"That history does hinge on the actions of the individual."
So says Martin Cirulis, lead writer on Blackbird Interactive and Gearbox Publishing title Homeworld 3, in response to me asking what players should understand heading into this long-awaited sequel. Cirulis is no stranger to the Homeworld franchise, having written the story for the original game and contributed to other games such as the 2016 prequel, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.
"It's the crashing tide, right? Someone's got to stand in the way of the crashing tide," he adds. "History may be an ocean, but that wave hits someone. You as the player, you're standing in front of the tide."
Ahead of the reveal of a new story trailer for Homeworld 3, I had the chance to speak with both Cirulis and Joel Watson, another writer on the project. Watson has been a writer on the game for close to a year, having joined the narrative team right before Cirulis was hired full-time, though the latter had been involved before in a more limited capacity, writing short stories for the background of the game. For Cirulis, jumping on board this game has felt natural.
"Often in gaming you come back to a franchise 20 years later and it's like 'Oh yeah, it's Bananas from Space. There's still bananas, and it's still in space, but everything else is unattached' but no. Everybody working on this project loves the past, [they're] not slaves to the past, but they're passionate about it," he says.
Watson gave himself a "college education" in Homeworld in order to improve his writing, wanting to make sure he did both the story and the fans justice. Cirulis delivered the first draft of the game's script around the same time, though he notes that since then, all the "fatty bits" have been trimmed away and it is now "razor sharp."
"As a player, you will be able to shave yourself with the dialogue," he says with a chuckle. Getting to that point wasn't easy though, with both writers leaning on the other to help distill the story to its purest form.
"We've been on the phone late at night where I'm going 'This is what I'm trying to say in a billion words. How might we say this in a way that actually goes into the script?'" Watson says, with Cirulis adding that entire novellas could be written about the events of a single in-game mission.
The structural limitations of how an RTS plays out limited the amount of dialogue the narrative could rely on compared to other genres, forcing Watson and Cirulis to convey more with less writing, to the point that where once there were pages, a single sentence might now remain.
The new story trailer introduces the game's two lead characters: Imogen S'Jet and Isaac Paktu, as well as the mysterious threat of the Incarnate. Both writers point to the character of Imogen S'Jet as a unifying point for veterans and newcomers alike to rally behind.
She provides familiarity for longtime fans through her connection to the missing Karan S'Jet, but her naivete provides a natural introductory point for any new players to learn more about the universe of Homeworld. With a hundred years passing since the events of Homeworld 2 said events have passed into history and the only character from that game who could still be alive, Karan S'Jet, has gone missing.
"Imogen is our portal," says Watson. "What did Homeworld 1, 2, Deserts of Kharak, Cataclysm...what did all of that lead to ultimately? What was Karan's impact?"
"Time is really important to us in this script," says Cirulis. "We've had reasons to accelerate it a hundred years. That hundred-year gap has severe implications for the story and where things are and where certain characters are."
"Where else in the galaxy might you find someone with shared experience when your experience is singular?" asks Watson. "It's easy to say 'And Karan saved the galaxy and everyone lived happily ever after.' That's not only unrealistic, that's no fun."
Both writers want players to reexamine the events of Homeworld 1 and 2 after going through Homeworld 3.
"When you shift the power structure of the entire galaxy, let's give it many decades to see where that leaves us," says Watson with a grin, with Cirulis adding that in the first two games, Karan was the "cement" of the Kushan people, and that Homeworld 3 examines the "price to be paid" for such a role.
The two writers also credit Lin Joyce — another member of the writing team who works at Gearbox — with providing essential input on Imogen, asking her to tell them when they got something wrong, such as when too many characters would refer to Imogen as crazy.
"Between the three of us, it was 'I want to do this, but how can it be better?' and we just passed things around that way until it was [better]," Watson says, noting that Lin's feedback "hugely" shaped Imogen's character as the story drafts continued to be refined.
"You don't try and work with people who are exactly like you," Cirulis adds. "That's a mistake."
Imogen is balanced out by Isaac, a career military man whose experiences in war tell him there's a cost to every victory. He's not heartless, but he has a different background, with the natural tension arising between him and Imogen central to the narrative.
The general understanding of mental health has progressed in recent years, with Cirulis emphasizing a need to reflect on what prolonged combat does to someone, even at a high level. "We're always bringing it back to 'Hey, there's people in those spaceships,'" says Watson. That includes leaning on the improved call-and-response system all the ships in a player's fleet can use.
Homeworld 3 is coming decades after its predecessor, and the march of technology allows for new storytelling opportunities. Moving the cinematics to full-motion video allows for moments such as giving Imogen mixed emotions of sadness and anger to events unfolding on screen, things that weren't possible in the "pan and scan" cutscenes of the original games.
"As far as storytelling and showing and not telling, that's a beautiful amount of power to have as a creative force," says Cirulis, adding that it's "Hard not to go mad with power."
As always, constraints around technologically doing something on-screen will sometimes force the writers to alter their plans, but Cirulis says that it's the tension of mission design and narrative that makes for great art, and that it "often creates something much better than your vision ever could."
The Incarnate, a new threat in Homeworld 3, have taken center stage as the antagonists of this story. While Cirulis is careful to avoid spoiling anything in particular, he does give players an idea of what to expect, noting that this foe is "the most relevant enemy I've crafted for the Homeworld universe."
"You're fighting an opponent that has a lot to say," he says, going back to wanting players to ask questions about events and people. "And a lot of that has bearing on the way you viewed the games."
Cirulis adds that at a particular moment in the game, raiders will outright question the Hiigaran belief that their might is helping and that from some perspectives, whenever empires clash, it's everyone else who suffers.
"There are certain power themes that radiate through the Homeworld series, right? And we examine all of those," he says. "Motherships, navigators, empires, manifest destiny."
When I asked if there was ever a need to pull back and restrain themselves from going too big in scale, Watson confidently disavows the notion. "I actually think we did the opposite on purpose."
Homeworld 3 is currently slated to launch in February 2024 for Windows PC across Steam and the Epic Game Store.