You may not have even heard of Stanisław Lem until now, but chances are that, if you're reading this, his work will have had an influence on something you've enjoyed. Will Wright has acknowledged the Polish sci-fi author's back catalogue as a major influence behind his creation of The Sims, Futurama showrunner David X. Cohen has admitted the character of Bender owes a debt to The Cyberiad, while Hideo Kojima has repeatedly alluded to Lem both within and outside of his critically acclaimed video games.
In fact, if you've read any of Stanisław Lem's novels, then you're probably surprised that it's taken this long for a studio to directly adapt one of his stories into a video game, which feel like the perfect medium for his pulpy ruminations on AI, futurology, and space exploration.
The studio that's breaking that pattern is Starward Industries, a new team based out in Cracow, Poland, made up of 12 veteran developers who hail from CD Projekt Red, Techland Games, and other household names from around the rest of the country.
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Its founder and CEO is Marek Markuszewski, who tells GamesRadar+ why Lem was the source material for its first project, a science fiction based on the author's acclaimed novel, The Invincible.
"Among Lem’s works, The Invincible stands out as a relatively straightforward story," he explains, "unfolding at a good tempo, immersing readers into the intriguing and increasingly staggering sequence of events."
"The book is stunningly picturesque, and reads as a ready-made movie script. It’s both epic and believable, combining space exploration and strong dynamics among the spaceship crew. The imaginative value of the novel has been praised several times by critics and other writers. Theodore Sturgeon called it 'science-fiction in the grand tradition'.”
Cold war, cold planet
Set on the planet Regis III, The Invincible takes place in a world where the Cold War never ended, robbing humanity of its digital revolution while superpowers continue to obsess over the space race, and thus take their rivalry to the stars. You'll be stepping in the shoes of an astronaut caught amidst this analogue future, with Markuszewski promising a cinematic story that places a premium on atmosphere, artistic stylism, and player agency.
"In turning the descriptions and vibes [of The Invincible] into interactive visuals, we’ve largely worked with two sources," he tells me. "The first of them is atompunk aesthetics, explored very widely in comic books, cinema and television, with inspiration from classic works of people like Chris Foss, Chesley Bonestell, or Syd Mead."
"On top of that, we actually researched the original designs of spacesuits and clothing used during the Cold War, as well as spaceships, vehicles, various tools and devices manufactured in the Soviet Union. All this has come together in The Invincible, creating a fresh and unique retro-futuristic visual style."
Starward Industries has been secretly at work on The Invincible for quite some time now, but today's reveal has confirmed that the game is targeting PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X for a release in the latter half of next year, with plans to upgrade development to Epic's Unreal Engine 5.
If you're wondering what it's like to set up a new studio amidst the ongoings of a global pandemic, Starward thankfully had most of its working structures in place by the start of the year, though Markuszewski admits that – as is the case for many studios right now – development on The Invincible has been "disrupted to a extent we never anticipated" by the continued turmoil.
"Luckily, as we’re not a big team, any changes in workflows and communication were able to be deployed quickly. From today’s perspective I can say this even had a good side in terms of restarting and refreshing our thinking of how to improve robustness."
Having spent four years as a producer and project manager at CD Projekt Red himself, Markuszewski is more than happy to recognise there's an element of Starward Industries repeating that studio's history with its aim to "develop a new IP based on a locally recognised series of novels, turning them into video games with a global footprint", acknowledging that "without CD Projekt’s appetite to dream big we wouldn’t be where we are today as a community of developers."
But it's not just the Cyberpunk 2077 developer that has imbued Starward with its creative drive; the nation of Poland itself is continuing to emerge as one of the healthiest and fastest growing markets for game development, housing large independent studios such as Techland amongst a host of smaller teams, which together number a total of 400.
"This wouldn’t be ever possible without a strong urge for high literacy and engineering-oriented education since the Soviet times in Poland," says Markuszewski when asked about Poland's unique status in the industry. "When the first 8-bit computers started appearing in the mid-80s, it kicked off both a software development scene, and a community of gamers, with a strong shared feeling, that this is our lifetime chance."
No wonder the studio is excited by a game that explores the horrors of a world where the USSR never collapsed.
Keep track of all of the latest releases with our upcoming games 2020 list, or watch our gaming achievements episode of Dialogue Options below.