This article originally appeared on Kotaku US in July last year, but we liked it so much we thought we'd publish it again. Enjoy!
Imagine, if you will, a massive role-playing game featuring guns, time travel, and a nasty alien invasion, all built on Skyrim's engine, with Skyrim's "Radiant AI" system.
That would be Backspace; a project that was once under development at the studio Obsidian, I've learned from sources. A small team was designing and prototyping the game in early 2011, and although progress never got very far, concept art and design documents reveal an ambitious project that could interest a lot of people, if it's ever made.
Obsidian, of course, is the Irvine-based game studio responsible for Fallout: New Vegas, Alpha Protocol, and the upcoming RPGs Project Eternity and South Park: The Stick of Truth.
I reached out to the studio yesterday to ask for comment, and Obsidian boss Feargus Urquhart told me that Backspace is still on the shelf somewhere.
"Backspace was a project concept that we neither cancelled nor greenlit," Urquhart told me. "We had some great people work on the idea for Backspace for a bit of time and then moved them off to other projects as opportunities came up. We've been around for ten years now and have had a bunch of great ideas that we still have sitting around that we may be able to return to in the future."
Hopefully this is one they revisit, because it sounds fantastic.
So what is Backspace? Here's how an Obsidian design document described it:
BackSpace is a single-player action-RPG set in a sci-fi space environment with simple elements of time travel. The combat is paced similarly to Skyrim, but slightly faster since there is no concept of blocking. The easiest way to look at it is a mix of Mass Effect, Borderlands, and System Shock 2 for gameplay and setting.
It was to be developed in some sort of partnership with Bethesda, I've heard, and it'd use the same engine as their ridiculously-successful role-playing game Skyrim. Although Backspace wasn't an open-world game, players would be able to travel between a number of planets as well as one large space station.
"This station is huge," a Backspace design document reads. "It can be compared in size to The Citadel of Mass Effect [or] Babylon 5. The station has several locations devoted to diverse research fields which would allow us to have vegetation overgrowth, high-tech disasters, and mutations of science as visual themes."
You'd play as a cyborg—90 per cent human, 10 per cent machine, according to design documents—who works at a research lab that is attacked by aliens. A brief summary:
In the distant future, mankind has colonized the far reaches of the galaxy. Near the center of the galaxy is an enormous space station dedicated to advanced research in a multitude of subjects such as temporal mechanics and nano-cybernetics. The game begins with the station falling under attack from an invading alien force.
I won't spoil too much of the outlined story, in case Obsidian ever decides to make Backspace, but to sum things up, a technical error would fling your character ten years into the future, and you'd spend a bulk of the game hopping back and forth between the time of the attack and a dismal, alien-occupied future. Quests in the game would have you switch between timelines, all in an attempt to save humankind.
Character development in Backspace sounds like a blend between Skyrim and New Vegas: you'd be able to customise your character's appearance at the outset, and improve skills by using them over time.
As the player completes quests, solves puzzles, and eliminates enemies, they gain experience points towards their next level (similar to Skyrim). When they gain a level, they are awarded stat points and ability points that they may use to increase their stats and abilities respectively. Every other level they can add a perk (just like FO3/FNV).
At the beginning of Backspace, you'd be able to pick a preset background for your character to help determine your starting stats, selecting from tropes like The Mad Scientist, The Lone Wolf, and The Arrogant Savant. This background would also affect how NPCs react to your character.
Combat in Backspace would be, to borrow a common colloquialism, like Skyrim with guns. Ranged weapons in the game would include machine guns, shotguns, semi-automatic rifles, sniper rifles, and rocket launchers. Melee weapons would include katanas, mauls, battle axes, chainsaws, and something called a "temporal lance."
Combat in Backspace occurs very similarly to Skyrim. The player can attack enemies using various ranged or melee weapons/abilities that they acquire/create throughout the game. The player can also utilise stealth tactics to avoid some enemies entirely.
Since Skyrim allows for dual-wielding of weapons/abilities, all one-handed weapons may be dual-wielded. The controller’s left trigger uses the weapon/ability in the left hand, and the right trigger uses the weapon/ability in the right hand.
If a two-handed weapon is equipped, both hands are in use. Pressing the right trigger will use the weapon/ability’s standard attack, and pressing the left trigger will use its special/secondary attack. Two-handed weapons and abilities are much stronger than one-handed weapons.
There would be special abilities connected to the main character's robot arm: an ability called Claw Strike, for example, would transform your cyborg's arm into a claw for a quick attack. You'd also be able to use psionic abilities to damage and repel baddies.
Design documents for Backspace also reveal a really neat stealth mechanic:
Unlike Skyrim/FNV, stealth in Back Space is 100% active and undetectable (unless something disrupts it). The player is completely cloaked a la Stealth Boy when they enter stealth. Doing this will slowly consume energy, but the player is completely invisible until they deactivate their cloak. This means they can engage/avoid some enemies while still being completely invisible.
Cloak is an active ability that the player must toggle. While active, the ability slowly consumes the player’s energy. The player can use other abilities while cloaked and will remain invisible as long as they still have energy. Some enemies can detect the player’s cloak if they have infrared detection.
An alternative to using a personal cloak is deploying a Cloak Emitter. Cloak Emitters can be constructed and consume no energy from the player. If the player is within the Cloak Emitter’s radius, the player is completely invisible. The emitter itself is not invisible and is vulnerable to enemy attacks. The player can retrieve the emitter after it’s been deployed to use it again if it has not been destroyed by enemies.
Deployable items appear to have been a big part of the game concept, too. Outlined items include frag mines, turrets to attack and slow down enemies, and decoy robots to draw enemy fire.
And what of companions? Obsidian's role-playing games have long been known for their strong supporting casts, and Backspace promised its own take on the concept:
Since only the player can travel through time, companions in BackSpace take the form of AI’s that the player can equip in their “AI Slot”. An equipped AI can engage in dialogue with the player, and provides a bonus to the player depending on the AI like an increase in damage or energy regeneration. AI’s can be found throughout the game and have a variety of personalities.
Once the player acquires an AI, they will always be visible on the UI and represented by their emoticon. When an AI talks to the player, their emoticon can change based on their feelings on what they’re discussing.
Another interesting idea: Scarabs:
Scarabs are small robots that have become the multitool of the future. Scarabs are deployed to handle a variety of tasks throughout the station like building complex structures and repairing vital systems. The scarabs operate semi-autonomously once they have been given a command, but most of the time they are controlled by a Scarab Queen in a hive-like fashion. Each district on the station has its own queen to help balance the workload, and at the core of the station is a Super Queen to coordinate the district queens. Scarab Queens are not self-aware, have minimal AI, and completely obey their masters.
Scarabs are also deployed on planets that the Planet Gates are located on. Before a planet is colonised, a large batch of scarabs is deployed to scavenge and refine resources that are used to construct a basic base for humans. A queen is deployed with the scarabs to coordinate this effort.
Some more concept art:
Keep in mind this is an early vision of Backspace: If Obsidian ever does decide to make this game, the final product will likely be a lot different.
For now, I thought this stuff was too cool not to share.