Classic Sci-Fi and RTS Themes Combine in the Thoroughly Modern Chaotic EraGames Features chaotic era
It’s common for games to invoke the late-20th century history of the medium while building something new, but how often do those efforts result in an unqualified success, something truly brilliant and engaging? It’s often the indie circuit taking the most vibrant swings at that ball, and Chaotic Era is hoping to hit a homerun. I was at a church friend’s birthday party, barely in double digits, the first time I played Dune 2000 and Command & Conquer: Red Alert. I’ve played 4x and grand strategy games since then, your Civs and your Crusader Kings, but that resource-gathering-and-base-building version of real-time strategy is etched into my brain as the basis of what strategy games should be. Chaotic Era works from that template and draws from other 20th century science fiction to depict humanity teetering on the edge of existence, reaching out into the stars seeking hope and finding darkness.
Toronto-based indie studio Bobby Technology, founded by Gabriel O’Flaherty-Chan and Kevin Donnelly, describe Chaotic Era on its website as “an atmospheric real-time strategy game inspired by classic science fiction.” The game came to early access for Mac and PC (available on itch.io) on Jan. 26 and will come to iOS and Android later this year. It’s an RTS for our age, combining simple controls with complex, sometimes obscure systems, drawing on long-developing real-world anxieties and sci-fi solutions for its themes. Chaotic Era counts among its influences Alien, SimCity, Blade Runner, Starcraft, and Civilization. It has a spooky-smokey black-and-white affect that reminds me just a bit of Genesis Noir with its fog-of-war grayscale. The electrical charges of aliens attacking the base, or detonating stored energy to defend against them, adds to the simultaneously brilliant and melancholy vibe. It seems like a rejuvenating entry for the strategy genre, a highly-anticipated indie game that could become a widely-regarded cult classic, and available on cell phones no less. It’s a challenging game, but in a time when Roguelikes and Soulslikes are as popular as frictionless AAA games and Dwarf Fortress’s developers are becoming millionaires after 15 years of freeware, Chaotic Era might be hitting at the right time.
Chaotic Era’s game design philosophy and aesthetic draw from the past to prognosticate the future through a popular theme—the Earth is dead or dying, and even the inner-space colonies are apparently beginning to fail. The game’s setting is in outer space, as the continued extraction of resources throughout the solar system has led humanity to reach further into the unknown. Your mission is to lead expeditions to new worlds fit for human consumption. It’s a conceit we’ve seen in different tones from Obsidian’s Outer Worlds to Avatar: The Way of Water, from Dune to Altered Carbon. There’s quite a bit of semi-hard sci-fi and out-and-out space fantasy that imagines human appetites can’t be sated, our need for resources and love of exploration compelling us onward and outward.
It’s a click-around and find-out game; you hover, you click, you discover. As players encounter challenges, they’ll develop a sense of what needs to happen. You build power stations, supply depots, and defensive turrets with your little builder cars. They collect and deposit resources, and erect and repair buildings. You eventually collect these buildings to power nodes to develop supplies to connect the next buildings. Unfortunately, the workers don’t always seem to triage according to the urgency of the situation, which can be a problem—if I’ve assigned them to develop a turret before I’ve assigned them to pick up materials to convert to energy, why have they just continued picking up materials and not built the turret?
The player glimpses their success and failures through a light electronic HUD, more streamlined than the Westwood Games classics they allude to, like Dune II, Command & Conquer, and Red Alert. As developer Kevin Donnelly told me over a Twitter message, it’s intended to look “like you were literally using a computer from the year 2790.” Chaotic Era’s perspective is therefore more akin to the plans for the first Death Star run than, for instance, the HUD in Cyberpunk 2077.
Rather than a narrative-driven campaign like those games—where you choose between factions and try to fight each other in pitched battle for land and resources on your way to winning an alternate history World War II or a future war for a planet—Chaotic Era is broken down into scenarios with procedurally generated planets where the player oversees attempted development as the leader of an expedition into the dark unknown. Whereas in those games, players harvest spice or minerals to sell and then use the resulting currency and power to develop your buildings and pay for troops, Chaotic Era presents a streamlined experience: what you clear and harvest gets converted to energy.
Each scenario requires different objectives. When the game launched on Jan. 26 as version 0.9, it included a “Planetfall” mission that teaches players how to set up a base and an “Extermination” mission that teaches players how to combat the swarms of aliens—the simple stick-like buzzards that eat up your machinery on the small scale, the ominous floating tadpoles that accompany them, and the giant cyclopic octopus-adjacent “hunters” that completely wreck your trip. I beat Planetfall within three tries, and then failed thrice after my blunders with Extermination, which I haven’t overcome through seven or eight attempts. For whatever it’s worth, the scenes of the snake-like hunters absolutely demolishing my base were captivating to look at.
Donnelly went on to share that “[t]he game will be a collection of scenarios; the way we imagined the game was for each play through to be like the player was guiding a different crew and ship out of the thousands of ships that escaped the solar system. So each scenario is set up as a different type of way landing on a new planet may have played out. With each through being a different attempt at a crew trying to survive those circumstances.”
Chaotic Era succeeds in conveying the feeling of daring and desperation. Every failed attempt feels like another last gasp for humanity; another attempt at further survival that didn’t quite succeed. It’s easy enough to imagine, 767 years from now, space-faring mission after space-faring mission failing to establish a foothold beyond the Sol system, littering the closest edges of the Milky Way with monuments to our arrogance and unpreparedness, frequent reminders that we ought to have been better stewards of the planet we once called home.
In the old-school RTS games I mentioned before, there’s a bit more planning and the resource management tends to be more distinct and require less thought. Here the resources are all energy developed through recycling whatever carbon-based material is around (shrubs, miasma, grass, etc.); a surplus of that energy helps the supply depot create materials for construction. Clearing the individual tiles (which have an “inspect” option when you initially click on them) creates space for players to place a more advanced or dedicated energy recycler or supply depot, or a turret. The more inspecting and building the player does, the more they can unlock and develop in the tech tree, in turn allowing them to build the next level of tool. The game also doesn’t really pause when you hit the pause button or check out the tech tree; things keep going, so keep your head on a swivel. This adds to the challenge and urgency, but might also be a problem if it’s primarily going to be a game played by commuters on their phones.
There is much to be intuited in the experience, discovered through trial and error, and I found my missteps—despite the air of perhaps being responsible for humanity dying out—to be relatively calming, perhaps because of the spacey ambient score. My efforts were frustrated, but I wasn’t cowed. The challenge of Chaotic Era felt fun, daunting; having gotten through the first scenario, I had faith I could get through the next. This success remains to be accomplished. I recommend all new players mess around on Planetfall for a while to get their bearings. It took me forever just to figure out how to connect power nodes to buildings (click on the lightning bolt denoting the battery and drag to a node on the ground; though last time I did this it actually didn’t bring any extra energy to the depot), despite the manual and even after conferring with a friend.
After some feedback from Discord (which is worth checking out for the extensive developer log channel if nothing else), Bobby Technology released a gameplay update on Feb. 1 bringing the game to version 0.9.3, which included a description of Planetfall as “Recommended for New Players” on the startup screen, and an in-game “Manual” added to that same opening. They also made the HUD persistent (previously it appeared and developed as tools came about) and are continuing to work on bugs and optimization.
I do find myself losing track of workers sometime, and I wish it was easier to control the units individually as opposed to them responding to a general system-wide decision. Time will tell if and how these things change.
Chaotic Era may still need some smoothing out, but it’s a fascinating challenge in its current state. The visual style is cool and feels unique even though it’s clearly drawing on established norms. It’s fun to look at despite—or maybe because of—the intentional geometric rigidity to parts of it, and between the soundtrack, the alarms, the complying workers, the attacking aliens, and the repellant defense, its audio environment is compelling. It feels like a no-frills version of the best RTS games of yesteryear. I wonder how the tech tree will develop, what versions of human development we’ll see beyond harvesting natural debris for power plants, turrets, and analyzers, how combat proceeds going forward, and what new scenarios will showcase. Maybe a difficulty menu is coming, or maybe that’s too far from the dev team’s vision. My machine got loud playing it, but it’s a 4.5-year-old Huawei Matebook, not a gaming rig.
Chaotic Era is an interesting project worth exploring if you have a fondness for classic RTS games. Its current iteration already looks more developed and fluid than the intriguing 2020 teaser. It needs some smoothing out, and I hope Bobby Technology is able to make it approachable without compromising their vision; I look forward to Chaotic Era’s community-informed evolution, and more extract-and-build scenarios.
Chaotic Era is available in Early Access on Itch.io.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.