StarFate Corporation is in the business of making mankind a better version of itself. The company’s flagship product, the StarChip, allows its owners to record and analyze every experience they ever had, capturing details unassisted humans couldn’t dream of securing. Just implant a simple little chip into the back of your neck, and the ability to tap into the network is unlocked. It’s really a damn shame someone figured out how to hack the chips.
In the coming months, Back to Earth will describe what happens to the world in 2023 when presumably unhackable chips become compromised, as told through a short film, a graphic novel, and a television show in development. Our introduction to the storyworld of Back to Earth starts before the cataclysm with StarFate.Tech, a short immersive experience that lets players ride shotgun with StarFate Corporation engineer Jono Walters as he investigates a train derailment that shouldn’t have been possible.
The short immersive story plays out across StarFate Corporation’s internal systems, with an unidentified assistant guiding players in unlocking Jono’s chip-enhanced memories through a series of nine “Mindchain” blocks. Each block contains clues to unlock the next in the sequence, leading players to hunt down file IDs, timestamps, and user IDs using contextual cues in the text, audio, and video files that document Jono’s investigation in addition to the occasional research task requiring players to hack into the occasional voicemail box. There’s something to be said for an ARG that can be completed in less time than it takes to watch a movie, and Back to Earth‘s debut starts off with an experience that packs in enough surprises to whet the appetite without the time investment of a AAA video game.
Due in part to this brevity, the StarFate.Tech immersive experience has the feel of a finely crafted tutorial mission, gradually introducing players to the skills necessary to unlock each new block, with new complications added every few rounds. It also serves to introduce the game’s StarCredits, a blockchain-based digital currency that exists both in-world and out of world to provide a micro-transaction based backbone to the free-to-play experience. Upon registering, players receive 1 StarCredit. Fractions of a credit can be used to ask “SysOps” for hints along the way, or to unlock a short video that provides a graphic end to Jono’s tale.
In many ways, the success of Back to Earth depends on how these StarCredits become used. The project itself was funded within days through an initial coin offering that raised 750 bitcoin (valued at roughly $900K USD at the time of funding) through the sale of 4.5 million StarCredit tokens with the promise that only 20 million tokens would be created to support the game. The Back to Earth team promised that these credits could be used to “sway real-time story outcomes, earn in-game content, unlock special features, discover hidden puzzles, or purchase additional storylines.” Once credits are spent they’re taken permanently out of circulation.
For the initial immersive experience, designed by No Mimes Media, the process was relatively seamless. Registering an account for the game delivered one StarCredit to players’ in-game account, with the currency behaving like any other in-game currency. While hints could be purchased for fractions of a StarCredit, the tutorial mission descriptions generally provided enough guidance to direct players in the right direction, avoiding the pitfalls of vintage gaming’s microtransaction precursor, the 900-number hint line. The puzzles themselves actually serve as a stealth introduction to how blockchains function, with players learning how distributed ledgers function in spite of themselves. As No Mimes Media’s Behnam Karbassi explained to Forbes, “the look and feel of the experience is a sort of metaphor for the blockchain, as players are solving it without knowing while learning about blockchain principals. The game itself has a series of blocks that need to be solved in the chain, which uncovers the truth of the story.”
Players are left with a difficult choice at the end of the experience, though – the narrative comes to a conclusive end at the 8th block, setting the stage for the short film. But for 0.5 StarCredits, players can “pay” to unlock the experience’s denoument, a 2-minute long video that pays off one of the story’s loose threads in dramatic fashion in a particularly effective manner, after going through the effort of unlocking the other story nodes. Based on descriptions on the site, it also may set the stage for the upcoming short film. Not a necessary scene, but an important one nonetheless. This will be a delicate line to balance moving forward, especially since microtransactions are still relatively new in the film and alternate reality gaming spaces.