Sentient, developed by Psygnosis in 1997 for the Playstation and PC, is a game that both impresses and frustrates me in equal measure. It’s a game that I love but it’s a love that I had to actively work on. Sentient, for its time but even in some ways now still, is a hugely ambitious project in gaming. Think about it, the sheer idea of a first person RPG action adventure is pretty out there but for the PS1? It shouldn’t work. On paper it must have been a hard game to sell as it really shouldn’t work at all. However, in some ways it doesn’t work but somehow the rough edges can be overlooked to reveal what truly is an intelligent, engrossing, excellently structured and hugely enjoyable gem of the PS1 era.
Retroplayer- “What did your job entail while working on Sentient?”
Julian Hicks- “I was lead designer and producer for this game“
Carl Dalton- “I joined Psygnosis as a junior artist in summer ’95 and was at first responsible for creating in-game objects. After a while I graduated to environment creation, GUI creation and splash screens. I then spent a period as a mission scripter, and wrote about 50% of the game’s missions (such as the one where the Geo-dome deck gets overtaken by crazily growing plants – and the one dealing with the arrest of the chief security officer). Together with one of the programmers (Craig Grounsell) I was given sole charge of the cover demo that was created for PS2 magazine. By the end of the project I had become Lead Artist.”
Colin Burges- “I was the programmer working on the simulation of the machines on the Icarus, the SUZIE computer interface, and the 3d maps. Also I worked on various utilities to generate the game data such as the collision detection data.”
The game takes place aboard the Space Station Icarus which is orbiting the sun. The player has been sent to investigate a mysterious sickness that has broken out aboard the station. However, upon docking into the station your ship crashes and as the game opens you’re left to your own devices. I’ve never seen this type of openness in a game before. It took me quite awhile to even complete the opening scene as you really need to be on your toes and above all else you need to pay attention to your surroundings. Beyond the opening scene the game, and most importantly the station, is open to you. From there you can explore the station, chat to its inhabitants or, if you’re feeling a little mischievous, even mess up the station computers to dive it into the sun. It’s like Mass Effect before, well, Mass Effect!
Retroplayer- “Did you feel that Sentient was an ambitious project?”
Julian Hicks- “We were all aware that we were trying to break new ground and to try something so vast on a new platform was a bold step. ”
Carl Dalton- “Yes, and I still feel it was. The game was running a ship’s crew of AI to a level I hadn’t seen before (or since). They all had jobs and wants and needs and would go about working, eating, sleeping and chatting to one another (as much like a real crew as we could make them). Then the ship itself was running as a simulation with the life support, engine, security and computer systems. On top of all that were the missions which were non-linear and could interact with each other in unexpected and interesting ways, it was a very ambitious game for a PC at the time, let alone a PS1.”
Colin Burges- “Yes, a little too ambitious maybe. It went way over budget – it was the most expensive game Psygnosis had developed but I don’t think it was intended to be! It was constantly overrunning deadlines. I think developing it for a machine with such limited RAM as the PS1 was a brave thing to attempt – it was more suited for the hardware and the market of a PC game. It’s fair to say that if the company had realised how much work it would be from the start, it would never have been written. In the end, I think we were very proud of what we had achieved but conversely we were also quite fed up with it and glad it was over! We did have a few meetings after it was finished about doing a “Sentient 2,” but this idea was canned.”
The most interesting aspect of Sentient are the station inhabitants. They can be broken into a few groups- engineers, scientist, navigators as well as a few others that don’t seem to fit into any specific group. However, where it gets most interesting is how these characters aboard this space station form alliances and relationships. For instance, the engineers are weary of the scientist while the scientists seem to be unhappy with the job the engineers are doing in keeping up the maintenance of the station. This all makes for an excellent power play to ensue which places you nicely right in the middle. Also, there’s some wild card characters in there too. There’s the government official sent to the station who may or may not have his own agenda, the lead scientist who puts the entire station in jeopardy in the name of science and, most importantly to the story, “visions” that allude to something greater having a hand in what is happening aboard the ship. Without giving too much away the player, at various time during the course of the game, has visions of a hedge maze. If they make it to the centre of the maze before the timer runs out a sequence plays out to them of coming into contact with some kind of being that gives the clues to what’s really going on. I’ll let you discover what it is yourselves but that idea alone keeps you playing hoping that you’ll eventually discover that mystery. Also, with each alliance and relationship on board you’ll find yourself doing different types of missions for both friends and enemies alike even to the point whereby your choices influence not only the the game itself and its effects on the stations inhabitants but even the ending itself.
Retroplayer- “Artistically, what kind of feel were you going for with Sentient?”
Carl Dalton- “The intention was for it to feel claustrophobic and sweaty, somewhat run-down and constantly on the brink of collapse. We used photographs of old submarines and decommissioned ships for reference.”
Retroplayer- “Did you consult any artworks, movies or other games for inspiration while working on Sentient?”
Julian Hicks- “No specific titles but have always been an avid reader of sci-fi and a fan of all things games and cinema – I was interested when the film Sunshine came out though just a few years back.”
Carl Dalton- “Constantly. All of the usual suspects for Sci-Fi movies and books of course. A lot of us were playing System Shock at the time and I remember the role playing game Paranoia having an influence on our scripting of the missions.”
Sentient relies heavily on dialogue. The dialogue the player has with the NPCs shapes the game around them. However, while Sentient is dialogue dependent there may be too much to successfully slog through on a first attempt. Clues may be overlooked simply due to the fact that there’s an awful lot to get through even with a single character. As you talk to characters you may or may not, depending on who it is, open up special phrases that may be re-used on other characters. For instance, one special phrase I came across was “Arrizza changing orbit into sun”. This then opens up the chance for you to foil his plot in destroying the station. The problem with these statements is however if you bypass one or don’t realise that it’s important you might overlook a major plot point that may lead to your game being stuck in limbo. I once started a game whereby 10 minutes after my save the ship would always explode. I knew how to fix it but getting that special statement in order to inform someone about it would have taken longer than 10 minutes. I had to just restart it.
Retroplayer- “Did the story for Sentient evolve and change over the course of development?”
Julian Hicks- “Indeed it evolved as we went along…the details changed but the basic premise was retained”
Retroplayer- “Did you come up against many hardware restrictions for the PS1 version?”
Carl Dalton- “We had to make a lot of cut backs to the artwork in order to ensure we could run the complex AI and simulations and missions of the game itself. For example, the cross junctions with their stepped direction markers were a direct result of having to keep the amount of the ship that could be seen at any time to an absolute minimum.”
Retroplayer- “The game itself has multiple different storylines, dialogue scenes and endings. Was it difficult to work on a game like this as opposed to a game that has a linear narrative?”
Julian Hicks- “A few of the endings were less satisfying for sure but most were solid if a little unexpected we really wanted the game to have proper replay ability and not be painfully linear.“
Colin Burges- “I didn’t deal with this side of the game directly, but I was involved in a lot of meetings etc when this as discussed. It did make the game much more difficult to both develop and test. The actual detailed writing of the storylines and the script code for those storylines was outsourced to a couple of specialists in America, but when we finally got this stuff back ready to integrate into the game, it was a mess. It was packed with logical inconsistencies, such as people being involved in scripts (stories) when they might previously have died. So I think the whole set of scripts had to be thrown out and rewritten by Julian and co. This was a major “oh shit” moment and added a lot onto the project length.”
This is the hook of Sentient- the openness of it’s gameplay and the possibility of nine different endings for the player to get. Depending on how they play the game, what missions they undertake, what characters they befriend or make an enemy out of and overall how they interact with the world before them. The endings can be quite different too. Would you do your best to save everyone on board from the sickness or would you take care of yourself and get the first outbound shuttle to safety? However, you must take the good with the bad. The game, while open ended to a certain extent has a rigid game mechanic that never truly lets it reach its true potential. While I understand that the station was created and designed to be claustrophobic and cramped I think the basic design of the ship can strip away some form of wonder the player might feel about exploring such an environment. The ship, unfortunately, is too similar all over apart from colour tones. But this can be overlooked as the ship itself contains an excellent numbering system for each corridor that makes navigating through the endless look-a-like tunnels easy enough to manage. For most players though there’s plenty to dislike about this game. To some it’ll be too talky, not enough action, hard to understand, clumsy and slow. However, I think it’s best to know a little about it before you even pick up the control pad.
Retroplayer- “Were your overall experiences positive while working on Sentient?”
Julian Hicks- “The game was my life for a number of years and many of the things I learned are still with me.”
Carl Dalton- “It was the starting point for my career in games. At the time I was thankful for the chance and more than happy to push myself to 110%, 100% of the time. I loved being a part of Psygnosis during that time and loved every minute of working on Sentient. I wouldn’t change a moment.”
Colin Burges- “Yes. There were a lot of problems on the project in general but as my work was mostly self-contained I wasn’t subject to them. I was just awed by the experience of working on Playstation games. A lot of other people were fed up with the project however, which led to the long-running office joke: “Why did the Sentient developer cross the road? To get to a job interview.”
Retroplayer- “What are your thoughts on the current state of the games industry now as opposed to back in 1997 when Sentient was released?”
Julian Hicks- “It’s really hard out there right now, the move from boxed products to online, as well as the world recession, have made it feel like wading through treacle at the present time. Also I think it’s even harder to break a new IP or title right now, the games industry seems to be following the Hollywood model of just carrying on the proven franchises…with more of the same”
Carl Dalton- “Budgets have changed significantly and the pressure for graphics to always exceed expectations has led to some ‘safe’ choices in game design being made. I think back in ’95 there were a hell of a lot more of the adventurous types from the early days of the Spectrum and BBC micro in positions of running teams and studios who were driven more by the ‘adventure’ of creating something new, than any desire to pursue ‘visuals über alles’.”
Colin Burges- “It has fragmented a lot now, but I think that is a very good thing.
I wasn’t a fan of the games industry 12 years ago. I found after Sentient that games in general seemed to be getting very stale and unambitious, which is why I left Psygnosis.
This was a lot to do with the ever-spiralling budgets required to create a game. There was a big change in financial requirements in the late 90s. From a developer’s point of view, if you didn’t have a minimum of a million or 2 pounds you might as well forget it, so publishers really started to play it safe.
Shortly after Sentient I wanted to work on my own projects so I left Psygnosis to work on a PC game, but after 2 years I had to give up on that and get a proper job. Technology was advancing far faster than I could program and I couldn’t possibly compete with other projects of the day.
Now things are different – there are so many devices running games of different levels of technical advancement that you can create a potentially profit-making game whatever your budget and whatever your timeframe. The only thing you need is talent (and/or luck!). The big publishers no longer control the whole market, so there are some really innovative titles coming out. So I think both the consumers and the developers are better off with this situation”
If you’re looking for something very obscure and different try this game. Sentient has a lot to offer but you just need to understand that a lot of its likable may be hidden behind some little quirks. But putting the quirks aside I would genuinely recommend Sentient. It’s probably the most ambitious Playstation game I’ve ever seen and for that, at the very least, makes it worth a look. It gives you a sense of wonder about the situation the player is in- in space, alone, isolated, on the brink of mutiny, forced to survive and, probably most importantly to the heart of the game, the possibility of something out there, something Sentient. After the opening scene where you save an engineer after a crash in sickbay he says to you, “We turn to the skies”. If repeated back to him he goes to say, “And what happens if it turns back on us?” What happens, indeed.
Retroplayer- “How would you like Sentient to be remembered?”
Julian Hicks- “If a few people remember it as an attempt to break the mold of linear games I will be happy.“
Carl Dalton- “With fondness, some curiosity, and a wry smile.”
Colin Burges- “I’d like Sentient to be remembered as a game which tried hard to do something different – and hopefully can be said to have succeeded. I will always remember it as one of my fondest projects.”
I’d like to wholeheartedly thank Julian, Carl and Colin for their input for this article. Without their dedication and pursuit to break to mould of conventional gaming back in 97 we would have never had Sentient. It’s a game that oozes of hardship, dedication and love. Get it, play it and realise that it made it mark on gaming that in some ways can still be seen now.
UPDATE- Here’s a bit of an update guys. It seems that a sequel for Sentient was in the works for a very short time. Colin Burges, who took part in the interview above, told me about what was being considered as the storyline. Colin tells me that they had a competition in the studio to come up with the best idea for a storyline for Sentient 2. Colin tells me “there were a couple of meetings to discuss what new gameplay might be involved with the story, so I think all we had in the end was the early story document. I can’t remember exactly why we didn’t go any further but I think it might have been because the lead programmer on Sentient was starting work on Lander and they weren’t sure it was a good idea to do it without him on the project. Also the lowish sales on Sentient might have stopped it going much further anyway. The story we were looking at going with I think was the one I put forward. It was inspired by William Gibson’s “Count Zero” and “Neuromancer” books, and was about being trapped underground on a strange planet, with things going a bit crazy. There were secretive religious cults being formed, talk of angels and demons appearing and a prophecy of holy fire coming to kill everyone (a nuclear bomb). The angels and demons turned out to be various fragmented personalities of 2 AIs who were at war with each other deep underground but unable to physically do anything themselves, and so were trying to influence peoples behaviour to advance their agendas.” Sounds interesting. It’s shame it was never brought any further. Thanks to Colin for the info!
The views and opinions expressed by “Retroplayer” do not necessarily express or reflect the views and / or opinions of The Gaming Liberty.