Astronaut: The Best (PC, 2023)

Project Info

Release Date: 8/15/23 (PC/Steam Deck)

My Role: Project Lead, Narrative Designer, Writer, Developer

Full Credits: David Mershon (Project Co-Lead / Engineer / Designer / Writer), Julia Y (Art / Graphic Design), Matt Zapp (Music / Audio).

Self-published by Universal Happymaker.


  • Official Selection, LudoNarraCon 2023

“Houston, we have a winner. This game’s incredible, and if you like roguelites or management sims, pick it up pronto.”
Malcolm Schmitz, EIP Gaming

“This game was built with a storytelling structure better than I could have imagined for a game of this type… a lot of charm and complication that make it one solid experience you won’t forget.”
– Nathan Stevens, Digital Chumps

“It’s a comedy about how even the most careful planning can go out the window when dealing with erratic human beings who can’t be controlled like machines. It’s as much an ode to humanity’s eccentricities as a head-shaking indictment of how idiotic we can be.”
Giovanni Colantanio, Digital Trends

At the time of writing, AtB‘s PC release has a 77 OpenCritic score and 92% positive reviews on Steam.

Scope of Work

I was the primary narrative designer and writer on Astronaut: The Best, and performed the following work with collaboration from codesigner David Mershon.

  • Planned original concept and design pillars, and coordinated a team to achieve them
  • Iterated on paper and digital prototypes towards core gameplay loop
  • Designed unique narrative structure combining randomized and branching elements
  • Authored hundreds of narrative events with player choice and branching
  • Wrote thousands of dialogue lines using a custom system of programmatic text substitution and recombination
  • Created lore and characters for surreal alternate history setting
  • Designed missions with complex branching outcomes, plus cross-playthrough roguelike metanarrative
  • Wrote commercial copy, including Steam page text, advertisements, and trailer scripts

Narrative Design Highlights

Branching Procedural Structure

Our goal with Astronaut: The Best was to make a narrative game with impactful moral choices, but not one where players would stress over making the “correct” decision. Instead, we wanted players to feel liberated to experiment, roleplay, and explore the consequences of adopting different mindsets – like a “moral laboratory.”

This diagram shows in part how AtB combines random and structured narrative elements, but there’s a lot more information in the linked article!

In order to achieve that design goal, I knew Astronaut: The Best would require an unusual narrative structure. I wrote a GameDeveloper article on the process of iterating towards the right solution. 

Mission Design

Since Astronaut: The Best is built for replayability and exploration, every mission (except the tutorial) has a wide range of potential paths and outcomes, based on both player choices and the successes or failures of their astronauts.

The potential choices in every mission are visualized for the player as a “mapestry” that fills in over the course of each playthrough, hinting at alternate paths and encouraging replayability.

I relied on the game’s mechanics, alongside some narrative design tricks, in order to give players as much perceived agency as possible without running into a combinatorial explosion of content. For example, in the mission “A Matter of Pride,” one choice allows the player to choose the venue for your astronauts’ big boxing match. There are a few key differences depending on your choice (choosing a remote cabin gains or loses less Glory; choosing the enemy capital introduces a hidden sabotage path), but for the most part, the boxing match will proceed according to the same logic and dialogue. Similarly, players can decide whether to throw the boxing match to appease one of the High Priests – the choice gives a subversive alternate goal, but doesn’t change most following events except for the opinions of the High Priests and some select callbacks.

To make “The Haunting of Porpoise Bay” feel unique, I used our dialogue event tools to make interactive fiction episodes about exploring a haunted amusement park. (I used our character portrait display to show map locations, and dialogue choices for navigation.)

Since each mission is a replayable sandbox, it was another important design goal to give each both a distinct structure and feel to differentiate them. The first non-tutorial mission “A Matter of Pride” has a seemingly simple goal (prepare the astronauts for a boxing match) with complications and decisions arising unexpectedly. The second, “Prestige Drama,” is a scenario of social manipulation that empowers players to change the minds of the key players behind a television show, as cleverly or chaotically as they desire. The third, “The Haunting of Porpoise Bay,” is a mystery story. I used our narrative choices’ capacity for branching and looping to make a full-on text adventure about exploring a haunted amusement park and searching for clues. Depending on what players learn about the various mysteries involved, they unlock different options for how to handle the ghosts before the scenario’s final challenge.

Metagame Narrative Progression

Astronaut: The Best has a roguelite structure, where players repeat short playthroughs (1-2 hours) to unlock new options and abilities. But even though playthroughs can be so unpredictable and divergent, we wanted to link them all through an overarching storyline, and lead to a “true ending” signifying that the player has practically exhausted the game’s content.

Over the course of the five central missions, players encounter mysteries and lore hints that pay off within the metagame storyline.

Based on our overall design goals of encouraging narrative exploration, I established the following guidelines for this metagame story:

  • The story should progress between every playthrough, regardless of whether the player succeeds in space, so that players aren’t afraid to experiment and fail. Thus, it should sit outside playthroughs, rather than connecting directly to any particular mission paths.
  • The “true ending” should not be hidden in space, or acquirable at any time. Instead, it should require the overarching storyline to be advanced by completing a certain number of playthroughs.
  • Even though the metagame story sits outside the normal gameplay loop, it should escalate in a way that affects gameplay and raises its stakes.

To achieve all these goals, we decided to write a story focusing on godly interdimensional beings, so they could literally sit outside each playthrough. A mysterious and mischievous being called the “Nice Bird” gives the player optional challenges that advance the metagame story. These optional challenges can be accomplished during normal playthroughs. Players can choose between ones that escalate the game’s difficulty (such as lower starting stats), or ones that are just silly novelties (such as all astronauts having the same name). The story (centering around a crumbling metaverse and the player’s secret identity) culminates in a special “true ending” playthrough that replaces the normal ending with a climactic special challenge.

The postgame sequence allows the player to unlock new abilities and gameplay modifiers, but also features dialogue that responds to the latest playthrough or advances the metagame storyline.

As for the between-game dialogue itself, I designed a dynamic system partly inspired by Hades. It uses a bank with dozens of brief scenes, each having a priority and a related game state condition. The system simply chooses the highest-priority never-before-played scenes with a satisfied condition. Since the metagame milestones have highest priority, scenes advancing the metagame will play if necessary; otherwise the spirits respond to the player’s gameplay actions in an entertainingly responsive manner.