, the two goals aren’t really in conflict. Creating a truly authentic alien lifeform is impossible, but we find that designs tend to look cooler when they appear credible. By looking at some of the more unusual creatures here on Earth – especially those from environments alien to humans such as the deep sea – and doing our homework with the wealth of theoretical material about alien life, I think we came to a design the feels plausible while being striking and memorable.

MMORPG: When bringing back the Thargoids how limited were you, if at all, by the previous appearance?

CHRIS: We all knew Elite Dangerous needed a fresh perspective on the Thargoids to take advantage of the advances in games, but we were careful to research and include elements of the older designs.

Back in 1984, David (Braben) did a great job of making the Thargoid design distinct from the human ships in the original Elite simply by not having a clear direction of flight. The octagonal Thargoid stood apart from the arrow-shaped human ships, moving and flying very differently. We wanted to evoke a similar feel. Removing the outer edge of the vector graphic from the original game left us with an eight-armed star shape, and this was the starting point for the new Thargoid design

Recently, players have discovered the wreck of a more traditional, octagonal Thargoid craft crashed on a planet. It’s the classic ship in Elite Dangerous style, and we really enjoyed applying the new Thargoid aesthetic with the classic form and bridging the gap between the two iterations of the game.

MMORPG: How do you go about creating an alien with no actual reference points for actual alien life to start from and is that problematic?

CHRIS: It is potentially a blank page, but we had David as a guide to Thargoid culture, biology, and technology. David has been thinking about this stuff for decades and knows the details of what he wants to see. By understanding the culture and life cycle of these creatures, we can think about how they live and how their technology fits into their lived experience.

MMORPG: So art design is not the only part of creating a Thargoid. Sound is used in Elite Dangerous and practically every other space faring game to evoke emotion. How influential is this and how does the physical appearance influence the way a Thargoid sounds?

JOE: Obviously it’s important that the sound and visuals work well together, but basing the sound design purely on the visuals could result in some uninspired sound design. I am much more interested in trying to communicate deeper things to the player, or at least keeping these concepts in mind while working. I think about the narrative context (What is it? why is it here? What is it made of? What is it’s motivation?), the emotional context (How do we want the player to feel? And also, what does the thing itself feel?) and what information and feedback the player needs. Then: which of those things can be conveyed with audio?

Thargoids are particularly fun to create because they present some very interesting answers to these questions. Their technology is completely different, and therefore they need to sound distinctly different. This includes collisions and weapon impacts on their hull, as well as non-human engine/movement sounds etc.

MMORPG: How did you balance the need to strive for some level of authenticity with making the Thargoids, frankly, look cool?

CHRIS: For me, the two goals aren’t really in conflict. Creating a truly authentic alien lifeform is impossible, but we find that designs tend to look cooler when they appear credible. By looking at some of the more unusual creatures here on Earth – especially those from environments alien to humans such as the deep sea – and doing our homework with the wealth of theoretical material about alien life, I think we came to a design the feels plausible while being striking and memorable.

In the round, that plausability is all that the teams at Frontier and other studios can strive for. Elite Dangerous, like many other games, needs to capture an audience and with so many outrageous strands of life spanning our own planet, there is no shortage of inspiration. As players learn more about the Thargoids relationship with the Guardians, maybe an even more outlandish alien species might rear its head, assuming it has a one.