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“The Day We Fought Space” refreshes space shooters with crafty design and lots of hot plasma

The Madison-developed game came out in May for iPhone and iPad.
A screenshot from the game "The Day We Fought Space" shows the player's small spaceship, in side profile, exchanging fire with a much larger enemy spaceship, against a multicolored background of vine-draped trees.
Screenshot courtesy of Tursiops Truncatus Studios.

The Madison-developed game came out in May for iPhone and iPad.

The Day We Fought Space, a side-scrolling space-shooter game that Madison-based Tursiops Truncatus Studios released in May for iPhone and iPad, took on one of its greatest strengths thanks to a bug, early in the development process.

“What was happening was the enemies were piling up because they were getting knocked back by the bullets into each other,” recalls Cathy Kimport, the studio’s founder and main programmer and designer. “We fixed it and then we unfixed it, because it kind of became clear that that was what was speaking to people.” 

This changed the whole approach of the game physics at work. As the protagonist, Equinox, mows down wave after wave of alien ships, the enemy vessels don’t simply disappear in tidy starbursts, erased from the field of play. Instead they turn into burning fragments that shoot off unpredictably. If you blow up a supply ship or mining craft, its bulky cargo may come tumbling down. At times a ridiculous amount of debris ends up flying around, multiplying the danger to player and enemy alike, and it’s often as hard to dodge as the actual enemy fire. The game makes your phone’s screen feel extremely full, but that ends up working in its favor.

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Your opportunity, as a guerilla fighting off alien occupiers at different points around the solar system, is to turn the chaos to your advantage. Levels and enemies aren’t programmed to populate the exact same way at every playthrough, so you’re always adapting and improvising. If you shoot down the right ship at the right time, you can set off a chain reaction of destruction, burying enemy ships and ground vehicles in a cascade of their fellows’ debris.

A gameplay gif from the game "The Day We Fought Space" shows the player's small spaceship shooting down two enemy ships that are each trailing multiple cargo containers. As the enemy ships go down, the cargo containers also fall, destroying enemy turrets and ground vehicles below. The action takes place against a reddish background meant to portray Mars.
Cascading destruction. Gameplay .gif courtesy of Tursiops Truncatus Studios.

“When you shoot an enemy, you’re not entirely certain what’s going to happen,” Kimport says. Into this dynamic, Equinox and her accomplices bring an expanding, mix-and-match array of weapons, from swarms of homing missiles to a giant wrecking ball that swings in maniacal circles around the ship. 

A screenshot from the video game "The Day We Fought Space" shows the screen in which the player selects weapons and other features for their spaceship. The features are represented in an interlocking array of hexagonal shapes.
Picking your weapons. Screenshot courtesy of Tursiops Truncatus Studios.

The game’s giddy maximalism, coupled with a weathered comic-book aesthetic, make The Day We Fought Space both fun in short bursts and worth returning to over time. Instrumentals from Madison-based surf-punk band Venus In Furs provide the soundtrack. Kimport got connected to the band through her involvement in roller derby in Madison, and recalls being at a Venus In Furs show where a friend told her, “this is totally video game boss music right here.” 

At the beginning of the game, players can get introduced to Equinox and several of the other characters by reading a three-page comic that tells the story of Equinox choosing her nickname. In the gameplay itself, square buttons recall the narration boxes of comics, and the fighting has a bit of a frame around it, as if the action is all taking place inside of a single panel.

Susan Schaffer, the senior artist at Tursiops Truncatus, took on the challenge of making these visual themes translate across both the more static materials and the game’s flurries of fire and shrapnel. Schaffer says she wanted to take players “from this kind of pulp comic, kind of with the menu art and the character art and then when you’re playing the game itself, that has those elements in it, but it would have been difficult to like completely go full comic with that. And so it feels like you’re kind of entering the story at that point. Or at least that’s the intention.”

This ended up serving a practical purpose. “What we found was that that line work really helped let the players learn what—in this very busy, very chaotic, very dynamic scene—is something you need to pay attention to,” Kimport says. “It really delineated where enemy ships are against the background. So it wound up being a really good complement to the game design.”

Through a bit of punchy dialogue and the screens where players design their ships and pick levels, The Day We Fought Space also hints at what Kimport calls the “grand, space-opera-scale plans” the Tursiops team initially had for the story. Equinox collaborates with a team that includes a hacker, a weapons engineer, a senior tactician, a pirate-radio broadcaster, and even a helpful AI. They’re all scattered around the Earth a few generations after aliens took over, eradicated much of humans’ existing culture, and set about brutally extracting labor and resources. More of that story might come through in planned updates for the game, which will primarily focus on adding new weapons and, eventually, an additional level. An update released in September rolled out some of those new weapons and customizable paint jobs for Equinox’s ship.

“It started out very much as kind of an anti-colonialist parable,” Kimport says. “I will admit, very little of that grand-scale stuff is showing through in what remained. So when we join our heroes, to borrow a phrase from pulp, where we’re at is: we have a couple people from the older generations who’ve been just kind of carefully waiting for the right moment, and we have a couple of younger generation people that are like ‘OK, we’ve got we’ve got our opening. What we need to do is kind of a fast offensive. We need you to test these just absurd spaceships and see if they are space-worthy to make this this fast attack on all these outposts around the solar system, if that will be enough to get these folks to relent.'”

That fast offensive takes a page from the overload of “bullet hell” games, but also subverts some of those games’ conventions. “The very first prototype of the game—so this was before physics came into the equation—the goal was to make you feel like the enemy from a bullet hell game, just having lots of firepower at your disposal,” Kimport says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if there were problems we could solve just with lots of, lots of, hot plasma?” 

Using procedurally generated levels—which populate with a mix of design and randomness—encourages players to improvise, rather than trying to figure out how to set off one perfect chain reaction at a given point in the game.

“We always wanted [players] to feel rewarded, especially for experimenting or trying different things and being a little creative with how they played the game,” Schaffer says. 

The game’s throwback feel is no accident: A recent tweet from the studio’s account said that “it’s taking some effort for our Oregon-Trail-Generation staff to keep up” with contemporary game-development tools. It’s a bit self-deprecating, but also points to a strength.

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“We’re just barely young enough that we never knew a world where video games didn’t enjoy widespread popularity, but we’re just barely old enough that the very first games were still around in our arcades and in living rooms,” Kimport says. “In a way, it means that we’ve experienced first-hand the entire arc of video game history thus far, which gives us an interesting perspective on things. It’s like having a mental image of the entire tree instead of just the leaves, and we’re able to go back to one of the branches and ask what happens if we take a different route from there.”

While working on some future updates for The Day We Fought Space, Tursiops is also making plans for its next game. Kimport isn’t ready to share any hints about that game yet, other than to say that it’s “a smaller project to kind of cleanse the palate a bit.”

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