The Writer’s Game: Approaching Infinity

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Welcome to the start of a new series analyzing how games and game systems provide lessons for storytelling.  I will focus on what games teach us in general, though my focus is on advice for non-game tale-telling.  Now, onward!

Approaching Infinity

Approaching Infinity is a space adventure in the “roguelite” vein.  Like the classic game “Rogue,” the game is usually over when you die.  Games become a little easier as players unlock resources available for the next adventure into a hostile cosmos.

The game contains all the elements of classic space adventure in a simple retro style that draws from decades-old genre tropes.  Travel in space, blast aliens, trade goods, explore planets, the usual.  The lessons come from how these tropes work within more significant stories and how they come together to make a unique tale in each game.

Approaching Infinity‘s story elements exist on three levels and provide valuable lessons on writing.

Great Rivers of Story

At the “top” of Approaching Infinity‘s stories are different factions, about a dozen as of these writings.  Players can take missions for these factions, and most missions unlock further opportunities and advance the tale.  When the player completes a faction’s linear chain of missions, they usually unlock an ending to the game.

Each mission chain provides a background story on the faction and its place in the galaxy.  The player’s activities have meaning in the context of the game.  Faction missions also provide a sense of a bigger picture, filling in blanks as one plays the game.  One could play the game many times before they saw everything or understood the backstory.

These “big arcs” remind writers that stories work with an overall, meaningful tale.  Such arcs don’t have to be complicated (Approaching Infinity‘s quest chains are mechanically simple), but they should have truth in them.

These multiple story possibilities also provide a potential writing exercise.  When one looks at all the possible “big picture” stories in a work, work out multiple endings – alternate tellings.  Such work helps you understand the tale you ultimately tell, as you’ll understand why things happen and what might have been.

Choice in the Flow

The “big arcs” in Approaching Infinity also interact, depending on player choices.  Choosing to help one faction can alienate another faction.  Completing part of one mission chain may make you enemies as you’ve had to blow up a few enemies.  You can try to please everyone, but you can’t, as which “big arcs” you follow lead you down specific paths.

The game handles this with a simple diplomacy score.  The score goes up when you do things a faction likes and goes down with the opposite.  When you have about a dozen factions competing and random and procedural events happening, the game becomes complex.

Story-wise, this is a good example of how smaller-picture actions cause “big arcs” to collide.  How many great tales hinge on that one choice or one mistake?  Approaching Infinity creates that feeling of tension in a complex-to-evaluate, simple-to-understand way.  A player’s (or character’s) choices pile up and life becomes complicated at some point.

The individual parts of a story don’t have to be complicated –the “big arcs” can be simple.  The interactions, the choices, they make a tale delightfully complicated.  Plus, playing with those choices lets you ask “what If,” much as players of Approaching Infinity see their suddenly-destroyed starship and ask what they could have done differently.

All Those Tiny Waves

The sweeping adventure and juggling alliances of Approaching Infinity happen in a procedurally-generated galaxy.  Each game is random, meaning new sectors, planets, caves, space wrecks, and more await you each adventure.  Each game also starts with giving you a choice of ship models and commanding officer.

This randomization and choice mean minute-to-minute happenings are personal.  Around every corner is a new planet, new piece of equipment, a new discovery.  The fine details of your adventure are personal and unique to you and your game.

If you’re on a mission from a quest chain to defeat a space monster, you have many choices.  Do you craft a new weapon for your starship?  Dash deeper into more dangerous parts of the galaxy to buy one?  Raid enemy ships for parts and equipment?

These choices may also affect your quest chains, your “big arcs.” Even when they don’t, they’re uniquely yours, part of your adventure.

For writers of any kind, this is an example that a tale is driven by discovery.  A story may be linear and straightforward, but it’s the moments that bring it to life.  When every scene, every chapter is unique, personal, and meaningful, a story grips us.  Even when a scene doesn’t surprise or suddenly switch up the big picture, it matters.

Of course, the tiny picture might create a sudden, surprising change in plot.  In Approaching Infinity, an unwise small choice might just affect the big picture.  Even when it doesn’t, there’s the tension that it might.  In many a game of Approaching Infinity, I kept an eye on my diplomacy, knowing I might make enemies I didn’t want to make!

Closing In On Infinity

Approaching Infinity‘s mix of simple “big arcs” and personal, minute-to-minute experience makes the game a Space Opera simulator.  Using simple roots, it creates a replayable adventure seeped in both lore and individual experiences.  No one element is overly complex, but their interactions are – just like many good tales.

Takeaways for Writers:

  • Having backstory-driven “big arcs” gets you to the truth of your tale.  They can – and often are – simple.
  • Plot multiple “big arcs” even if you don’t use them to understand your setting better.
  • Possible “big arcs” interacting help you craft a meaningful tale.  Those smaller moments of interaction drive the story.
  • Complexity can come from the simple interaction of simple “big arcs.”  The results are often far from simple.
  • Those moments where character choice sends them down one path or another are meaningful.  They also let you play “what if” and evaluate your work.
  • Storytelling is gripping when events, even small ones, are personal and meaningful.  Events don’t have to have big impacts.
  • Small moments and choices bring tension because they may have huge impacts.  Even when they don’t and the story goes along, that tension engages the audience and is meaningful.

Steven Savage