This article is best read while listening to this. Just a suggestion.
Space Invaders, 1978. An alien force lays siege to the Earth. They are unbeatable. The Earth will always fall.
Mass Effect 3, 2012. An alien force lays siege to the Earth. They seem unbeatable. They very nearly are. The Earth almost falls.
The vast knowns and unknowns of space have long served as inspiration to video game makers. Usually, space games have involved combat of some kind, a battle against extra-terrestrial forces intent on obliterating or enslaving mankind. Combat can play out on a massive scale in orbit, or in tighter ground environments, a crack team of just a few committed soldiers doing what they must to save the day, and humanity's future. We've all played these games, and we all have our favorites.
The fascination of space must have been so different to the generation above mine, when humankind was genuinely reaching for the stars in a media-amplified way that we simply don't see now, when the Space Race played out on broadcasts simultaneously seen by hundreds of millions—although the natural fragmentation of modern multi-media culture certainly plays a part in that feeling of disconnection, information disseminated where once it was centralized.
What a thrill it must have been to witness those first steps on the Moon as they happened, and the first televised space walk. And how deeply saddening it was when our manned missions ended in tragedy. I was only five when the Challenger exploded over the Atlantic in 1986, and remember nothing of its coverage, but I was 22 when Columbia disintegrated on re-entry into our atmosphere in the spring of 2003. For someone who'd played with space-themed LEGO, built his own shuttles out of plastic kits and bits of cardboard, and pored over so many books on our Solar System in his childhood—books that very much considered Pluto the ninth planet orbiting our sun—it was heart breaking. The human loss of course takes precedence over anything else, but it was the beginning of the end for NASA's Space Shuttle program—the final mission landed in July 2011.
But hasn't that innate desire for discovery in all humans been stirred lately? First came the incredible photographs of Pluto (which will always be a planet to me), transmitted from the New Horizons probe, launched in January 2006 with its goal to look into the early formation of the Solar System, which means reaching the (Pluto-housing) Kuiper belt. Seeing this distant celestial body's nitrogen ice, its hazy atmosphere and ancient mountains, in such amazing detail, felt like touching another world—one unlike ours, but a sister of it, related by a shared mother sun. And then we found (another) another Earth, the most Earth-like another-Earth yet, Kepler-452b.
On Motherboard: Why Do We Love Pluto So Much?
So here I am, enthused by man's continuing push into the depths of space, by new discoveries and possibilities, looking over the schedule for upcoming video games, and all I want to do is escape orbit, ideally by myself. I've nothing against traveling with company—I loved my time as Commander Shepard across three Mass Effect games, mixing with an array of alien allies (and, every so often, bonking the shit out of them). But having found myself working to the soundtracks to Solaris (the remake) and Moon today (Sunshine and Under the Skin too, actually, if you're at all curious), my mood has taken a turn for the rather less social. And these forthcoming games are ideally suited to my lonesome adventuring.
First comes Adr1ft, released in September. The work of a small team at indie studio Three One Zero, and published by 505 Games (Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Terraria, Abzu), it casts the player as an astronaut, Alex Oshima, attempting to piece together the recent past, having awoken in orbit above Earth amid a wrecked space station with no recollection of why the place is in such a state. Alex has oxygen levels that require regular monitoring, because space, while audio logs provide clues as to the fates of the station's crew. The objectives are clear and concise: survive and find a way back home, while in a constant state of zero gravity.
Writer and director Adam Orth is a former Microsoft employee who, after telling upset Xbox users to "deal with it" when the plan was for an always-online Xbox One, was met by a barrage of shit across social media. A standard response, and you might even argue that he brought it on himself somewhat. Nevertheless, Adr1ft is the positive result of that painful time in Orth's life and career, serving as a "pretty obvious metaphor" for what he went through. The game is, in more of Orth's own words, about "action, consequence, and redemption." It also looks stunning, as the below IGN First footage shows.
'Adr1ft' will also support Oculus Rift—so imagine this, in virtual reality. Awesome.
No Man's Sky is slightly different and if you need me to go into what that's all about, where have you been these past 18 months? (Course, you can always catch up.) I appreciate that the hype for Hello Games' space-exploration epic has reached a level that the end product's experience can't possibly surpass, but all the same, I am so excited to strap myself into my little ship and find entirely new (procedurally generated) worlds and wildlife to name whatever the hell I want. First space-goat I come across, he's Dave. The second one, Clive. And so on. Animals need real names, too, and there is nothing wrong with calling a weird bipedal insect thing Colin if it just feels right.
No Man's Sky should be out for PC and PlayStation 4 this side of Christmas (2015), but I'll have to wait until 2016 (which means you do, too) for Tacoma, the new sci-fi game from Gone Home makers Fullbright. Tacoma is set on the lunar transfer station that gives the game its name, some 200,000 miles from Earth (which puts it in a pickle if more of these asteroids come along). Exactly what's going on in the game won't be fully revealed until its release, but Tacoma features on Game Informer's current cover, so some basics are out there. The lights are on in this place, but nobody's home, save for hologram figures all over the place that may reveal clues as to what's happened. Like Adr1ft, it seems more of a cerebral puzzler than a run-for-your-life affair.
You are Amy Ferrier, a new arrival on the station who's set for a year-long working stay. It's the "most remote, least cushy posting in the whole system," Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor told Game Informer—and yet, I'm eager to go there and meet its overseeing (and quite possibly secrets-withholding) AI, Odin. The studio doubled in size after Gone Home's success to make Tacoma, which as the trailer below shows, is already quite the looker.
The Tacoma is a beautiful 'ghost ship' in space—but are you as alone as you think?
Both Tacoma and Adr1ft look like encapsulating feelings of loneliness, of abandonment so far from home comforts—but neither will threaten the player in a direct way. Nothing nasty is chasing you though the Tacoma's corridors, or the zero-g of Adr1ft's fractured environments (or, at least, not yet based on what's been seen). Routine, though, presents a very real danger to its player. The work of LunarSoftware, a four-person British team, this is a non-linear, first-person survival horror game set in an abandoned Moon base. I'm not usually any good with scary games, but I stuck it out through a lot of last year's nerves-fraying Alien: Isolation because its setting and atmosphere was incredible (for most of its, to be honest, slightly overlong duration), and this indie production looks to be ticking some comparable boxes.
Routine's been in development since 2012, at least, when it got a teaser trailer for Gamescom, and there's still no release date set for it. The last update on LunarSoftware's website is from March this year, and says, basically, that the game remains a work in progress, although it's now going "better than ever." They're promising new videos in the future, between now and release, but today the one below is the most recent one we have and don't you just want to get stuck right into it? The retro-futurist look of Routine aligns perfectly with my love of things like the first Alien movie, and Duncan Jones' more recent Moon.
You are definitely not alone in 'Routine.'
Of course, rather grander space adventures (not that No Man's Sky isn't grand, but it's a small-budget game compared to these ones) are available both now and in the near future. Elite: Dangerous will soon come to consoles having been a success on PC; ambitious space-sim Star Citizen is expected in 2016, having raised an incredible $85 million in public funding; and the release of the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, will be preceded by EA's Star Wars: Battlefront this November, in which you can choose to be either a Rebel Alliance soldier or Imperial stormtrooper, or play as a character from the film series.
Space, then, is very much the place for video gaming adventures—as it's always been, sure, but the experiences of today and tomorrow offer more than simply aiming at an enemy and slapping a fire button, just as 2001: A Space Odyssey is unlikely to be mistaken for Starship Troopers (and hey, they're both great films). And the likes of Routine, Tacoma, and Adr1ft may well rekindle developer enthusiasm for producing even more ambitious games possessing engrossing sci-fi narratives, set against a backdrop of stars-scattered black, just as New Horizons' eye for a photo and the Kepler telescope's latest discovery has turned so many of us into amateur astronomers. I can't wait to see what's out there for myself—and I will be going there by myself.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.