With much of the world still stuck in a coronavirus-mandated lockdown and most TV and film production still on pause, theater-of-the-mind-style content could emerge as one of the best options for modern-day escapism. At least, that’s what Amazon is banking on with its new interactive audio game for Alexa, “Starfinder.”
Amazon partnered with Paizo to turn the latter’s “Starfinder,” a popular sci-fi tabletop roleplaying game, into an audio experience where the listener/player controls the outcome of the story. Those with an Alexa-enabled device need to simply say “Alexa, open the ‘Starfinder’ game” before being greeted by the free pilot episode, which debuted in December 2019, although they’ll need to pay $1.99 per installment for episodes 1-3, which debuted on Wednesday. The next three will release this October.
“Starfinder,” with its music and sound effects, comes across as something like a radio play at first — until Alexa prompts the listener to choose their character. From there, Alexa regularly interjects and asks the listener to give a direction: does their character retaliate while under attack by a gang of bandits, or do they try to smooth-talk their way out of it? Do they try to avoid an injured bystander, or do they approach them — and if they approach, what do they say? The world reacts accordingly. And just like most roleplaying games, the players often have to roll a 20-sided die (or Alexa can roll for them) to determine how successful their attempts are, both in and out of combat.
It represents quite the experiment for Amazon, using Alexa as a vehicle for storytelling instead of a just a convenient household tool. The script, Amazon says, exceeds 745 pages and took a combined 125 hours in the studio to record all of the possible outcomes, resulting in up to 13 hours of gameplay. It also attracted a starry voice cast, including “The Last of Us Part II’s” Laura Bailey and Nathan Fillion, who’s no stranger to sci-fi and fantasy content like “Starfinder.”
For Fillion, recording on “Starfinder” was one project for which the coronavirus pandemic didn’t present too much of an inconvenience. The “Firefly,” “Castle” and “The Rookie” star has done voicework before, and he already has a set-up to record at home. His character, who appears in the third episode, is one of several companions that appear throughout the story that the player can interact with. He plays a man who finds out that his brother’s been killed, and he is driven on a quest to get to the bottom of what happened.
“I think this is the secret to good sci-fi,” he tells Variety. “Sci-fi can get grand, really big, grandiose just because it’s big. It’s immense. Space is everything, it’s huge. But when you start talking about actual people with an actual motivation, it brings it down to Earth.”
And aside from being a return to the sci-fi form for Fillion, he says it also represents a step forward in terms of the future of entertainment, which is getting increasingly interactive. Fillion played a few episodes himself — some solo, some along with his girlfriend — and compares it to the days where families would gather around for a radio play, but with a degree of participation, indicative of the way today’s entertainment is headed.
“My very first internet project was ‘The Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog,’ and I remember at the time, people not being of the mind that the internet would be a source for entertainment the way it is today,” he said. “The way we stream, the way there are so many streaming networks — more streaming networks than proper TV networks right now. It’s bizarre, the quantum shift that has occurred.”
He notes that on platforms like Amazon Prime Video, viewers can interact with their content in a smaller way: by clicking on their screen to pull up an actor’s IMDb page. Things like “Starfinder,” he says, are just another step in that direction.
“This kind of involvement with the entertainment, the idea of being able to participate, being able to not only pull information from entertainment, but being able to actually influence its direction, absolutely, that is where it’s going,” he went on.
As for those jumping into “Starfinder,” Fillion has a few tips on best experiencing the game: put aside the interruptions, find somewhere comfortable, get a refreshment before starting, and then jump in. And as far as the story goes, he encourages players not to get too hung up about the decisions they could’ve made — an all-too-common risk in any form of entertainment where the viewer/listener makes the calls.
“The only danger in this game is that feeling of, ‘what if I did the other thing?’ If it gives you two choices, you pick one, and you think, ‘ohhh, what if I did the other thing?’ Don’t live in that moment,” he says. “Live in the forward moment. Live in the forward momentum. That’s the key.”