OK, back up a second. At its core, Autonauts is about using technology to get out of busywork. The to-do list is vast, and requires huge amounts of resources to be harvested – so, the only thing for it is to build little robots, and program them to do stuff for you.
‘Program’ isn’t quite the right word here. You can’t just give a robot a set of instructions; these automatons learn by rote. So, you get scripts lodged into their little brains by getting them to watch while you do something – chopping down a tree, for example. Once you’ve shown them the task, each of the steps can be tweaked, looped, and rearranged.
Although this combination of showing and telling does involve some very basic coding principles, players shouldn’t go into this expecting a game about actual coding, which the process resembles about as much as making a car in Lego resembles, erm, making a car.
The system is simple, but remarkably versatile and powerful. Plant life is set to sprout rather quickly – trees grow from saplings to maturity in minutes, fruit bushes are always plump with berries – so much of the game is spent setting up self-replenishing systems to generate resources from. Otherwise known as, y’know, farms.
The choppy robot chops the trees down. The diggy robot digs the holes. The planty robot plants the trees. The choppy robot chops them down again. Soon, you’ll have more wood than you know what to do with. You can write your own jokes – this is a family mag.
The wood allows you to build storage for more wood, so you can set up a supply chain for wood. Eventually, you’ll have pallets full of wood, crates full of stone, and little factory lines for making tools, which are sent back to the farms to replace broken ones (every axe, spade, pick, and mallet has a health bar).
Elsewhere, you’ll have fruit and vegetable farms, growing and picking enough food to sustain a small group of colonists.
The colonists, the aforementioned weird giant babies, need to be kept fat and dry in order to keep producing ‘wuv’ (“love”), the one commodity that all this faff is for and the only reason you don’t just leave the idle little tossers to their own devices and take off for Risa, because it allows you to power your research stations and unlock better stuff, levelling up your fledgling civilisation to make such advancements as upgrading your wooden huts to stone houses, or changing the colony’s diet from fresh berries and mushrooms to cooked meals that have dead animals in them.
Nothing says progress like a cholesterol epidemic.
Nothing says progress, either, like “taking bloody ages.” After an initial flurry of triumphs, with great pangs of satisfaction coming every time you figure out how to solve the first batch of problems, the pace slows to a caterpillar-tracked crawl.
For a game that’s all about finding efficient ways to do things, it feels like it takes 5000 years to get anything done. At least there’s plenty of time to admire the scenery – the world gleams with character. The chunky-chibi art style and animation contains a lot of subtle, visual comedy that really tops the experience off.
Robots have expletive-filled speech bubbles when their tools break. Colonists lounge about the place being fed grapes like Roman aristocracy, except if you zoom in you can see where they poop from. Which is funny, see. And it’s a welcome relief, because frankly, the whole experience can be a little… dreary.
The sheer scale of the resources needed to furnish the needs of even a small group of colonists is almost exhausting. Keeping enough of them happy to make sufficient quantities of ‘wuv’ (“love”) to unlock the game’s later goals requires armies of machines, vast swathes of land turned to agriculture, and an inordinate amount of your time in running around making sure things don’t fall over, which they frequently do, because with the best will in the world, every system has flaws.
Intentional or not, there’s a stark environmental message here, arguably a bit more of an effective one than getting beaten up in Canning Town tube station while owning a ponytail.
For fans of instant gratification, the game does sport ‘free’ and ‘creative’ modes alongside its campaign, and one suspects that as with Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet, these modes are where the real fun will be forged, once the game builds itself a community full of the sort of ingeniously creative players who can coax a fleet of wood-chopping robots into being a hideously unusable square root calculator or something.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that will actually happen, but Autonauts absolutely deserves the chance.
The robots have a limited amount of memory for scripts, forcing you to break complicated tasks down into small, manageable processes. It’s a deeply satisfying way of solving puzzles and is a key logic skill for coders. Although the game has no stated aspirations as an educational tool, it’s a lovely way to teach those concepts by stealth.
It’s a Cylon version of The Settlers, for people with an improbable amount of free time.
Genre: Colony sim
Format: PC (tested)
Publisher: Curve Digital
Release: Out now