Cortex Command - Dev & Fluff

cover splash, 2009


It's all a bit hazy now, but I remember hanging out on IRC back in 2004, getting a PM from a "Data" who wanted some graphics (maybe a title screen?) for his game "DIRT". I was hesitant but eventually agreed. I ended up making most of the graphics, various promotional art, and a few dev tools.

Depreciated DIRT logo, 2004

DIRT logo from 2004.


Because the graphics needed to be saved as individual images, I wrote some tools in BlitzMax to help me with this. Personally I always prefer working with "sprite sheets" so I can get an overview of what I'm doing.

My tools were mostly hacks not not user friendly. Often I would rewrite the program, changing constants, adding features, etc. to get the desired output.

Some of my earliest files are from mid-June 2004, like this standard soldier concept which perhaps was meant as a replacement for Data's early placeholder character to the right (might've been Ruff'n'Tumble inspired?). I can't find any full early screenshots atm.

Around the same time- no wait, my files say March 2005, I did the Battalion Wars 1 (GameCube) cover art, which featured a similar soldier design by coincidence. I remember they had a very good concept artist on that project but somehow decided to use me for the cover.

Some of the larger assets were hastily painted and then scaled down to pixel level. This delivery rocket later had to be adjusted, making the white cargo bay larger.

At around 2006-2007 some legal issues arose. I might've been "Colin McRae: DIRT" that forced a namechange to Cortex Command ("prior art" does not apply to smaller companies with no legal muscle). At this point we had come up with the controller brain idea so the title Cortex Command made more sense anyways, and it's more distinct in web searches. I think my name idea was rather plain... Brain Wars. As a kid I used to do Cyborg War drawings featuring eyes and brains in mechanized glass bowls.

Steam promo art from 2012. Before this is was sold on the Datarealms site.

Cortex Command was made at the perfect time for indie titles. The impact of Cave Story was still fresh in people's mind and the market was rather hungry for not-AAA. With not much to chose from there were lots of eyes on relatively few games. CC was a part of an early Humble Indie Bundle in 2010. Later in 2012 it was appeared on Steam.

Steam eventually got quite crowded as greenlight regulations changed and nowadays it's seemingly harder to get eyes on your project in general, even if far more polished than CC ever was.

Up until 2010 we hadn't made much information about the Cortex Command setting public. There had been a lot of ideas popping up (and down) throughout the years, but the existing documents were amoeba-like floating around in a primeval soup. It was time for something to finally take shape and crawl up on land. But it got stuck halfway and never sprouted legs because I'm a lazy git.

It's now 2022 and I'm making some kind of effort here.



Feature Ideas

Game intro

The intro slides felt like sloppy work, so I want to go back and touch up some of slides, considering things like proportions and style consistency. I also want to write a longer flavor text about each slide, just for this page.

alien meeting

[early-mid space exploration year]. Dignitaries of the Sirius Alliance meet on the doomed planet Cursa 2c to conclude trade negotiations with a Wumpus hunt. It's believed that the impressive hexagonal network of catacombs and wildlife were left behind by the Priorus - a species which was active colonizing planets in the region some 8000 years ago, before withdrawing to an unknown location. *

* Flavor text notes: The Sirius Supercluster also contains Beta Eridani, aka Cursa (in arabic?). Hunt the Wumpus is an old game which takes place in a dodecahedron maze. Wumpuses can also be found in M.U.L.E., Nethack, MtG, and other games. Since the meeting portrayed is historical, I picked Beta Eridani which is located a mere 90 ly from Sol (i.e. somewhat closeby in many sci-fi settings). I'm not really sure how fast space travel is in the CC universe or how much of the galaxy that has been colonized.

Afaik, Beta Eridani isn't a good host for planets with indigenous life, so I figured it would be better to use the colonization concept which is more probable than having each planet teeming with contemporary indigenous life anyways. I topped it off with a Precursor/Ancient race, because they create a sense of history and mystery. Oh yeah, the planet is doomed because Cursa is gonna swell up and become a red giant pretty soon (on a geological timescale).

The Priorus are giants wasps (Predators?), a nod at the hexagonal shapes of the mazes where the Wumpus (Alien?) now lurk. Priorus = Prior Us. Yeah, Well, everything else is taken (ancients, precursors, etc).

The aliens portrayed are just those of the Sirius Alliance (a small part of the OSA). The small mushroom-shaped alien species is kind of like a dog - i.e. they regulate body temperature by panting. Unfortunately their tongue is also poisonous so they have trouble making friends. Later I might try to elaborate on all of the aliens.

These design work poorly as

The Orion Spur Amalgam

As man started to explore the stars, it soon became obvious that she was not alone. She also found out that she wasn't all that interesting to most the aliens out there, at least not to begin with.

The first aliens encountered by man were two fungoids piloting a trade vessel. After receiving the very enthusiastic and colorful universal greeting from the human captain, one fungoid simply turned to the other and made a strange sound. Their ship then abruptly turned around and left.

It was later understood that the strange sound had become a humorous nickname for humans amongst the fuingoids, and means something along the lines of "How is this thing even relevant?", with undertones of indifference and confusion.

Mankind did not become a relevant player until she pioneered the development of the TradeStars and their improved FTL drive. Much to the dismay of some alien cultures, she also contributed to the formation of the massive corporations which now pretty much govern and unify the OSA.

The OSA is actually a misnomer, as the region of space controlled actually only extends few hundred light years out, whilst the Orion Spur is actually tens of thousands of light years in length and a few thousand wide. Surrounding the OSA are other groupings of more or less hostile aliens.

Culture of the OSA

ToDo: Describe the general population of the OSA. Common alien species. Important worlds. Are everyone disembodied? Which species are unsuitable? How does backwater planet look? How does the core worlds look? What do people do on space flights to amuse themselves? What kind of labor is performed by people? Humanitarian aid programs disembodies for free since a brain state consumes less energy?


Map of space

The Expatriate are a forced alliance of species which have been or are displaced from their homeworlds by what they refer to as "The great dread". They are now pressing against the northwestern borders of the OSA, which they consider "the lesser dread".

The xenophobic silicone alliance is like the name suggest an alliance of silicone based life forms. They enjoy a rich culture of art, science and spiritual practices, but act aggressively towards "organic pollution" aka carbon based life. Their borders are defended by the single minded warrior castes.

The Myskoplex is an advanced species or entity which appears to be neutral. However, all ships and stealth probes sent within a hundred light years of Myskoplex space have been destroyed swiftly.

The Trilateral is the name of the territory inhabited by three different species which all evolved on the same planet, but never got along very well. The three species have been engaged in a three way war for centuries, contesting the ownership of their homeworld (which is now a bare wasteland). It is fortunate for OSA that it will probably never have to face the united strength of the three species.

It is believed that the Space Amoebas swept though Deadspace many thousands of years ago, triggering a conflict which caused significant destruction to most planets in the region. For this reason, interest in expanding the OSA to the East has been low.

The Something. Deep scouts sent into Deadspace encountered something which either moved in after the destruction, or survived it. The deep space probes were lost before they could return any detailed information. A new group has been sent out, but will take years to reach their destination.

The Space Amoebas are huge space dwelling life forms. They are currently in their more peaceful morphological cycle, only spilling into OSA space by random. Even so, they are very difficult to handle. Large fleets are needed to counter a single amoeba.

Major corporations and factions of the OSA

Since the region of space controlled by OSA stretches out several hundred light years in all directions, it takes almost ten years to cross with current FTL drive technology. It's also a very diverse region of space in terms of population and interests. While corporations can grow to massive sizes, they often tend to be regionalized for these reasons. The exception is Free Trade.

Free Trade

FreeTrade Logotype

Free Trade (FT) is a super corporation so massive it's above all goverments, morals and conflicts. They deal with everyone and everything. They construct the massive Trade Stars to fascilitate their business. Wherever they are, they mark the center of commerce. Everything else has to adapt.

Various corporations can rent space and produce goods aboard a Trade Star. Some types of goods are restricted and can only be procured via black market channels. Free Trade officially only deals in trade, but may hire an army when they need to enforce a deal, or place a blockade.

FreeTrade places one or more large orbital space stations called a TradeStars in every star system which interests them. The TradeStars can separate into two parts. The outer hull of a TradeStar works as an industrial park or office complex, housing many large corporations. This part never leaves orbit. The central part is swappable and contains most of the cargo space and the superior FTL drive. It's the ability to move large amount of cargo quickly to the rich core worlds which cements FreeTrade's monopoly.


Alchiral Logotype

Alchiral is one of the largest manufacturers of organic human bodies. Most or all TradeStars in sectors with human populations carry a compliment of Alchiral VAT arrays. The technology is under strict control by Alchiral's overseers to ensure that their monopoly is maintained.

Human bodies are sometimes called "meat puppets", but not all "puppets" are organic. Robotic bodies are strong and durable, but causes the wearer to feel detached from both the body and the surroundings.

Recently the contributions of many different alien species has lead to great advances in bioengineering. The human bodies produced by Alchiral are as much alien as they are human. For example, the endoskeleton is coated with a thin clear muscle film which will enable a body retain some mobility when regular muscles have been severed.

Nearly every part of the body has been augmented in some way. The number of organs have been reduced to a minimum. For tactical and ethical reasons, bodies used in warfare are often controlled remotely and thus lack a brain. However, despite ethical concerns (and protests from some interest groups) there are instances of pseudo-brains being used in soldier units (especially in deepscout units which may be separated from their operators).

Due to the convergence of evolution, or perhaps just the definition of life and interfacing issues, many intelligent aliens are humanoid. This proved useful when designing the universal neurotranslator. It's a kind of dock inside the base of the skull which enables a brain to wire - say limb control to the physical limbs of the body. There's also a small receiver/transmitter for remote control.

In [unknown year], a black hat took over the body used by the President of Ouroboros Security, drove the company into ruin and then threw the Presidents body (and brain) into a meat processor. After this incident the connection security protocols were overhauled and are now believed to be impervious to cracking or disruption (just like before).


Coated endoskeleton.




Brains (human or not) can re-interface with a variety of bodies: Male, female, inter/no-sex, alien, robotic, or simply a fishbowl*, it's up to preference, sometimes. Cases of cross-species espionage and infiltration can generally be detected by a thorough security check. The bodies of brainless soldiers are simplified (lacking unnecessary organs and features), focusing more on strength, agility and durability. The exact balance depends on the mission parameters.

*Armoured glass plus life support, various connectivity options and in some cases with limited mobility by use of attachable nimble mechanical limbs. Bowled brains can more easily be inspected for signs of the dreaded brain fungus disease, or influence devices. Without a physical body they're also less vulnerable to certain bio weapons.

Corporations and factions of the far east OSA

This is a list of the factions present in the far east region of OSA (and other regions as well). When playing as a faction, the player is acting like something along the lines of the owner of a local restaurant chain, and does not have access to the funds of the entire corporation.

In the case of the planet (yet unnamed) where you're at in CC, we're looking at a very minor brawl over scanty resources. It has to be that way to work with the skirmish scale of the game. None of the factions have made a major commitment towards exploiting the planet. A few factions sent low level prospectors or something along those lines.

Coalition Military Forces

CMF Logotype

In some parts of the galaxy coalitions of large corporations is the only form of government effectively available. The military arm of one such coalition is simply referred to as the Coalition Military Forces.

The CMF buys bodies from a large corporation (Alchiral) and does not produce them themselves. Initially robotic bodies were preferred by the military corporations because of their strength and durability. Organic bodies were mainly used by the large settled human populations in the core worlds (well, at least those who could afford the upkeep of a human body). The head of a corporation might also choose a charismatic human body when issuing PR statements, etc.

However, recent advances in bioengineering has made the organic bodies viable for use in warfare, and the CMF were the first to jump aboard that ship. The CMF believes that a human soldier brain will operate better in a more comfortable human body *1. In their recruitment propaganda, the use of human bodies is a way to remind people what they are fighting for.

In reality, a lot of CMF soldier brains are stationed on patrol ships which may not see any action for long periods of time. While spending excessive amounts of time surfing the UC (UniCluster) is very popular, the CMF also believes that a soldier should be kept close to his humanity. This is why human bodies are used in training and physical recreation.

Ultimately, the Alchiral doesn't think that the CMF makes up a big enough market segment to warrant the development of a military model, and as it is, their current models are already ahead those of their competitors.

*1. The CMF makes a big thing about their soldiers having the luxury of using well made human bodies. The use of identical faces in propaganda would be detrimental to this purpose, because they want to contrast factions like the cold Imperatus conglomerate and their mass production style.

The bodies produced by the Alchiral may or may not be genetically identical. it's a moot point since certain regulative mechanisms can easily control the superficial appearance of a body as it is produced anyways.

Gameplay: Generic sci-fi marines which function to illustrate how such perform in the CC universe. They don't have any real weakness, other than not having any particular strength either.

Analogy: Souped up 50's US soldiers.

Colors: Green and minor white.

CMF concept art

CMF figures redone with my chibi proportions... which I established... was it 2008 on my Rygar concept?

CMF concept art

Sprites redone with new gamma and proportion variations. I think the pixel scale for these was 20 per meter. 2012.

CMF concept art

Static stuff.

CMF concept art

Unused idea for a heavy trooper.

CMF concept art

Happy new year 2010.

Pre-CMF triad factions... PP concept.


Techion Logotype

The Techion were formed by a small group of elite corporations focusing on high-tech research and manyfacture. They are sometimes employed and trusted by the TradeStars to do guard and escort duty.

Gameplay: The Techion prefers specialized expensive units equipped with exotic weapons.

Analogy: Elves.

Colors: White with minor dark blue/gray.

Techion concept art

Techion concept art

Techion concept art

Techion concept art


Coal, Oil, Forest, Ore and Energy are the simple names for a few of the massive corporations who through brute force have made sure they are not obsolete in the galactic age. To aid them in their conquest of new natural resources they have formed the Imperatus conglomerate.

Gameplay: The Imperatus rely on pure brute force and the reliability of their sturdy and easy to produce armored units. They use simple low rate of fire guns and cannons which tirelessly deals out good damage.

Analogy: Ogres.

Colors: Black and rust.

Imperatus concept art

Some of the early art and sprites, plus some of the later promotional pinups. Near bottom left is a painting which was turned into the top left sprite. The red dots were for joint alignment but somehow ended up visible in the game, looking like red lights. The top right painting was used on splash/logo screens early on, iirc.

Imperatus concept art

Rough ideas for units, dated 2007

Imperatus concept art

Ideas for brain mobility and peripheral ai support.

Imperatus concept art

Abandoned 2007 painting.

Imperatus concept art

Model reference featuring an updated design.

Imperatus concept art

Abandoned ideas for defensive structures, landers and heavy units.

Imperatus concept art

Process for The Nose.

Green dummies (story only)

The green dummies are cheap standard body robots which are used as general purpose labor units.

Gameplay: Very basic. They're just used once during the tutorial mission.

Colors: Tech gray, green and minor rust brown.

Tutorial Dummies concept art

Tutorial Dummies concept art

Tutorial Dummies concept art

Tutorial Dummies concept art

Orange dummies (story only)

The cheap robotic body used by the orange dummies is often used for training exercises and testing. Originally the dummies were controlled by a cheap neurotube CPU. AI programs are still not very sophisticated, but sometimes the random (and nonreplicable) qualities of the neurotube technology leads to the unexpected emergence of somewhat intelligent CPUs. This is what happened to the CPU controlling the orange dummies during a training mission. In an attempt to preserve itself, the CPU used the research facilities aboard a TradeStar to develop a defense against its antagonists. This bought it enough time to replace itself with a decoy and escape.

The official stance of various governing corporation is to respect all forms of sentient intelligent life (as many types of it has been found throughout the galaxy). The Dummy CPU is technically free to commerce just like everyone else, but the rarity of its existence has made it sought after on the black markets.

Gameplay: Dummies are not made for warfare, but sometimes their unorthodox weapon designs can offer a surprise or two.

Colors: Orange and minor tech gray

Orange Dummies concept art

Orange Dummies concept art

Orange Dummies concept art

Orange Dummies concept art

Ragtags/Ronin (story only)

These outcasts travel in rusty old ships hoping to prey upon unprepared colonies and transports. They have little or no armour, antique weapons and crazy haircuts. They use bodies belonging to convicts and occasionally some unfortunate civilian who got lobotomised after getting with the wrong crowd. Desperate poor people have also been known to rent their body (with their 'muted' brain still inside) in the hope of being able to afford disembodiment. The ranks of the Ronin are often infused with new blood every time FreeTrade kills a star system, i.e. pull out their TradeStars.

Gameplay: These are regular people, meant to provide a familiar scale. How much does falling 5 meters down on concrete hurt? These guys will illustrate. The hideouts of the Ronin can be used to put familiar furniture into the game. They do not have TradeStar access.

Analogy: Average Joes.

Colors: Mixed.

 concept art

 concept art

 concept art

 concept art

Uzira (story only)

Uzira was one of the early explorers. Her team travelled far into unknown space and eventually ran into the ancient and hostile Mu-ilaak. After many long battles both sides were exhausted. The last epic battle took place on the Moon and this is where both sides also got stranded.

Gameplay: Uzira now rests on the moon in a temple buried under thick sediments of dust. One mscenario deals with awakening her from her cryo sleep. She will then provide valuable insight on how to combat the Mu-ilaak. She wears a power armour and is not disembodied. Later on, she commands an army of skeletons (unfinished clones grown by an Alchiral VAT control chip which she snatched). He appears with reinforcements during the last mission. In the end it turns out that she owns stock in Alchiral (now of significant accumulated value).

Analogy: Medieval, Undead, Knights

Colors: Dark metal and bone.

Knight concept art

Knight concept art

Knight concept art

Knight concept art

Bombies (story only)

The Bombies aren't really a faction. They are simple antagonists which appear during one of the story missions.

During the Bombies mission, half baked Bombies are rapidly produced inside of the Vat tubes. I was thinking that the process needs to be a bit slower in the final form of that mission, since Uzira (the player / protagonist) won't have any backup, just a few bodyguard robots which she arrived with.

However, even if a Bombie only pops out every minute (slow), that's still super fast if you look at from a fluff perspective. So this begs the question:

If bodies can be grown so fast, wouldn't they be extremely cheap?

The answer could be that the bodies are printed using certain expensive raw materials. Maybe some substance (Xenocronium) is needed to make molecules bond well. 3D bio-printers would probably be pretty good in the future. We've already made some interesting progress in that field.

I can perhaps conclude that Alchiral bodies are produced so fast that putting a brain in them doesn't make sense. The AI is poor in the CC universe so I suspect that they have found no way to digitize / transfer organic consciousness either. If they had, then they'd have replicable AI computers. They simply don't know how to load data into a blank brain.

They could probably produce a human brain, but it would be an empty mass of gray matter with no experience. Sure, they could let it grow slowly in an environment where it learns the fundamentals, but this would be unethical. I think I mentioned 'Pseudo Brains' in my fluff doc as a way of some corporations of getting around the ethical problem (just a renaming tactic from their side perhaps).

At any rate it's more effective to just leave the head empty (1.5kg saved) and put a simple remote control device inside the skull and hook that up to a CPU. This way real humans brains can actually be physically transferred to a body, should the need arise (and it does, occasionally).

Of course. the Bombies are most likely faster to produce than finished bodies. Alchiral's well protected secret is a control chip which was damaged when it was tampered with (hacked to gain access), so the bodies are not coming out properly. Alchiral are not too happy about their technologies falling into the wrong hands, so they used a honeypot. Instead of a transmitter/receiver in the heads of the bodies, there's a simple chip programmed to attack anyone nearby, hopefully the thief.

Also, if the bodies had simply been unfinished they would be skeletons or flayed humans. Corrupted data lead to corrupted and miscolored bodies. Uzira who grabs the chip later only manages to get skeletons out of it because the data for the outer layers was too damaged.

Remnants of Mu-ilaak (story only)

These alien robots of unknown origin and age are found dwelling on the moon of the planet. Unfortunately they wake up and show hostile intentions.

Gameplay: These are found on the moon a bit into the story line. They are powerful robots/cyborgs, and can replicate without using facilities aboard a Trade Star. Everyone gangs up on them eventually. Yeah, it's the "united against our common enemy" plot device. In reality FreeTrade wants to get rid of them because they're bad for business.

Analogy: Initially superior, bad guys.

Colors: Red and silver.

Mu-Ilaak concept art

Mu-Ilaak concept art

Mu-Ilaak concept art

Mu-Ilaak concept art

Life forms

Not too long ago in cosmological terms, nearly all of the life on the planet was annihilated. There are several theories, like orbital bombardment, a gamma ray burst, space amoebas, and the exotic theory that most of the life forms were petrified by the mysterious space cloud which now hangs near the planet. The only surviving animal form is strange kind of crab which survived thanks to it's ability to grow a protective cocoon during hibernation. A certain kind of plant also survived thanks to a similar ability. With no competition left, these two lifeforms quickly evolved and conquered many niches.

Gameplay: Some plants and animals are dangerous.

Colors: Green, biege, orange, pink (dangerous).

rough concepts for indigenous life


I think it's important to add a buffer with stuff around the primary setting, otherwise a sci-fi universe can feel a bit like a comic where no backgrounds have been drawn in.

FreeTrade are not too happy about large warships firing their weapons near their TradeStars other when there's good reason. In the case of the peripheral worlds, FreeTrade might tolerate some rules being bent, but when the story starts the planet is a big unknown and there are 230 000 other star systems with potential resources. There are probably no large ships of any faction near 'the planet', since it's unknown whether it's worth the investment.


Story scenarios

Awaiting cleanup! Aside from the intro, this is the way to put the fluff into the game. The scenarios will have a little intro, midtro and extro which puts... fluff on the bones of each faction.



Plastic fig ideas

Dropvault, 2006.

Morphing lander, 2006.

Bunker module and brain vault thoughts, 2006.

Explosion feel, 2007.

Hover dropships, 2006.

Brain UI ideas, 2007.

Brains, 2006.

Forum badges, 2009.

Robopope, 2012.

- End of Cortex Command fluff doc - by Niklas Jansson / Dan Tabar / DataRealms, 2004-2010.