Home > Uncategorized > Good things about Phoenix Point – the world-building

Good things about Phoenix Point – the world-building

OK so I’ve been kinda down on Phoenix Point here, but I have kept playing it, and although that’s mostly because I have a serious addiction problem with XCOM, it’s also because PP has some good qualities and particularly some good world-building, and I think that’s something you people would dig.

First, let’s get the yawn/eyeroll-inducing parts out of the way – yes it’s a
– postapocalyptic survival game
– with Mad Max collapsed-world petty kings
– and a “Lovecraftian” story
– and big machine guns
– and a pandemic that turns out to be aliens (always aliens), some of which look like they’re wearing your grandma’s underwear on their heads:

and more guns than people, just like America.

BUT its writers have actually read some Lovecraft, so it has a whole thing about deep time, hominid and human evolution (including a lurking shame in humanity’s DNA), long cometary periods, Yuggoth, and mind-control technologies. It even quietly raises some questions (without resolving them) about why aliens can control human minds. Is there some… basic compatibility between them?
AND YET in spite of this high level of literacy compared with most “Lovecraftian” video games, it’s still really the same level of seriousness as Stranger Things. It expresses that through occasional moments of satirical humour –


and it’s not even above Rickrolling you – each Haven of survivors has a motto; one of them is “Never gonna give you up.”

The soul of the game, though, is its three NPC factions, which have very distinct characters. In many ways, playing PP is about choosing between these factions – you are told quite explicitly that your own organization’s idea for winning is Pyrrhic – it’ll lead to the death of most of mankind, and anybody else’s idea is likely to be better. And each faction has its own technologies, so the wise player charts a course between them, gathering tools and strategy ideas from each. But the factions are designed as rivals with incompatible philosophies and they periodically throw questions at you, to find out whether you share their world view, and the designers have some fun framing those questions to make it uncomfortable for the player to just tell the faction what they want to hear.

They’re also…. strangely familiar. OK look, you could interpret them as takes on any number of historical prototypes – say, Romans, Persians, and Greeks; or the 3 dominant tendencies of late Weimar Germany – Nationalists, Christian Democrats, and Socialists; but to my eye, they look unmistakably like 3 (unflattering) faces of contemporary America: Authoritarian Conservatives, Religious Cultists, and Techbro Utopians. And the art does a phenomenal job of painting those three ideas, through their architecture and equipment, and their statements and approaches to problems.

The authoritarians call themselves New Jericho and their leader, Tobias West, is initially described to you as a billionaire with an uncompromising vision, but he is slowly revealed to be somewhere around Hitler on the dictator scale. Their buildings all look like mixtures of factories and barracks – the Military-Industrial Complex laid bare:

nice underground train or truck tunnel there.

and there’s a pervasive grottiness to life in their Havens – messy mess tables for mass meals, military barrack showers and unmade beds, because who has time for niceties when there’s a war on? They’re also the only faction with propaganda billboards everywhere:

and toilet rolls; toilet rolls feature prominently.

Their APC and aircraft look distinctly like part of a Vietnam war timeline and their guns are resolutely bullet-based. You just know they get off on “rolling coal” and go hunting aliens for sport in their spare time,

and their color palette is murky cold grey and camo green.

Which could be a look for the whole game, right? Mad Max havens, the militarized future – but then you meet the cultists – the Disciples of Anu, and they seem to be living in a completely different world:

one that’s learning to live with the virus, and embracing mutation and the strange new skills they’re developing. Their ruling class are mind-controlling priests, they fly zeppelins, which are partly alive and partly blinged out,

and all their biggest buildings are temples, full of statues. In fact, they’re suspiciously well-funded – almost as if their cult leaders had been preparing for an end-of-the-world event for years before it actually happened.

And, refreshingly, they’re not necessarily the enemy. Sure, they have bad days where they start shouting at you to cleanse the world of unbelievers, but then you calmly say no and then another leader comes in and apologizes and says that’s really not their teachings. They’re sort of Neo-Sumerian or cod-Mayan, but I suspect they’re most of all Tekumel-inspired. And they just might have the best solution to the whole alien-virus-invasion problem.

They also might be onto something with their Sumerian schtick, because it turns out human (or hominid) civilization has been around a lot longer than people think and you can go dig up some Antediluvian Tech from secret Indiana Jones sites and it’s got this kinda gold floaty thing going on that’s more similar to the Disciples than anyone else:

some kind of stone age particle accelerator? Funny how humanity never noticed it before
even the Antediluvians were not immune to the lure of Steampunk.

Finally, Synedrion are the Techbro Utopians and they have two big obsessions – on one hand, Ancient Greek gods and Athenian democracy, and on the other, Silicon Valley corporate parks and Apple/Dyson product design.

Their buildings are full of cantilevered overhangs (which are kind of a nightmare in a game that shows you slices through the terrain, floor-by-floor) and giant textured glass walls (which you can’t hide behind but also can’t accurately shoot through), and their half-green-spaced parking lots are full of charging stations and fountains and trees that play havoc with your jump jets. They’ve long since abandoned petrol and bullets for cold fusion and lasers, and you just know their uniform fibers are ethically-sourced – even if they’re also long-term toxic and a landfill menace for future generations. Their planes and ground vehicles were clearly designed by the same hairdryer guru:

and with similar goals in mind – they have the fastest speeds, highest costs, and smallest passenger capacities of any vehicles in the game, because that’s who their users are, right? High-flying executives, mostly working alone. If you need to carry more people, buy two of them. Duh.

And looking at the game’s arc through the eyes of these three factions, I find myself asking (as I did with XCOM2), “what will life be like in this world, after you solve the immediate crisis?” And I’m genuinely not sure which of the factions I would choose to go live with… the game does a pretty good job of setting you up for “maybe something can be saved out of each of them, but maybe none of them is right as it stands.”

Oh, right, but that Stranger Things limit on seriousness? So each faction has a color palette – militaristic grey for New Jericho, Apple white for Synedrion, and lush purple and gold for the Disciples of Anu (though they wear it with a certain restraint that makes it look cohesive at least, if not logical).

But you the player can customize your color palettes for each soldier, or you can check the “randomize” button, and I am so glad I did the latter. Because the palette they randomize from is fabulous.

I asked my engineers to build a copy of the Synedrion super-hoover, pictured above, and this is what they gave me.

It’s always like this. Here’s what the randomizer gave me for a stealth unit, comprising a Sniper, a Priest, and an Anu Berzerker.

And you know what? I love it. I would Berzerk too. And I can always find my soldiers against a feature-rich background.

ETA: I have now finished the game and have spoilery denouement thoughts about the outros (which someone has handily collected in a video). Ending spoilers follow:

…so remember the Hitler guy? Turns out he’s more of a Hitler/Stalin figure, obsessed with purity:

and uncompromising unity. His ending gets the strongest mismatch between image and text:

although I wonder if all US players would get that it’s mismatched – after all, it’s a mainstay of American militarist propaganda that “freedom isn’t free” – you have to have a bunch of people signing away their freedom in military contracts in order to “protect the rights of every individual.” Bush’s mantra was that Iraqis must die in war so Americans may live in peace.

The Utopian ending has you freeing the aliens from being mind-controlled by their evil overlord, which is a highly interesting deviation from the Lovecraftian norm and raises Chimera Squad questions about how humans are going to live in peace with independent, intelligent species that have totally different ecological requirements. But its imagery ducks all these questions and just shows you some Syd Mead/Dymaxion architectural renders that you’ve already seen:

The one that cracks me up is the lovin’ the alien Anu Cult ending,

because of the dude with a cowboy hat and tentacles. Like “yep partner, that’s how we be naow.” Considering changing the name of this blog to “bound by the chains of an imperfect biology.”

  1. Adam Thornton
    May 5, 2023 at 10:11 pm

    After reading about the three factions, I have a good deal more sympathy for the original, Phyrric, plan.

    • May 5, 2023 at 10:31 pm

      there is that, too.

    • May 6, 2023 at 9:46 pm

      I finished the game and got the Utopian Faction ending, which means now we make peace with the aliens we’ve previously been shooting – the Cult leader was secretly reasonable all along, only the New Jericho dictator dude keeps fighting, and his followers desert him because FREEEEDOMMM!
      It’s so flag-wavey that I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be satirical. The programmers are in Bulgaria, FWTW.

      Someone’s put a video together of all the various endings (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JF66PJKUi8 )
      and I guess it says something about how I think, that I had not assumed that whichever faction you chose to ally with would wind up running the world, while the other factions wither.
      The strongest mismatch between pictures and text happens in the New Jericho ending, which shows the Great Dictator strutting past a May Day military parade, while the caption asserts that he’s “determined to protect the rights of every individual to live free and in peace.”

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