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Monday, February 6, 2023

'Jett: The Far Shore' Imagines Conscientious Space Colonization

Ahead of you is a vast pink sky and a teeming alien planet. Your copilot, Isao, asks you to cut the aircraft’s engine. He wants to savor this moment: your first look at an entirely new world.

Jett: The Far Shore is training you with this short exchange. It asks you to take your time, not just so that you soak up its beautiful vistas but because part of your mission to this alien planet is to observe and gather data on the planet’s indigenous wildlife, just like an actual astrobiologist. The game’s ethos can’t quite be summed up as “leave no trace” (this is a story of space colonization, after all), but it asks you to tread lightly at almost every turn.

Terrestrial Origins

The idea for the game percolated for a long while. Jett’s designer Craig Adams and programmer Patrick McAllister trace its roots back to 2007, but an environmental ethos has been part of the duo’s lives for many more years. In the late ’90s, Adams enrolled in a university course on climate science before switching to art school (“flaking out,” as he describes it over a Zoom call). McAllister was a keen Boy Scout growing up. He describes one formative moment canoeing on the border of Minnesota and Ontario. On the US side was rubbish littering what should have been an idyll; on the Canadian side, a pristine wilderness.

In Jett: The Far Shore, there’s nothing but untouched nature—but only once you migrate to the extraterrestrial planet. The game’s introduction, viewed from protagonist Mei’s first-person perspective, gives you some indication of what is happening at home. Factories spew fumes into the atmosphere, citizens stand with gas masks covering their faces. The mood is oppressive in every sense. Is this some kind of extinction event?

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Once you get into the body of the game, the tone lightens. From screenshots, you might notice how tiny the aircraft you’re piloting is. The camera is pulled back so far as to make you a speck in the environment. You skim across it gracefully, changing direction with a well-timed handbrake turn, all while managing the heat of your thrusters. There are plants called ghokebloom that, if you hit your booster at just the right time, don’t just catapult you into the sky, but erupt into flowers that sparkle across the ground. Adams explains that this organism is inspired by the fungal networks that exist beneath forests, a discovery made by renowned scientist Suzanne Simard in the 1990s. She found that the fungi shift nutrients to areas that need it most so that symbiotic health is maintained with the trees above, a kind of sentient intelligence.

Decolonizing Space Colonization

Jett: The Far Shore’s attitude toward the environment is different to most video games. In No Man’s Sky, for example, once you land on one of its procedurally generated planets, it’s never long before you start mining resources to level up your base or ship. Jett: The Far Shore doesn’t depict this kind of extractive gameplay, partly because humans in the game have already messed up their home planet and can’t afford to do so again, and partly because it’s simply not the kind of sci-fi story Adams wants to tell. “On some level, the wonders of the universe are just grist for the mill,” he says.

“If you end up with a design where you’re just committing yourself to perpetual conquest and conflict, just repeatedly killing things and collecting them, it’s going to distort a lot of things,” he continues. “It’s going to distort tone and meaning, and even on a pretty atomic level, it’s going to distort your characters. We had an interest in having characters that the player might enjoy the company of, and that they might want to root for. We wanted these characters to feel like they were living the events of the story alongside you.”

There’s young Mei, her copilot Isao, and then the rest of the team, some of whom look old enough to be their grandparents. In one lovely scene, the group, dressed in sleek Star Trek-esque uniforms, gathers for a ceremony called “tsoultide” in which they express thanks for their place in the universe. They speak in what Adams refers to as volega, a fictional language devised by sound designer and composer Priscilla Snow who initially joined the project to provide choral music. As they developed the music’s phonetic characteristics, an actual language began to emerge, and then an entire dictionary. For Adams, it was important that the game avoid the colonizing baggage of the English language.

Between the environmental tilt, invented rituals, and fictional topolect, Jett: The Far Shore recalls the gently radical fiction of Ursula Le Guin. Like her 1985 work Always Coming Home, part sci-fi novel, part invented anthropological study, it conveys a keen sense of history in motion. In fact, Adams took to heart this very point of Le Guin’s own critical writings on stories. “We’re kind of taught that, for a story to be a story, it requires conflict. You know, man versus man, man versus nature,” he says. “Le Guin just explicitly challenged that notion. Her counterpoint was that, no, stories don’t require conflict. They require change and progression.”

An Astrobiologist’s Dream

In lots of ways, the oceanic planet in Jett: The Far Shore is precisely what NASA is looking for in its own search for life. Water is the key reason behind so much research on Mars, and why a helicopter is being sent to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. As Mary Voytek, senior scientist and leader of NASA’s astrobiology program, explains over the phone, there’s not just a lot of ice there but also what the organization describes as a “subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs.” She stresses the importance of water to biological life—the substance most organisms are made of, and one capable of catalyzing a great many chemical reactions.

The day-to-day activities of NASA’s astrobiologists are a long way off what Mei and her colleagues get up to in the game. For a start, exploring the surface of faraway planets is done mostly by rovers, meticulously cleaned so there’s little chance of contamination (a job headed up by NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer). Second, most astrobiological work focuses on tiny microbial life, both elsewhere in the universe and here on Earth because, statistically, that’s the most prevalent kind. “They shape everything,” says Voytek. “If an astrobiologist were to go somewhere, they weren’t exactly sure where they landed, and they were looking for larger things, understanding these microbes could direct them where to look. They would understand how they feed into the broader ecosystem.”

This is what the colonizers in Jett: The Far Shore are doing, but at a blown-up scale—detecting local lifeforms, assessing their function, and building a picture of how the environment works. Voytek describes ecology as a concert of activities and functions. "If you disturb a part of that, you get change,” she continues. “Anyone exploring, just like here on Earth, would pay the utmost attention to how their actions impact the environment.”

What the game conveys is a deep reverence for life. Voytek, who worked as a staff scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund—a nonprofit environmental advocacy group—before completing her PhD, shares this outlook, albeit finding meaning in more mundane settings. She mentions her time studying hydrothermal vents in Antarctica and even humble trips to her local trash dump. “I’m always at awe when I see life clinging on in places that you wouldn’t expect it to be,” she says. “And it makes me have tremendous faith for the future of Earth itself.”

Hybrid Life

For all their respect for the environment, Mei and her colleagues overstep the mark at one critical juncture. They venture into the heart of a mountain and find something stranger than the alien vegetation and creatures they’ve encountered so far. When this happens, the game takes a darker turn. You’ll find yourself exploring Mei’s psyche in first-person dream sequences. Her vision flickers as she reckons with exposure to unfamiliar life.

Adams notes a surprising influence when it comes to this idea of invasion and infection: Werner Herzog’s 1972 epic Aguirre, the Wrath of God. In it, a group of conquistadors led by Klaus Kinski wander through the Amazonian jungle, which is making them increasingly ill. Herzog’s film is a period piece, but it depicts a situation that has happened countless times before and will happen countless times more. In this way, it’s almost a nightmarish myth, and Jett: The Far Shore, while not quite inhabiting the same maddening territory, functions similarly—an epic story for our own planet on the cusp of ecological crisis.

“The idea of exploring a space and encountering these problems is just a very big feeling, and relates to the feelings of science fiction for me,” says Adams. “And it’s kind of a complicated story, too, one that doesn't fall into any hopeful, utopian science fiction concepts.” It is, he says, “much more nuanced than that,” just like the future that Jett: The Far Shore depicts.

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