One of the advantages of playing games by smaller teams is that they often aren’t as concerned with what’s considered marketable. Without the massive size of the average AAA studio, designers can put forward a vision unhampered by what is traditionally viewed as “sellable” in the mainstream. That can make them less likely to downplay a game’s political message, and Falcon Age (from Outerloop Games) is a perfect example of this.
Falcon Age follows Ara, a citizen of a planet currently under development by the Outer Rim Corporation, a classic faceless corporate entity whose primary footprint on the planet is through forced labor and robotic foot soldiers. Early in the game Ara is imprisoned by the ORC and forced to undergo not just physical labor, but an attempted mental reconditioning by the ORC’s robot jailors.
The ORC is unrepentant in their belief that this backwater planet is a terrible place to live, an example of the worst, most backwards parts of the civilized galaxy. It’s familiar language—science fiction as a genre has a long history of portraying the worlds on the fringes of great empires as little more than husks, lifeless and worthless places where no one would willingly choose to live (think Tatooine or Jakku from Star Wars).
Where Falcon Age sets itself apart is in its direct rebuttal to this narrative. Ara escapes her imprisonment with the help of a falcon, whom she nurtured during her time in captivity. The falcon, of course, is a native to the planet as well, and a constant reminder that Falcon Age doesn’t want the player to forget that their power in this space comes from the willing and consensual cooperation between themselves as a human and an extension of the planet’s natural fauna.
When Ara escapes the labor camp, she goes to the home of her Auntie, an older woman who has devoted her life to fighting against the intrusion of the ORC onto the planet. Auntie is, as you might expect, a character that represents (among other things) a connection to a deeper tradition, an older set of rituals and experiences that Ara can turn to when hope seems lost. Auntie is the backbone of the resistance efforts on the planet, as well as the game’s most prominent representation of a living culture under a colonialist rule.
An overt critique of colonialism is what Falcon Age is driving at with its setting and story, and it doesn’t pull its punches. The world of Falcon Age draws parallels to colonialist and capitalist histories in a way that can hardly be described as accidental.
The Outer Rim Corporation exists to strip planets of resources for profit. However, it’s made clear that the planet of Falcon Age already had at least one native culture on it (that of Ara and her Auntie) that pushed back against this untoward expansion of the ORC. In response, the ORC did two major things: It attempted to imprison or debilitate active resistances on the planet (as seen with Ara during her imprisonment) or to entice native citizens to the ORC’s cause with promises of wealth or sustenance (as seen with Ara’s mother, now a corporate representative with the ORC).
Simultaneously, the ORC waged another battle: That of propaganda and separation of planetary “natural” identity from “human” identity. By splitting a people from their identity as being one with a place, it makes it a lot easier to subjugate them. Auntie’s resistance, as seen in the game, is not just a resistance of physical combat, but of a preservation of identity. By remembering how one’s people relate to the land in a more equitable and less adversarial relationship, Auntie represents another attack against the ORC’s propaganda of resource mining and exhaustion.
All of these things are exemplary in their framing and setting, and it took me by surprise to see them in a game as polished and slickly designed as Falcon Age. Having spent a lot of time in the past months playing more “polished” AAA games made by giant studios reluctant to outright state any progressive ideologies behind their games, it felt like a breath of fresh air to play something that refused to equivocate with colonialism and colonial capitalism.
Falcon Age isn’t perfect—I would have appreciated more narrative content in its final act—but in being as open and straightforward as it is, it stands above many contemporaries. There’s a message in Falcon Age that resonates and pushes back against many established tropes of the genre. The backwater planet, of course, is still a planet. Planets have ecosystems, are populated by people, and all people deserve a right to peaceful existence and habitation.
Where other sci-fi media, even games that I enjoy, like No Man’s Sky, present a fundamentally adversarial and resource-collecting relationship to planets and the inhabitants of them, Falcon Age shows a different side of the story. The planet, along with the creatures on it, are shown as valuable members of an ecosystem, and the game’s limited scope means that the world still feels alive, and concerned with things on a greater scale than you as a player. It’s a comforting feeling, and a bold statement for a development team to make with its first game.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.