Bringing the possibilities of the Galaxy to you!
Outer Space is totally awesome. It is a vast unknown made even more desirable by its unattainability. Who hasn’t looked up at the stars and wondered at the secrets it holds: Other worlds where life may flourish? Wormholes and other crazy, cosmic anomalies? Matt Damon fist-fighting Matthew McConaughey? I dream of a new Age of Discovery in space with rockets launching daily into the sky, en route with fresh explorers and colonists and filled with the same wonder and optimism as the European voyages of the 16th century – except without all the communicable diseases and slavery.
Unfortunately, while the United States space budget is still easily the highest in the world, it is a shadow of its former 1960s glory. The current political climate doesn’t seem to have space exploration as a priority above petty terrestrial issues such as “stable economies” and “not killing one another.” Even though it looks like we may be getting the hoverboards and self-lacing shoes predicted by Back to the Future II, with unfortunate setbacks like the Virgin Galactic crash and Ted Cruz basically being put in charge of NASA it seems human space exploration and colonization will have to remain a dream for now. Even the scientists and other professionals in the space industry are forced to watch from afar while robots get to do all the real exploring. Lucky robots.
Fortunately for those of us who like to lose ourselves in a little escapism, virtual space exploration is available in the form of video games. Though gaming can be a nice distraction from reality, they can also focus and inspire scientific discovery like many science fiction television shows, films and books have in the past. I’ve been on a bit of a space gaming kick lately so I thought I’d share some of the games that scratch that particular space itch.
From the creator: “(Space Engine is) a free space simulation program that lets you explore the universe in three dimensions, from planet Earth to the most distant galaxies.” It is a very pretty, free space explorer. Though it honestly doesn’t have what some would consider “gameplay.” It is more of a Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” simulator, letting you explore worlds that are both real and procedurally generated.
The fourth game in the long-running Elite series and further into the sci-fi spectrum, this online space shooter/trader/explorer gets props for using real astronomical data combined with fast-paced flight and combat. If you have played similar games like “Wing Commander: Privateer,” then you may have an idea of what sort of game this is. It is especially immersive as it supports TrackIR head tracking software and HOTAS (Hands On Throttle-And-Stick) setups natively. It also boasts a map of more than 400 BILLION systems that you can visit, though not in any human lifetime.
Cutthroat space capitalism – the MMO. This massive multiplayer online game takes place in a distant galaxy and focuses on player controlled factions out in deep space. It boasted what was probably the most impressive star-map until Elite: Dangerous came along. You can sit in the small, heavily policed “Player Versus Environment” (PvE) area if you want, but you’ll be missing out on the greater metagame taking place in the outer reaches of the galaxy. If you have ever wanted to know what it feels like to be a tiny pawn in a great economic war machine, you can join one of the many completely player owned and operated megacorporations.
Kerbal Space Program
Okay, forget those other games. This is THE space game. Kerbal Space Program seeks to simulate all the aspects of running your own space program, from orbital physics (what the heck is an “apoapsis?”) to atmospheric drag. The game features a career mode where you must conduct research and secure funding, and a sandbox mode where you may build rockets to your heart’s content. Never mind about exploring distant star systems, in KSP you’ll be delighted just to get your scrapped together rocket into orbit. Experience all the elation of landing your plucky crew of Kerbals on the nearby moon and the horror when you realize you don’t have enough fuel to make it home. The creators have even collaborated with NASA to create in-game missions such as an asteroid interception. The game is technically still in beta, but there is plenty of content to keep you busy.
The point is while the Space Age of Discovery may still be very far in the future, we can use our existing technology and resources to bring space to us in the form of computer games and simulations, tv series and films, books and tabletop RPGs. I remain optimistic that the seed of inspiration brought by these mediums will eventually grow into a future where we can get over our earthly selves and look towards that next, seemingly impossible frontier – and exploit the HECK out of it.