An Interview with Sidney Icarus, creator of Decaying Orbit

Littlebox Journeys is about to launch on Kickstarter in just a few days time, and with it we’ll be doing something Storybrewers has never done before – we’ll be publishing the work of another designer. It’s a leap we wouldn’t make for just any game, but when we first played Decaying Orbit we knew it was a game we’d love to bring to life. Decaying Orbit could be described as a sci-fi mystery game, and even sci-fi horror. But that label doesn’t get at what it is we really love about the game – it’s inhuman perspective, unique approach to collaborative storytelling, and compelling emotional journey. It is our pleasure to interview the game’s creator Sidney Icarus about the game.

Decaying Orbit is a storytelling RPG about a failed space station falling into a faraway star. As you play, you’ll piece together the mysteries, joys and horrors that occurred on board. In the station’s last moments, you’ll decide on the final transmission that the AI sends for earth to remember.

One of the most unique things about Decaying Orbit is that players take on the perspective of the ship’s AI, with senses like readouts, meters, and functions. Another unique thing is that every game ends with the space station burning up in the flames of the star. Creator Sidney Icarus has told us that their games explore the delight of play, and how the stories we tell can help us understand ourselves and the people with whom we share our tables, and this rings true for me when I play Decaying Orbit.

Decaying Orbit is a game about human ambition, inevitable ends, and seeing the world through a different perspective. Why did you choose to create a game about these themes, and how do they speak to you?

Sid: I always wanted a story about a failing space station, having just listened to the radio drama Wolf 359 (2014), which explores the intricacies of a space station crew and their conspiracies. But I didn’t want it to be a story about the crew. Wolf 359’s story of Doug Eiffel, Communications Officer, is too personal, it’s a story about Doug, not a story about humanity. I didn’t want people to frame stories of wanting cigarettes and being afraid, I wanted them to frame stories of humanity’s oxymoronic addictions and humanity’s hesitation at the threshold of wonder. 

So I had to take players out, outside of the crew, to be an outsider looking in. It was a wonderful opportunity to protagonise a character that is so often placed into the background of space stories: The Artificial Intelligence. As soon as players begin inhabiting the wires and servers of an AI, their perspective on a space station changes. I mean this both in the micro sense: That players see a room from security cameras and air quality logs rather than human eyes, and in the macro sense: That players see time and geography and even mortality as pointless constructs that get between our station and success of our mission. 

Inevitability, then, became something Decaying Orbit had to be about, regardless of whether I intended it or not. In the same way, I never meant this to be a story about ambition. However, I couldn’t put role players in orbit around a K-type star and not have them pursue some kind of primal human desire to reach into the infinite vastness around them and make something of it. I think that Decaying Orbit speaks to something very human inside us, and that thing is infinitely ambitious, but is also aware of our inevitable mortality. I think that each gives the other meaning in a way that I adore seeing unfold during each experience of play. 

In Decaying Orbit, players collectively take on the role of the station’s AI, who sees the world in a very different way. What does it mean to step into the synthetic mind of an AI?

Sid: There’s this excellent scene in one of the film touchstones for Decaying Orbit, Sunshine (2007). The crew are working away and the ship’s AI calmly tells them “you are all dying, you do not have enough oxygen. There are too many crew members.” At this point in the story it’s a dramatic reveal that changes the whole stakes of the movie’s final act, but to the computer it’s just a calculation. That coldness, the ability to understand the crew will die, but be unable to empathise with the tragedy of death so far from home. To know that humans will suffocate in the vacuum of space and even to identify that as tragedy, but only be able to frame it as “you will not complete your mission”. That’s a unique place from which to tell stories, philosophically. 

For so long role-playing games have been tied up in the language of film: Describing the shot, zooming in, or The Adventure Zone’s memetic “we pan up”. Decaying Orbit begs us to disconnect this, to not think like directors of prestige television, but to think like technology on space stations. There’s a self-indulgent joy, then, in finding new ways to describe human stories. To find ways to talk about the crews’ marvel as the star rises on the forward observation deck by the biosignals of every crew members’ heart-rate monitor skipping a beat at the same time, or to tell stories of cold-blooded aliens by the dark shadows they leave on infrared footage, or to present an unstable munity by describing the logistics program’s inventory variable for 5.56mm bullets steadily decreasing as crew are removed from an “active service” subfolder and bunks are tagged as “vacant”. 

Decaying Orbit helps you think of cool space stories, and then challenges you to find new ways to tell them.

The game focuses on a failed space station that contains a  mystery: what went terribly wrong here? Yet, there is no “answer” to this mystery, rather players reveal it collaboratively together. Can you talk a bit about this process and how it affects the experience of the game?

Sid: Decaying Orbit is a game that is framed in turns. Players go around the table each setting their own scenes which follow on from, and lead into scenes by other players. Because each card draw brings with it a new part of the space station, and new prompts for what that part may mean, these scenes are often disconnected from each other. Players, however, will listen to each other, pick up on the things that interest them and incorporate those themes into their own scenes. This act of collective play often means the mystery runs across a few collaborative avenues, each supporting the others, and also contrasting against them to bring further depth to the horrors or tragedies on board.

This means that the story isn’t actually about what happened, not in the sense that it’s a mystery that has a solution and can then be fixed. Instead, it’s about themes, it’s about framing. A story of a violent alien incursion that bursts forth from the stomachs of crew members in-turn is different to a story of absent resupply and the slow starvation of the crew, drawing lots for who eats today. These stories aren’t different because they affect the ship’s stats, they’re different because they offer us different opportunities to show how the crew respond, and how the station falls apart. They each create different moments, and in those moments, different lessons as to what it means to be human, as seen from the outside. 

How has the development process of Decaying Orbit been like for you, and what has surprised you most along the way?

Sid: Decaying Orbit was designed on stream 10 January 2020, and first playtested at a convention in Melbourne a week later. Decaying Orbit, as a game, has always been a product of those play experiences. Every change that was made to it over the past two and a half years, whether a change to text or a change to its structure has been as a result of play. Originally, the tones for each room were attached to a dice roll, but somehow during our time at ArcanaCon 2020, we lost our d6, and began playing without it. The move to having three individual station-types came after a game where we collaboratively developed a colony ship to forge a new home in the stars, and were let down when we drew the armoury. 

What has surprised me most has been the varied approaches of what it means to be an Artificial Intelligence, and how liberating it has been for some players to be disconnected from the visual language endemic to role-playing games. I have seen countless descriptions of the brig, and every time a player will find a new way to explore that tiny space-prison and fill me with a sense of wonder. I have spent more time aboard the New Eden, the Hephaestus, and the Athena II than any other person, and every time it feels like I’m discovering a brand new marvel of human engineering.

The game ends with a final transmission, a moment of hope or of learning in the face of destruction. What does that moment mean to you, and why did you choose it as the ending of the game?

Sid: The station is dying. That’s a fact that is clear from the beginning of play, and even before when looking at the name on the box: the orbit will inevitably decay past the red line of no return and we will be consumed by AB Pictoris. Artificial Intelligences aren’t programmed to be concerned with things like mortality, so once we come to terms with our destruction, it becomes unimportant, and we can instead focus on the things that matter. I, and by extension the text of Decaying Orbit, don’t want to tell you what those things that matter are, I want you to figure it out, and then tell the people with whom you’re playing.

Decaying Orbit isn’t about saving the world, or restoring ourselves to stability. It isn’t even about succeeding at mission outcomes. It’s about asking yourself: If humans could travel 163 light-years from home, and if they could fail miserably and plunge themselves and their only anchor into their host star, what would really matter then, what would make all of that worth it? In the grand tradition of exploration and science, Decaying Orbit is not about success or failure, it’s about what you’ve learned, what’s important to you as a human who has experienced this story.

Decaying Orbit includes a lot of very resonant themes. Can you leave us with a powerful moment you’ve seen during play that encapsulates what it’s like to play the game? 

Sid: I feel like every time I play I experience new resonant moments, speaking to different parts of what it means for me to be a creative, exploratory human. In a playtest my mum drew the weapons bay, a room filled with enormous broadside planet-busting cannons, firing shells the size of people at undefined threats. She rolled the die (this was an early playtest), and came out with the “vacuum” tone. She described the hasty fumbling of a junior weapons officer. The officer, conducting routine maintenance, misfired the cannon, and put a hole through the side of our station. I will never forget the way she described the oxygen sensor on the collar of that junior officer, and how it went from green to red as the vacuum of space sucked the air from his body, and how after the emergency seals brought back stability, and fresh air was pumped into the bay, he held his breath for a little longer, the dry beeping of his oxygen monitor in his ear, matching his rapid heart rate. How, when he finally took that breath in again, his oxygen monitor only went to the yellow, never back to the green. And in future scenes, whenever we brought this crew member in, we always spoke of his monitor bouncing around the yellow zone, and his pale fingertips. 

We talked about it afterward, that it was perhaps damage from the explosive decompression, perhaps just permanent hesitation in his breath. What mattered to us, though, was a story about someone who made a mistake, and would carry the marks of that mistake for the rest of his days.

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