What I love about outer space is that it really is the Final Frontier. For those who, even occasionally, turn to videogames for glimpses of worlds beyond our own, games set in space have a lot to offer since the setting allows for a lot of… well, space — I’m afraid I’ll have to be doing this space/outer space thing throughout this piece. My native language, Dutch, is no better in this regard, with its ruimte, which too can mean both space and outer space.
Considering the practically unending amount of locales our universe has to offer, it is perhaps surprising that few games really make use of that limitless expanse. On second thought, maybe it’s not that surprising. Many a game is constrained by the story it wants to tell and/or the use of locations that have to be more or less meticulously designed by hand, a process that takes up valuable development time. Either that, or the games are so abstract in terms of location that it makes little sense to speak of specific spaces with reference to the actual universe.
To even approach the scale of our universe on a feeling-level, you’d need at least a few dozen star systems, including numerous planets in each system, for a player to explore. An older game which I revisited lately which features such a large universe is Star Control II (Toys for Bob, 1992).1 It’s a game that necessitates exploration of its many star systems, because you need to gather resources and contact alien races to upgrade your space fleet and ultimately rescue Earth from beneath the yoke of the Ur-Quan. The game’s universe contains over 500 of these star systems with numerous planets and moons each, all of which have different traits, colours, weather, hazards, valuable resources, and inhabitants. So while there is definitely a motive for visiting all these systems, the sheer amount of locales foregrounds the possibilities of exploration. Echoes of this approach can be felt even in more recent works like FTL and Mass Effect, though neither affords the same vastness-combined-with-freedom as Star Control II. FTL is procedural and therefore potentially endless, but each playthrough is unidirectional, preventing free exploration in a true sense. Mass Effect, in turn, is free, but its worlds are manually designed and constrained in number.
But Star Control was 1992. My inner space explorer recently perked up at the sight of MirrorMoon EP (2013, Santa Ragione). There are many things to like about this game, and I gravitated strongly towards its minimal, stylised graphical palette and the crisp ambient soundtrack. It’s an enigmatic title, dumping you into the transparent cockpit of an unfamiliar spacecraft, leaving you to twiddle the knobs and find out what everything does. Once you solve that initial mystery, you are confronted with the game’s planets and titular mirrormoons. Each pair construes a puzzle made of hollow buildings and mysterious devices. Navigating each planet’s barren surface is a challenge, as is activating structures and assembling your ‘moon control device’, for lack of a better word. While there’s freedom in flying through MirrorMoon’s many planetary pairs, I felt somewhat confined in its universe. Maybe it’s the colours and textures, which offer less variety than I had expected of a game that emphasises exploration to such a degree. That each location presents itself as a big, nagging question mark might also have something to do with it. Perhaps I haven’t spent enough time to really unlock the secrets the game harbours, but in a way, having to unlock anything in the first place might be the very thing that bothers me.
Playing MirrorMoon, I mostly want to be playing Noctis again, which is one of the game’s spiritual parents, and a fellow title from the Italian games underground. I’ve extolled the virtues of Noctis before,2 but it bears repeating that it is a superb piece of software—heck, let’s call it a game—that makes the explorer into the accomplice of the digital artist. Noctis’ procedurally generated galaxy literally has billions of star systems, complete with planets, moons, and even the occasional sign of life. It’s a cornucopia of colours and shapes that places no barriers between you and discovery, except for the arcane workings of its spaceship (sound familiar?). Sure, there’s nothing to do in the game but explore, but that’s exactly the point, as I will discuss later.
The current version of Noctis is, nevermind its elegant design, getting a bit old, and I was anxious for some sort of variation on its practically perfect model. MirrorMoon wasn’t exactly it, but luckily there’s another candidate. I’m grateful to Cara Ellison for writing about Space Engine last year.3 After trying it on for size it’s safe to say that it is the true spiritual heir to Noctis: a vast simulation of our known and particularly unknown universe, procedurally generated where necessary to fill in the voids of our knowledge—i.e. virtually everywhere. With even fewer obstructions than Noctis, you are free to fly about, to explore, to boldly go. Capture a triple sunrise, the shadow of rings on a purple atmosphere, the dark day of a planet lit by a dying star. It takes the scale of Noctis, but renders it in contemporary graphics and scientific accuracy. Did I mention it’s the work of one man, Vladimir Romanyuk? Again, there is no game in that very particular sense of the word, though Noctis and Space Engine both are simulations. Most importantly, they offer up space (in both senses of the word) in a way that feels right to me.
Space games, by their own procedural rhetoric, put a stamp on their spaces. In Star Control 2 or the Mass Effect games, spaces to explore become places from which to extract resources. While it is of course possible to fly around Mass Effect just to admire the view—particularly Mass Effect 1 with its Mako missions—the game’s story and mechanics urge you to (also) treat its places pragmatically. Extract what you need/want and move on. In a way, it’s an exploitative model of outer space based on historical patterns of exploration on Earth, and I would caution morally against implementing it in real life.
MirrorMoon, in turn, conceptualises the universe as a puzzle, with every celestial body hanging together in a big, solvable picture, which is even expressed by an overall completion percentage for each iteration of its universe. There’s an abstract scientific and spiritual charm in this idea: working together with other explorers to solve the Great Mystery. At the same time, it feels reductionistic, in the sense that there is little more to this mystery than the solving itself. Like the universe was made solely to be fixed by its own inhabitants.
Sometimes, I just want the universe to be. Not for me or anyone else. Not to be repaired or made whole. Just as it is, continually changing, because and for itself. Perhaps the best or only way to express this sentiment in a simulation is to strip away interactivity and goals, forcing the player to become a mere observer, a disembodied traveller. A guest.