Heat Signature is a game where you can go inside the spaceships. More specifically, it’s a game designed by Tom Francis about being a space freedom fighter and mercenary, hijacking spaceships, doing cool missions, and trying to complete your own personal goal before you retire or die. If you want to get a good feel for how the game works, he has an excellent series where he’s playing the daily challenge missions every day for a week, which you can watch here.
Heat Signature does something I really like out of video games, where it gives you lots of tools to get yourself into trouble, and then just as many ways to try to get yourself back out. You can find this structure in a variety of games; one of the first times I heard it clearly articulated was in describing FTL: Faster Than Light, which is a game where you both figuratively and literally have to put out a lot of fires. This mode of play lends itself to very memorable stories. Whether you succeed or fail, you’ll probably have something to tell a friend about. The mechanics hand you a satisfying narrative arc and built-in twists make the story rich. In my first hour and a half playing it, I got one of those stories that I felt was worth writing up.
I had done very well on the normal missions for my first character. I had pulled off two almost flawless hard missions in a row, so I decided I should try the daily challenge. My mission is to assassinate the 3 guards that had killed my boyfriend, without extra casualties. (A daily challenge always has an extra condition that determines your score.) To help me on this mission, I have an armor-piercing short-blade, a concussive gun, and a swapper teleporter.
I fly my pod to the first mission ship and begin scoping it out. Unfortunately, on this mission there’s a jammer making the rounds—they wander around the ship laying down huge jammer fields that prevent gadgets from working. During the first few seconds that I watch the ship, the jammer lays down their first field.
Now I’m in a hurry. I don’t want them to get a chance to cover too much more of the ship, since that makes me much less effective. In my haste, I act a bit rashly. I figure I can rush in and knock the first guard out when they’re not looking, and then knock out the jammer quickly after. As I step through my pod’s airlock into the ship, I realize I don’t have a non-lethal melee weapon, and my gun’s not silenced. If I shoot, it’s gonna be really loud. So, as the guard begins to take notice of me, I do what any sensible person would do: I throw my gun.
It sails out of my hand toward the guard. But this guard is wearing armor. The gun clangs harmlessly off it, and they continue to stare me down unfazed, their alert meter slowly creeping higher towards the point where they’ll shoot me. You know what’s worse though? As the gun ricochets of their armored chest, it goes off. Every guard in the sector has heard me. They know there’s a fight going on and they all start rushing towards the noise, sounding the alarm on the way. I’m slightly panicked, but I still feel like I can get out of this. Now that I’ve thrown my gun, I don’t have any weapon to take down the guard in front of me. Even if I was willing to kill them, I’m too far away to reach with my short-blade—but I can probably teleport away!
I pull out my visitor (a teleporter that temporarily brings you to a spot, then a few seconds later pulls you back) and try to pick the best destination. I want to stay out of sight, and hopefully get pulled back behind the guard after they go looking for me. I carefully make my choice. And click. And the teleporter fizzles, because I’m still standing in field that the jammer laid down at the beginning of the mission A second later, the guard shoots me, and throws me unceremoniously out the airlock. As I try to grab my unconscious body with my pod, the alarm timer countdown runs out, and my targets escape.
And that’s the story of how I failed my first Heat Signature daily mission in only 33 seconds. This took several minutes of real time, because the game encourages you to pause frequently planning and reflexes, but the entire mission from start to finish only took 33 seconds of game time. If this sounds like your sort of game, consider buying it for yourself, and tell me what story you get yourself into.