Video games have always looked to the stars. In the late 1970s, the vector graphics of Lunar Lander and Asteroids evoked the unknown, dark void of the cosmos. Earlier this year, No Man’s Sky captured its vastness. But what lies ahead in the great video game space race?
Science fiction provides a convenient fantasy setting in which to build game worlds, and the promise of highly advanced technology has always been fertile ground for developing novel game mechanics.
More recently, games pitched as immersive space sims are attracting the most attention, and correspondingly causing the most controversy among the gaming community.
What Exactly Is A Space Sim?
Is Dead Space a space sim? Is Mass Effect? Is StarCraft? I would say not. These are all games that take place in sci-fi space settings, but, structurally speaking, they are standard examples of more traditional video game genres (FPS, RPG, RTS). A space sim, sure, is set in space, but it also pitches its main selling point as the experience of space.
Space captures the imagination because it’s effectively infinite, with the possibility of new phenomena waiting in the void for intrepid explorers to discover. A real space sim channels that sense of mystery and possibility and promises the player that they can explore space virtually. This is exploration in its space as final frontier a la Star Trek sense. It includes going into uncharted territory, seeing wonders but also colonizing them. A good space sim should be visually stunning in order to do justice to its environment, but it’s a game, and the player should be able to do something with that environment. The space explorer isn’t a tourist, but a pioneer.
The challenge of the space sim is to say something about humanity’s place in the universe.
There are two big names out there that are carrying the reputation of the space sim on on their backs, and one of them, Hello Games’ #NoMansSky, promised much but was considered a dismal failure, earning the ire of many gamers who had hoped for so much more. The other big name, with years of development and millions of dollars in crowdfunded donations under its belt, is #StarCitizen. Some may argue that the story of No Man’s Sky is far from over, but many hopes that were previously pinned on the title have jumped ship to Star Citizen.
The Real-Life Space Dream Died, But Is It Coming Back?
During the Post-WW2 Era, we witnessed the golden age of space exploration by the world’s then-superpowers, the USA and the USSR. In 1961, when the Soviet Union launched the first man into space (Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1), the United States declared itself to be in a ‘Space Race’ with the Soviets. It was this competitive drive that funneled money into the space program and put a man on the Moon. Of course, a lot of drive behind space exploration was motivated by less than noble ideology, as a proxy for geopolitical competition. But there was also some real humanism behind the efforts, as embodied by Neil Armstrong’s famous words ‘One giant leap for mankind’.
Late 20th century science fiction and pop culture exulted in the fantastic possibilities offered by the potential development of space exploration technology. Science fiction as we know it, with its starships and aliens and human societies on distant worlds. Sci-fi proved to be a diverse well of heady themes, from straightforward adventure stories to speculative narratives about human society changed via the influence of advanced technology or social evolution.
Fiction is fiction, but with the advances that we’d seen in space exploration technology in such a short time span, it’s no wonder that there was a public impression of manned moonbases by the year 2000.
Post-Cold War, government and public enthusiasm for space travel seemed to cool as we approached the millennium. It never stopped, and the focus thankfully shifted from competition to international cooperation. But political, financial, and technical factors combined to make manned space exploration seem further away as years went on. But the dream lingered on in the hearts of true believers.
Space Cowboys and Capitalism
Some of those geeky true believers went on to make a lot of money. Billionaire entrepreneur and uber-nerd Elon Musk founded SpaceX, a private sector space exploration company with a long term goal of human settlement on Mars (where Musk hopes to die, although not upon impact). The new spirit of manned space expeditions is different from what came before.
The source of our fears, that which we wish to blast off and escape from, has also changed with the times. While the late 20th century era looked to the stars as a way to unify a humanity whose competing ideologies threatened the species with nuclear annihilation on Earth, now our crisis is the threat of man-made climate change and reckless consumption of resources.
The new ideology of private space exploration, informed by Silicon Valley Libertarianism, offers an escape from the pressure cooker of 21st Century capitalism. We may be plundering and destroying and overpopulating our world, but we don’t have to stop consuming. We just need to advance our technology high enough to take our consumption to the next level. Once we can spread across the galaxy, there’ll be enough space for everybody.
Space promises new worlds to colonize, new resources to exploit that aren’t controlled by corporations or taxed by governments, endless expansion into new frontiers. A manifest destiny of the stars.
Space sims bring this fantasy of the intergalactic Wild West into our apartments. It’s effective escapism that directly addresses the anxieties of our age. I would argue, that on top of all the high-end graphical artistry on display, one of the reasons why fans get so passionate about the prospect of a good space sim is that the fantasy feels so effectively liberating from the problems of the world we live in.
Space sims channel the Old West spirit of the pioneer, but also the gunslinger. Freedom isn’t free, and anyone who goes prospecting for resources in the lawless expanse of space had best back up their claim with a blaster. Obviously, in a video game, this is all part of the fun. If we ever get there in reality, one hopes that we’ll adopt a more co-operative spirit.
No Man’s Sky Carried the Torch and Got Burned
Regular readers will no doubt be aware of the controversy around No Man’s Sky. Hello Games’ space sim, despite being developed by a tiny indie team, was massively hyped as a title that would revolutionize the industry and challenge complacent AAA titles with its innovation. No Man’s Sky promised a universe for players to explore and interact with each other in, filled with interesting things to do.
Gamers hoping for the next great big space sim attached themselves to No Man’s Sky with an almost fanatical fervor. But it did not turn out to be the messiah they had been waiting for.
The procedurally generated worlds were impressive only in their number, and not so much for their variety. Players complained that the gameplay was bland, shallow, repetitive. There was no sign of multiplayer interaction with other players, no space battles, pirates, or complex ecosystems. The promised flight of fancy took off like the Challenger as it fell apart trying to overcome the pressure of the hype that had been piled on it before launch.
The backlash against No Man’s Sky and its project lead, Sean Murray, was swift, merciless and maybe not entirely deserved. The game was even investigated by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority. In the end, the game’s many merits are overshadowed by its failure to live up to the hype. Opinion is divided on whether No Man’s Sky is a good decent game, and it is still receiving new content and updates that could rescue it from the scrap heap. What is clear is that, for all its potential, it did not turn out to be the space sim that the public is so desperately hungry for.
Star Citizen Preparing For Lift-Off
Star Citizen, the upcoming MMO space sim developed by Chris Roberts (Wing Commander, Freelancer), smashed crowdfunding records when it secured $124 million of investment in September 2016.
Star Citizen has the potential to be the vast, immersive space game everyone hoped No Man’s Sky would be. Rolling multiple gameplay mechanics â€” including space trading, combat simulation and FPS elements â€” into a shared online world, Star Citizen refuses to be constrained by traditional notions of genre. On top of that, it’s looking graphically gorgeous and just plain huge.
If Star Citizen makes good on its promises, players will be able to explore a huge shared universe and also extract resources, trade and interact with each other on a level that would be impossible in No Man’s Sky. ‘Citizen’ isn’t just a snazzy title, the players will have to actually form societies. There’ll be conflict over resources, and the shooter gameplay elements need to be present to facilitate that, too.
Fans, developers and even journalists have learned from the inadvertent game industry cautionary tale that is No Man’s Sky. Cloud Imperium Games, the company behind Star Citizen, seems to have understood the vast, sustained leap of faith that they’re demanding from their followers, and announced that it will be releasing its production schedule on a weekly basis in an attempt to be more transparent with its fans and backers.
The video game Space Race is on, and Star Citizen is a favorite to win. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other games in the running. Eve Online has existed in since 2003, and is hugely popular, with complex economic systems, alliances and devastating conflicts. Elite: Dangerous came out in 2014, with a lot of the elements that are also promised by Star Citizen. But it wasn’t the full package.
Neither of these games were enough and people still mistakenly looked to No Man’s Sky to bring fulfillment. There remains a gaping black hole in the hearts of those gamers yearning for the One Space Adventure to Rule Them All.
Interestingly, #MassEffectAndromeda is also breaking away from its predecessors in the franchise to bring planetary colonization, resource gathering, base-building and crafting to a game series that’s generally been more of a traditional RPG set in space. But it remains to be seen whether it will shape up to be a worthy space sim in its own right, or just riding the comet tails of the current space exploration zeitgeist.
Will It Ever Be Enough?
Will Star Citizen be enough? Will it be enough for kids who poured over an atlas of the solar system and dreamed of being an astronaut? Who wondered if there might be bases on the Moon, or on Mars, by the time they grew old, and watched that possibility only seem ever more distant as the years rolled by? Can video games bring us closer to that fantasy?
Star Citizen, or any space sim worthy of its subject matter, is going to have emotions running high because of that deep yearning for freedom that we have in a world that feels out of control, a freedom that we look to the stars for.
Star Citizen has a complicated relationship to capitalism. Part of the whole space sim fantasy is how it would relieve the tension of our current economic and environmental crises. On the other hand, Chris Roberts is like the Elon Musk of gaming, a businessman-hero seen as a genius by many followers. Roberts is selling us the virtual space dream and, just like with SpaceX, there are enough people who believe that the right Great Man, given enough money, can promise the moon and deliver it wrapped in a ribbon.
But Star Citizen isn’t going to live and die on the amount of money thrown at it, even as the millions pile up. To really give the people what they crave, it’s going to need an emotional core. That humanistic element that made heroes out of Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin. The challenge of the space sim is to say something about humanity’s place in the universe.
Star Citizen suggests that the idea of ‘citizenship’ in the wider universe is a theme that it will concern itself with, but we’ve yet to see if that theme will take on anything of substance. Star Citizen might not have that much to say after all, but still be beautiful, fun and an overall great game. It might also crash and burn.
One thing is for sure. Much like No Man’s Sky, the spectacle of its long-awaited launch will provide a fascinating view from Earth.
This article originally appeared on video games magazine site NowLoading.co. The site is no longer online, but I’ve uploaded a selection of articles from my time as a staff writer there (2016-2017) here as portfolio samples.