Space is incredible, but too many games are missing the point

January 31, 2020
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I only really noticed this recently, but I am big into Neptune. I’m into a lot of planets, to be honest, because I just think planets are pretty interesting, but there’s something about Neptune – above the big, beige, sickly ’70s kitchen swirls of Venus, Jupiter and Saturn, or the slightly threatening blankness of Uranus, or Mercury (boring), or Mars (old news, too many dead robots) – that makes Neptune stand out.

I think a lot of it is how it’s pictured, which itself is obviously a lot to do with just how far away it is. We’ve only ever sent one spacecraft (Voyager 2, in the ’80s) far enough out there into the abyss to actually capture images of Neptune up close. It’s the only planet in our solar system so far away that it can’t be seen without a telescope. The only one, as a result, the world’s ancient civilizations never discovered – and doesn’t it look the part? It feels like every image of Neptune is the same: deep, magnetic, hungering blue with the odd streak of white, stark against pure black. Massive, terrifying. I love it because it just seems so completely unknowable. If I think for too long about what it would be like to see Neptune in person I start to feel a little sick, like vertigo, or a sort of inverse claustrophobia. The same sense of cloying panic only from being so totally overexposed and far away, cut off and adrift, not just from Earth and home and people but from everything. From infinity! Eugh.

Anyway, I got to thinking about Neptune because I was, first, thinking about why some recent space-faring games – that I promise I want to love – have been so good at putting me off. Journey to the Savage Planet is the obvious one, but there’s also The Outer Worlds which, to someone who has no desire to play any more of either, might as well be the same thing. The trend in these sorts of space games, it seems, is to use that setting’s infinite opportunity for invention to make slightly wet, slightly clunky, slightly (but not entirely) self-aware London Underground poster jokes about capitalism and consumer culture – and to ignore all the actual space stuff.

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