A Guest Beyond the Final Frontier 1


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.

sc2

Star Control II

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.

MirrorMoon EP

MirrorMoon EP

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.

Noctis

Noctis

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 Engine

Space Engine

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.

  1. Available on GOG​.com, or as a free­ware title under the name The Ur-Quan Masters. []
  2. Noctis: The Loneliness of Night” []
  3. 2012: A Space Engine” on Rock Paper Shotgun. []

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.


One thought on “A Guest Beyond the Final Frontier

  • Thomas Papa

    Great read, the uni­verse as “sim­ply” being a place to be in, with the pos­si­bil­i­ty — and focus on — care­ful obser­va­tion, is right up my alley.

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