At Armagh Planetarium we hosted our very first video game based workshop. This summer we immersed ourselves into the blocky world of Minecraft. Using MinecraftEdu, the children that took part in these workshops got to explore possibly one of the coolest places ever, the International Space Station!
As we delved into all things Minecraft, we started to think about other video games that are set in space. Minecraft wasn’t originally set in space however it was only natural for it to branch out into the stars, with Moon mods and the like. There are games however that have been set specifically in space, and some have very intricate plotlines and subtle learning outcomes, enabling “learning by stealth”. We thought it might be fun to have a look into some of these.
The first one we have to talk about is Lunar Lander, a game that came out way back in August 1979. It was an arcade game created by Atari and used a vector monitor and vector graphics. A vector monitor or vector display was a display device used for computer graphics up through the 1970s. It is a type of Cathode Ray Tube, similar to an early oscilloscope. In a vector display, the image is composed of drawn lines rather than a grid of glowing pixels. There were other Moon landing computer games that came before it, some of which were text based games. All in all, very different to the high tech gaming platforms of today!
You can probably tell already why we like this game. It came out at a time when the Apollo 11 landing of 1969 was still very fresh in people’s minds, and it was a great way to make people feel like they were part of the experience. The objective of Lunar Lander is to pilot a lunar landing module as it prepares to touch down on the Moon, balancing rate of descent against propellant consumption. The terrain is very jagged and has only a few flat areas appropriate for landing. If the player successfully lands the module, they are awarded points based on how good the landing was and the difficulty of the landing site. If they crash points are awarded based on the severity of the crash and sometimes the player receives a fuel penalty. In either case, the game starts another round with a different set of terrain and the player’s remaining fuel. The game is over when the player has run out of fuel and crashes onto the Moon’s surface.
At the other end of graphical complexity, the Mass Effect trilogy is another brilliant space-themed game, and this one is not just about the story, it’s also about the exploration. It is infinitely more advanced than Lunar Lander and was first released on consoles such as Xbox 360 and Play Station 3. It was also available for PC gamers too. Created by Canadian company BioWare in 2007, it is a role-playing, third person shooter game. The story takes place in a fictional version of the Milky Way Galaxy in the year 2183. A complex backstory reveals that the Galaxy is partitioned into five different sectors, known as the Terminus Systems, the Attican Traverse, Inner and Outer Council Space, and Alliance Space, inhabited by various different species of alien beings. It all sounds very thrilling. Earth is a significant setting, particularly in the third instalment of the game, while the space station known as the Citadel is a recurring and highly prominent locale.
In comparison to our own space station today, the International Space Station, which is 72.8m in length, 108.5m in width and 20m in height, the fictional Citadel is a whopping 44.7km in length and 12.8km in width. The height is not specified, but you can imagine that it would be huge as well. This for us shows just how large something has to be to have sustained life in space. The fictional Citadel holds approximately 13.2 million people, whereas our real ISS can only hold six. I know it really is no comparison, as the Citadel is fictional, but I just thought it might give some perspective. As a nod to realism, the Citadel rotates on its axis to simulate gravity, a technique that one day will used in real space habitats.
The trilogy of games largely revolves around a soldier named Commander Shepard (who is female or male depending on how the player chooses), whose mission is to save the galaxy from a race of powerful mechanical beings known as the Reapers and their agents. Whilst going through the story Shepard and the crew of the starship Normandy must travel throughout the Milky Way and here is where we think things get very interesting. As you travel the galaxy not only do you get to follow the story line but you also get to survey planets and discover the materials that make up that planet. Naturally there are rocky planets and gas planets, so there is a distinct variety in the materials that you can uncover. If that wasn’t enough you can actually explore some of these planets! This is an absolute dream for astronomy and space nerds everywhere, and we can honestly say that it is very exciting, even if it is fictional. Getting to explore the different terrains, and discovering different minerals and ancient alien objects on the planets, makes you really feel like a space explorer.
The next game to be released will be Mass Effect: Andromeda and you can imagine that we’re very excited by this. This next game not only has a completely new set of characters, but it will be set in the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest neighbouring spiral galaxy. The Andromeda galaxy is a very interesting galaxy with lots to be explored, and we have no doubt that the new game will allow this. The Andromeda galaxy has roughly 450 globular clusters orbiting in and around it, and some of them are the most densely populated globular clusters to be seen. The Andromeda galaxy is one of the farthest away objects that can be spotted with the naked eye (make sure you’re in a good spot away from bright lights to view it in the autumn months.) What we wouldn’t give to explore our largest neighbour? Well thanks to Mass Effect, we will be able to, albeit a fictional version.
If you are really into exploring space, then Eve Online is a great PC game that allows for exploration. Eve Online is a massive multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) and it was developed by CCP Games. Players of this game can participate in a lot of different activities from mining, manufacturing and trading, to exploration, combat and even piracy. Players are able to navigate their space craft through a galaxy that contains roughly 7,200 star systems.
The story for Eve itself is also rather interesting. Set more than 21 000 years in the future, the background story of Eve Online explains that humanity, having used up most of Earth’s resources through centuries of explosive population growth, began colonizing the rest of the Milky Way. In turn, this expansion also led to competition and fighting over available resources as it did on Earth, but everything changed with the discovery of a natural wormhole leading to an unexplored galaxy named “New Eden”. Dozens of colonies were founded, and a structure was built to stabilize the wormhole that bridged the intergalactic colonies with the rest of human civilization, a giant gateway bearing the name “EVE”. However, when the natural wormhole unexpectedly collapsed, it destroyed the gate. Cut off from the rest of humanity and supplies from Earth, the colonies of New Eden were left starved and disconnected from one another; some died out entirely. Over the millennia the descendants of the colonists managed to survive and rebuild their own societies, but the memories and knowledge of humanity’s origins as well as their own from Earth and the Milky Way became lost. Five major distinct societies rose to prominence from the colonies, each growing into interstellar spaceflight-capable civilizations. The states based around these colonies make up the five major factions in Eve Online: the Amarr Empire, the Caldari State, the Gallente Federation, the Minmatar Republic and the Jove Directorate.
It’s quite the imaginative story and has quite the novel use of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge theory, which was produced by Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen in 1935. An Einstein–Rosen bridge, or wormhole, is a hypothetical topological feature that would fundamentally be a shortcut connecting two separate points in space-time. A wormhole may connect extremely long distances such as a billion light years or more, short distances such as a few feet, different universes, and different points in time. A wormhole is much like a tunnel with two ends, each at separate points in space-time.
Before we come to the conclusion of this look at space games, we need to take a moment to mention some icons of the gaming industry. This article would not be complete without mentioning the brilliant Space Invaders game, which was initially released back in 1978. It is a game that most people remember fondly from their youth. It has had a lasting impact, starting out as a popular arcade game and then developing into various remakes and sequels. Its music is legendary and it has been referenced many times throughout film and TV. It is clear to see that Space Invaders has had, and will continue to have a lasting legacy.
Asteroids, which was released in 1979, is another iconic game that many people have fond memories of playing. An immensely popular arcade game, it was a high scoring game that really gripped its audience. In your little triangular ship you had to destroy saucers and asteroids in order to survive and obtain the high score. In 1982, 15-year-old Scott Safran of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, set a world record of 41,336,440 points on the game, and his score remained the on to beat until 2010 when John McAllister broke Safran’s record with a high score of 41,338,740 in a 58-hour Internet livestream.
There are many space themed videos games out there and we have only spoken about five. If we tried to cover every single one, then we’d need pages and pages. Needless to say there will never really be a shortage of space themed games as it is one of the many things that fuel’s the human imagination. What’s out there? Can we explore it? How far can we go? With so many different things being discovered each year, and new missions being launched to explore our Solar System (see OSIRIS-REx, JUNO as examples), you can be guaranteed that all future space related games will be thrilling to say the least.
As Virtual Reality (VR) Technology continues to grow and expand, who knows, possibly the next great space epic we play will fully immerse us into the game, and instead of seeing the wonders of space on a flat screen we will be able to see all around us. Already VR space games exist such as Elite: Dangerous, Eve: Valkyrie and Space Pirate Trainer, and more are sure to come along. To be able to glide through a nebula, observe a supernova, and even get close to a black hole is sure fire way to entrance each budding space explorer in a way that the first space games, like Lunar Lander, sought to achieve all those years ago.
(Article by Heather Taylor, Education Support Officer)