Campaigns By Era - A History of HLP CreativityThe Foundationals
Foundation-era campaigns include Derelict, Inferno R1, and the Aeos Affair. These campaigns built on the storytelling and design grammar used by Volition - information conveyed through command briefings and briefings, silent protagonists, beam-armed warships deployed both as plot devices and bomber targets, and waved enemies. Flight dynamics remained untouched, weapons were mostly variants on retail archetypes, and AI behavior was not a major focus. Inferno R1 opened the era of the Big Modpack Mod, offering a huge swathe of new weapons and ships as a central component of its design and kicking off a modpack armsrace to build awesome exclusive ships that would, ironically, lead only to a lot of dead projects, very nearly including Inferno itself. Derelict pointed the way in a different direction - campaigns focused on storytelling and creative use of existing assets, exploring corners of the FreeSpace universe untouched by the main campaign, offering a little more texture and character to a universe intentionally designed to be sterile and vast.
While it's easy to poke fun at campaigns from this era - even the mighty Derelict has rough edges - there's an enormous amount of value here. Where later campaigns often sandwich gameplay between layers of cutscene or fiction-driven storytelling, campaigns from this era usually put the player right into the action, and the plot rarely stomps on the player's agency. By and large, FREDders of this era worked in the Zen constraints of hardware and software, often for the better.Adventures in Deimos Applications
While anticipation swelled, ebbed, and swelled again for the legendary, oft-delayed megaprojects - Blackwater Operations, Inferno R2 (later Inferno SCP), Machina Terra, and the like - Blaise Russell and Ransom Arceihn picked up Derelict's baton and ran with it. During this era HLP's projects began their bifurcation into two distinct camps: small-team, story-focused projects that used FreeSpace 2 ships and freely available fan-made ships, and big-team ambitious projects that featured large sets of new, exclusive assets. These two schools of project design differed in one other important respect - the former got released, the latter stagnated and (with a few sterling exceptions) ultimately died.
The Russell/Arceihn campaigns - Homesick, Sol: A History, Shrouding the Light, Sync, Transcend - were characterized not by bombastic beam frenzy and 'kill this new, bigger ship' missions, but by thoughtful deployment of existing assets (Sol: A History made brilliant use of the Inferno R1 modpack), subversion of and experimentation with the normal grammar of FreeSpace storytelling, and distinct narrative voice. Blaise Russell's campaigns are instantly recognizable for their pilots' weary cynicism; Ransom Arceihn's psychological interests hardly need description. These campaigns opened the door for further departures from the impersonal 'command brief, brief, leave destroyer, play mission, return to base' grammar of traditional FreeSpace narrative design.
This isn't to say that the orthodox style was abandoned - that would have been a tragedy. It was during this era that the first real bickering over narrative design began, and while some of this discussion produced interesting (and broadly applicable) examination of the conflict between narrative and player agency in games, a lot of it was fundamentally pointless. Jason Scott, the writer of FreeSpace 2, made it clear very early on that he felt the most important virtue of the FreeSpace campaign community was heterodoxy, doing things in many different ways. The more diverse the campaigns the community produced, the stronger it became - if it could just stop bickering about them.
While Russell and Arceihn defined this era, there were a number of other important milestones. TopAce, stalwart contributor, produced a series of solid campaigns and took custody of others, including Into the Halls of Valhalla. In 2007 CP6570 rolled out The Procyon Insurgency, a devilishly hard remix of FreeSpace 2's gameplay - a new story set several years later with all-new missions, but following the same general beats and offering a rebalanced weapon set and more challenging warships.
Along the way, Silent Threat Reborn trundled along as an anomaly - a long-running megaproject that wasn't doomed to failure, perhaps because of its clear outline (remake the shoddy Silent Threat expansion) and ability to use retail assets in its mission design. And Blackwater Operations shipped a crisp, striking demo with a voiced protagonist and a sterling set of missions, offering a glimpse at what could've been (and still might be) for a project full of mission design skill but hampered by asset trouble.
This era was also notable for what it didn't
achieve: while new ships and new weapons were easy to make, the core of the FreeSpace gameplay, including AI behavior, remained largely untouched. Vast numbers of missions were shipped without anyone kenning to peculiarities of FRED and the game engine; no one spotted that FRED couldn't reliably assign ship AI classes. It would take a few very specific men to tackle these problems - but first, something curious happened.Hybrid Vigor
In Fall 2008 Darius released Blue Planet, a dimension-hopping thrillride packed with daddy issues, Hindu-Buddhist syncretism, loyal wingmen, shiny ships and a rocking soundtrack. It was a project of passion, inspired by love of everything - Inferno, Derelict, Transcend - and accomplished not through careful hoarding of exclusive ships and assets but by the use of freely available resources drawn from all over the community.
Blue Planet wasn't a revolution so much as an inevitable evolution; the collision of the two disparate schools of design, the Derelict and Inferno paths of development. Like Transcend or Homesick, it was a one-man project, concerned with character development and storytelling more than parroting the grammar of FreeSpace 2. Like Inferno or the megaprojects, it offered a splashy spread of new ships and weapons and a story that picked up the hooks left dangling by FreeSpace 2. And it didn't section the player off into a backwater station, or an unknown jump node; players took on a command role in an elite battle group at the center of everything.
Blue Planet's content wasn't for everyone, but its design methodology was inarguably critical. It showed that projects using existing assets could deliver the scope, wonder, and scale that had, so far, been left primarily to the still-distant megaprojects. Any one designer, armed with sufficient passion and spare time, could bust out a work of explosive popularity. And it eventually touched off an important trend: modelers began releasing their finished assets for public use instead of signing them off to languish in the files of perpetually delayed projects. Blue Planet could never have happened without the generosity of the Inferno team, and many later mods would never have happened without the generosity of others. The more this generosity could be encouraged, the stronger the community was.
That Christmas, Silent Threat Reborn finally hit the finish line. In the spirit of heterodoxy, it was remarkable for how thoroughly it matched the style and quality of Volition's campaigns - a polished love letter to the tried and true techniques of the canon narrative. And it, too, had a methodological lesson: that even in a project stretched out over years, the only ingredient absolutely needed for success is someone - or a pair of someones - willing to sit down with FRED and put the time in. (By contrast, witness the silent collapse of TVWP, which brought together an enormous, talented team but couldn't inspire enough passion even in its developers to keep up momentum.)
This was a pivotal moment for the FreeSpace community. A major project had reached completion, and an out-of-nowhere project had demonstrated that a newcomer could make a gigantic contribution. One of these avenues exploded; the other didn't.The Summer 2010 Trinity
Summer 2010 changed everything. It was not that it represented some fundamentally new approach, nor that it destroyed the old and ushered in the new. Nor did some new generation of coders and designers supplant the old.
Rather, a whole host of developers, collaborating through networks both digital and social, enabled an eruption of creativity that has not since slowed, a radical expansion of the powers available to the modder. Previous campaigns had shown enormous creativity, but confined to specific domains - mission design, for instance, or the development of new ships. Vast chunks of the gameplay model, from physics to the AI to the nature of the game's difficulty settings, remained inaccessible to modification. Nor did the game's cinematic and visual tools permit a great deal of nuanced storytelling.
Thanks to the Source Code Project and a small band of brave collaborators - Sushi, Fury, and Wanderer prominent but not sole among them - that changed. It was not enough to make changes possible
in the engine. They had to be rendered accessible to modders, then built into coherent systems which could integrate into mod design goals, then developed into full-fledged products and released.
That happened. It happened startlingly fast. FreeSpace Open went from a capable and beautiful enhancement of a classic game to a genuine development platform.
The enormous changes that occurred here are beyond the scope of the article. Most prominent among them include Sushi and Fury's work on coding and tabling new and more human AI, a powerful set of new FRED instruments from Karajorma, Goober, and others, and the integration of LUA scripting. What they meant
, though, was that individual modders now had the ability to redefine nearly every dimension of the gameplay space.
Vassago's Dirge kicked off this string of releases with an assault on the visual and narrative conventions of FreeSpace mods. Why, it asked, do we rely on text and messages to set mood? Why do we need exposition to tell the story? We have camera angles and movements, precise control over music and sound. We can use postprocessing to desaturate or color the frame. We have the eye and the ear as well as the tongue. Why should a mission be confined to the time between subspace jumps? Let's jump during the mission! Why should a story be told in lumps of exposition bridged by gameplay? Blend the two, make them whole. Render the story not told but understood
. The answers will never come because they are right there, in the music, in the shot. The truth isn't hidden; it's too plain to see.
Vassago's Dirge radically redefined the limits of presentation in FreeSpace mods. It was an art film. Blue Planet: War in Heaven was a war story. Where Vassago's Dirge made strides in the extratextual and subtextual, War in Heaven hammered its story home through exposition and dialogue, fitting more flavor and narrative into every nook and cranny - the new fiction viewer, debriefings, the tech room, the missions themselves. But the real meat of the campaign came in redefining the idea of the enemy
. Thanks to Fury AI, mission designers no longer needed waves of expendable enemies. The AI opponent could use tactics - advance, retreat, dogfight at numerical parity. Warships jumped away when damaged instead of fighting to the pointless death. The tactical and strategic rules of the war came into focus. The enemy felt human, calculating, intelligent - and hard to kill. Not merely because they were tougher or faster, but because the story suggested that maybe they, too, were the good guys. War in Heaven asked players to consider the fundamental act of killing in FreeSpace, the cost of losing wingmen, the tragedy of a destroyed warship. It desanitized FreeSpace war: no longer beams and cold fire, but dead friends and aspirated vomit, frantic strings of brevity code on channels hashed by radiation.
Wings of Dawn hit the modding scene out of nowhere. Let's get it out of the way: not everybody's into anime. Aesthetics aside, it was objectively a staggering achievement, maybe a formerly inconceivable one. A single-man team had built an essentially complete total conversion - not merely new ships but new gameplay, new flight dynamics, entire species with their own defined character and gameplay behaviors. The moment a helmetless protagonist smashed her head on the cockpit glass, leaving a (happily nonfatal) smear of blood, the textural ambition of the whole project leapt into focus. And unlike War in Heaven, it always put the player right at the center of the gameplay space, a capable agent with new tools and new missions to explore. Where Vassago's Dirge and War in Heaven used gameplay to advance narrative, Wings of Dawn used its narrative in the service of a sprawling, kinetic space opera adventure, a madcap escalation along dimensions that couldn't have been touched
by modders a few years earlier.
Boundaries had been removed. The total deconstruction of FreeSpace gameplay was now accessible to the interested amateur, and that amateur would shine - the following years saw a string of brilliant, unconventional releases out of nowhere.
What might be most remarkable about these projects is that they did not compete. There were no exclusive assets, no hidden agendas. (Blue Planet donated most of its self-developed visual effects to the MediaVPs before release.) The developers worked together to solve bugs and share ideas. When War in Heaven presented a full mission devoted to Planescape Torment style conversation with another character, talking them into victory through a tree of emotion variables and response branches, it was inspired by Wings of Dawn. Collaboration was strength. Diversity and heterodoxy were virtues. A player who didn't like one campaign could find something to adore in another.
But the titans were not dead. The same technical progress that enabled this eruption of creativity also fueled two singularly devoted and capable team projects, beloved science fiction properties that would stand as perhaps the community's greatest achievements in the public eye.FreeSpace Is Dead; Long Live FreeSpace (Chop Up And Rearrange The Corpse Though)
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