CBE Software’s J.U.L.I.A. was a charming, if slightly old-fashioned adventure game of deep-space exploration and mystery, which was unfairly ignored, if not panned, by critics. It felt idiosyncratic in a good way, and I’m a little disappointed that people only ever seemed to take notice when the whole Lace Mamba disaster happened. In case you didn’t read about it back then, it was CBE Software’s Jan Kavan who blew the whistle on their publisher withholding the developer’s share of sales. Something like that can be devastating if said publisher also owns the exclusive rights to your game. Subsequently, a couple of other developers stepped forward as well and reported similar experiences with Lace Mamba. To this day, the situation has not been resolved in a satisfying manner, and it’s unlikely it ever will. Anyway, that’s where you might have heard the name J.U.L.I.A., which is not exactly a thing any game developer wants to be remembered for.
Most developers would have probably given up then, but CBE Software persisted and, in an attempt to improve some things they didn’t like about their game, went crowdfunding. At first, they set a modest goal of $5000 in order to fix the most aggravating design flaws, but when the campaign ended in April, backers had raised an impressive amount of $14200. CBE Software decided they would rewrite the whole game from scratch, leaving only a skeleton of the original storyline intact and redo the rest. The new version has been re-branded as J.U.L.I.A.: Among the Stars and will be released early next year.
When I caught up with the two-man team, Jan Kavan and Lukas Medek, in August, they had been at work on the redesign for four months and were happy to present their new version of J.U.L.I.A. And what a change it was! Gone were the static exploration screens and the large choose-your-own-adventure text boxes. The new interface, which presents itself in a higher resolution this time around, allows for a lot of small background animations while you’re exploring desolate space stations and exotic alien planets. There are tons of contextual menus and hotspots, which can thankfully be displayed at the touch of a key so there won’t be any pixel hunting. Lukas Medek, who is solely responsible for the whole visual side of the game, must be a wizard. Seriously, the game looks amazing, and while I reckon that slow-paced planetary exploration and puzzle solving are probably still only appealing to a niche market, people will get curious because of those visuals.
All the while an evocative soundtrack, reminiscent of old sci-fi flicks, was playing in the background. Jan Kavan, who’s a music teacher and has a degree in composition, came up with what he calls a “mood composer”, a dynamically generated music system that constructs new tunes in real-time. It also allows for fluid transitions from one mood to another, so there won’t be any looping music tracks and you’re unlikely to hear the exact same piece of music twice. This is an ingenious little piece of software engineering, and I predict that it will get a lot of attention once the game is out there. In any case, it just sounded so very right to me, fitting the game’s look and feel like a neon-colored space glove.
J.U.L.I.A.s original protagonist, Rachel Manners, looked a bit like a spiky-haired cyberpunk marionette straight out of the uncanny valley. The new version is a huge improvement. She looks so much more like an actual person instead of your average video game heroine. I’ve never ventured too far in the original game, so I cannot comment too much on the rewritten narrative, but according to Kavan J.U.L.I.A.’s tale is a deeply personal one despite all of its sci-fi trappings. It would be great if this focus on narrative isn’t bogged down by questionable design choices, like it was in the original game.
In any case, the surrounding gameplay got a complete do-over. Its focus is now on exploration instead of puzzle solving, which signals a complete reversal from the original game’s approach. Many of the annoying mini-games have been scrapped and replaced by something that feels more integrated and less disjointed as a result. An auto-updating mission log keeps track of all important things while you are busy uncovering the game’s many secrets. A lot of optional content, sidequests if you will, adds to the story by rewarding you with additional accounts of other characters, which flesh out the story and aren’t always reliable. Furthermore, a mind-mapping system, which kind of acts like a meta-game in its own right, can be used to unravel the background story and gain further insights into some characters’ motivations.
While not much is known about the plot, which is the narrative-driven adventure genre’s most important part, the technical framework around this new version of the game looks promising. J.U.L.I.A.: Among the Stars might be one of next year’s adventure hits. After all the trouble they’ve been through, CBE Software have certainly deserved this break. With clear skies ahead, this future among the stars looks bright. The game has been greenlit and will be released on Steam in early 2014. In the meantime, feel free to read Jan Kavan’s detailed crowdfunding post-mortem, Surviving Indiegogo.