For an environment that is more or less infinite, space is unbelievably scarce. That’s because right now, there are only two ways to be in it without dying: staying on a planet like Earth, where you can enjoy the benefits of oxygen and gravity and Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, or jaunting around in a tiny metal box. Until human beings gain the ability to leave our bodies and float around as wispy, carefree spirits, them’s your choices. Sorry chum.
In fact, it’s barely a choice at all. Because while everybody lives on Earth, only tiny, tiny fraction of us will actually enter one of those metal boxes and go for a spin outside our atmosphere. Forget the nonsense of SpaceX and Dragon and all the weird and wonderful civilian space projects out there – they all work pretty well, but nobody in the next twenty or thirty years is actually going to be able to afford to use them. Not unless you earn more than the annual gross domestic product of Ghana every month.
So that eliminates, let’s see…around 7.199999999 billion of us. Not to worry! There are ways to experience space which don’t rely on bank accounts with more than the usual number of zeroes. Books are one way (including this one). Movies are another. But for my money – what little of it there is – videogames are among the best way to experience space, without all the inconvenience of monstrous cash outlays and six-month training camps and a real chance of horrific and violent death.
Here are six of the best videogames that let you experience space in all its glory.
Best for seeing what space stations could actually look like: Alien: Isolation
This is the best Alien game ever made. Which isn’t saying much – the Alien game franchise has ranged from competent to utterly horrendous. Isolation is great in parts, often properly scary, but it’s let down by repetitive tasks, huge plot holes and a story that is about three times as long as it needed to be. But if you want to experience what life is like on a massive, complex space station – complete with antigravity sections and some truly unbelievable views of nearby planets and moons – this is the game to go for.
Everything about the station feels real. Outside of the 1970s vibe and blocky computer screens, it’s exactly what a space station would look like if it were built by, say, Comcast. On second thought, the blocky computer screens are exactly what would happen if Comcast built a space station.
Best for experiencing how scary space is: Dead Space
The problem with space stations is that they’re terrifying. You are almost always no more than a few sheets of metal away from a void that will boil your eyeballs in fifteen seconds. Dead Space knows this, and although the necromorphs it infests its Ishimura mining ship with are horrific enemies, it’s the creaking walls, flickering lights, ruined amphitheatres and gently-cracking windows that will instil the real fear.
Because that’s the problem in space. You think keeping your flat tidy is hard work? Try keeping a hulking spaceship looking box-fresh, when the nearest hardware store is 140 billion miles away. Space stations (and ships) always end up as a total mess, and no game showed that off better than Dead Space.
Best for mucking around in zero-gravity: Tacoma
Now to be fair, Tacoma ain’t out yet. It’s a forthcoming indie game, where you play a woman arriving on a space station that has undergone some sort of unspecified cataclysm. Sounds a bit like Dead Space, right? Difference is, this isn’t a horror game – I think. It’s a first-person, slow-paced exploration puzzler, and the best part is that it gives you the full experience of zooming around in microgravity.
That’s the one thing that a lot of videogames set in space gloss over. Yes, there is gravity on this ship. There just is. Stop asking questions. No, stop right now, or we’ll feed you to a necromorph.
Best way to have gravity, by the way, is to have a spinning station. Have it spin fast enough, and you can replicate the gravity enjoyed by regular humans in Iowa or Delhi or Woolloomooloo. And in a further by the way, I’m very proud to say I have actually been to Woolloomooloo. It’s in Sydney, Australia, and it’s very nice.
Best for pretending you’re Mal Reynolds from Firefly: Star Citizen
Okay, let’s say you’ve had it with space stations. You wanna get out there! You’ve got ninety-one billion light years of universe to explore, and what you really want to do is fly out into the middle of it and shoot something. I don’t blame you. That sounds awesome.
Star Citizen isn’t actually out yet. It’s one of the most successful crowd funded games of all time, and every indication I’ve seen is that it’s going to be absolutely amazing. It’s all about first person space combat exploration. You can also trade goods back and forth between outposts, or become a pirate if you can’t be bothered with the paperwork.
But you’re going to have to wait for it. It doesn’t have a projected release date yet, despite loads of footage. But I personally guarantee that you will be able to play this game before you are able to actually orbit the Earth. Then again, back in 2000 we were saying that Dr Dre’s Detox album was coming, like, next year for sure.
Best for those who want to be Scottie from Star Trek: FTL: Faster Than Light
Flying a spaceship isn’t just about pointing the nose at the nearest planet and hitting the afterburners. In real life, there are a million different factors that need to be taken into account. Usually, some wonk at NASA would handle that for us, but if you’re the kind of person who enjoys fiddling with data and micromanaging everything, then I strongly recommend FTL: Faster Than Light.
In fairness, it’s actually a lot of fun. Although its top-down viewpoint isn’t exactly realistic, you’re fully in control of the ship’s engines, weapons, life support and crew while navigating a hostile universe. There are no continues here: if the ship explodes or the crew dies, it’s back to square one.
Best for people who want warp drives for Christmas: No Man’s Sky
This is the big one. It’s the game that everyone has been geeking out over for months. It gives you an absolutely enormous universe with procedurally-generated planets, each populated by alien wildlife and ancient relics. You and your ship are set loose to explore, and if that’s all you want to do (with the occasional dogfight thrown in) then No Man’s Sky is where it’s at.
It’s certainly not the best for realism. You can climb into your spaceship and be in lower planetary orbit in about ten seconds flat–and be in a completely different galaxy thirty seconds later. But No Man’s Sky is shaping up to show off one thing really, really well: the sheer size and diversity of the universe. If you have even the tiniest interest in space, you’d be crazy not to play this game.