By Mento 2 Comments
Game companies are always looking for.. wait, I already did this opening joke for part one.
Space is a tricky business to relate to video games. This is because every video game uses space in some way. They all make liberal use of the three dimensions of space with which we're all familiar (besides those of you who are animated characters of course, I didn't mean to sound toonist), having locations and destinations for your character to walk (or drive, or fly) around in and to. As such, I'll only be writing five unique ways that a video game will take on the abstract concept of space, as oppose to time's seven. Might also be because I'm lazy.
As a Setting
First port of call is as a setting again. Specifically, I'm discussing outer space here, an endless sphere of mostly nothing and occasionally a star or a planet or a TIE Fighter. Games have been drawing from the outer space (gravity) well since their very inception, all the way back to Spacewar. Ostensibly because nerds love outer space and NASA and Star Wars & Trek - the binary stars of the sci-fi world. One has to assume minimal technology needed to project a spot of white light on a black background was almost certainly a consideration in those primitive times too, however.
Highlighted Game: Mass Effect
The best space games, in my opinion, are those that let you explore a near-endless cosmos. To seek out new life and civilizations, to boldly blow up shit that looks at you funny with their sensors. While games like Gears or Halo or Dead Space might be set on in outer space, it's all on foot more or less. Mass Effect lacks the third part of the holy trinity of space games (that would be ship battles, that I'm actually fairly glad they exclude), but is still one of the most fleshed-out and accessible of all the space-related IPs that have come along in recent times. Gameplay is split between ground missions, which play out strategically in the first and slightly less strategically in the second (and seeing that footage of a turret mini-game for part 3, it appears to be a downward trend), talking to your crew and other NPCs both hostile and friendly, and scanning and mining unexplored corners of the Milky Way galaxy for a surprising abundance of information on planets and reading all the bizarre geological readings, alien poems and religious doctrines that pertain to them. The latter, along with the detailed Codex entries on everything in that world, is really what comprises the heart of Mass Effect - a universe that begs to be investigated further.
See Also: Star Control 2 (another well-defined universe of oddball NPC alien races and space-mining), Master of Orion (turns the exploration of outer space into a 4X Civ game), Freespace (like the superb TIE Fighter and X-Wing games, some of the best PC space sim combat games), X (one of those incredibly in-depth space sim/trader games that evolved from Elite.)
As a Way to Intimidate Players
What I mean by this is how a game will decide to make itself really, really big, and will show it off in a way where it's a little daunting. Each game has its own way of presenting how darn huge their worlds are to a player; often the first time the player checks their map or seeing "0.2% game completion" on the progress meter after what felt like a long intro mission. Done properly, this will impress on the player how much game there actually is out there, filling them with all sorts of tingly feelings about where to go first. This tends to be a thing with the more open RPGs, MMOs and sandbox games.
Highlighted Game: The Elder Scrolls
The King of way-too-big RPGs is Bethesda's long-running Elder Scrolls series. Moving from the glitchy but promising Arena to glitchier but even more impressively sized Daggerfall to the almost alien world of Morrowind to the hugely acclaimed Oblivion to the super-hyped upcoming Skyrim, dedicated fans have seen a continuing process of improvement with the graphics and core mechanics of each game, but in every case the first thing to impress players was the sheer proportions of the game world provided. When the player first emerges from the intro dungeon (and there's always an intro dungeon, or prison or sewer) and blinks away the initially painful sunlight, that whole land opens before them.
See Also: Terraria (this week's "game I've actually been playing", Terraria seems small until you try walking to one end of the map, or digging straight down to the bottom), Just Cause 2 (Panau was frickin' enormous), Symphony of the Night (seeing the inverted castle for the first time...)
As a Brainteaser
Of the many different methods of testing mental acuity, one of the ones I have the most trouble with for whatever reason are the spatial awareness puzzles. Most modern puzzle games that attest to being some sort of "exercise but for your brain", borrowing from the IQ tests that Mensa and schools used to put out, will happily feature these spacial awareness puzzles alongside more traditional questions on arithmetic, logic and problem-solving.
Highlighted Game: Tetris
The most famous puzzle game in the world is also one that's almost dependent on a strong sense of spatial awareness: How pieces will fit together, where to place problem pieces, how to set up Tetrises (Tetrii?) by building seamless walls of blocks and waiting for a long piece. Tetris is easy to get the hang of, but eventually it gets so fast you're not given a chance to even think about where to go next; it all becomes instinct. If you lack the spatial awareness to keep up, that's a bunch of tiny dancing Russians you won't be seeing. Unless you switch to the significantly less mentally exhausting Modern Warfare games and aim for their feet.
See Also: Professor Layton, Puzzle Agent, Brain Age et al (all these Mensa-type puzzle dispensers will employ the occasional sliding block or "which string becomes a knot when pulled" type spatial awareness puzzles), Cogs (a whole game based on those "which direction will this machine go if you turn this cog." I assume anyway, it's one of the few Indie Steam puzzle games that I haven't bought in some package deal yet), Pipe Dream (next to Tetris in "types of spatial awareness puzzle that have appeared everywhere in video games." Most recently? As the hacking mini-game in Bioshock.)
As a Way to Flip the Bird to Physics (Part 1: Warping)
Like with time, the best part of any science-savvy video game is how they take the universal laws behind a scientific concept that govern our very existence and toss them out the window. A very common implementation of disrespecting the laws of physics is the concept of warps and portals - creating two points in space that conveniently ignores all the space between them. Many games - generally Diablo types, but definitely not limited to those - use these portals as simply a way of fast traveling from the luxuries of a hub city to whatever part of the dungeon you were just in (or perhaps another city.) Others make them a major part of the gameplay, including...
Highlighted Game: Portal
Portal loves science like an abusive spouse. That's probably not a good thing to say, but what is a good thing to say is that Portal's warp-based gimmick factors into some highly inventive puzzles that tax a player's spatial awareness of space and momentum. It's one of those puzzle concepts that seems impossible to grasp until you start playing, at which point it starts coming naturally and makes you feel like a goddamn mental tyrannosaur each time you solve a test chamber. Portal 2's length did eventually led to a lot of repetitive "find the white wall to put portals on" puzzle solutions, but the original remains a tightly-packed series of sequences that perfectly escalates through each feature the game has to offer and culminates with a satisfying conclusion to the previously-sidelined narrative that building while you were busy solving puzzles. It kind of felt like climbing up the Tetris blocks you'd placed down to take your revenge against the sadistic "Next Piece" window.
See Also: Baldur's Gate 2 (like with any high-level D&D party, there's eventually so much planewalking and teleporting around that you start getting homesick for a plane where all the laws of physics and nature still apply. Planescape might be a better example of this though), Doom (like the first Star Trek movie, Event Horizon and The Fly, Doom is at heart a cautionary tale about making strides in teleportation technology too quickly. It's also about how huge monsters also have huge guts to rip and tear. Layers, people), Mortal Kombat (you want to win? pick a character that can teleport-attack and spam that business like it's going out of style.)
As a Way to Flip the Bird to Physics (Part 2: Gravity)
Gravity on the whole might be a topic for a completely separate blog in this series (except there's no way in hell I doing another one of these), but a fun way you can mess around with space is having dudes running across the ceiling and walls while you're futzing around on the ground like some backwards caveman. The prime example for the sort of thing I'm talking about is either this or this. Games, of course, do this too. Why wouldn't they? Are video games less capable of wizardry than Lionel Richie? Hmm, maybe don't answer that.
Highlighted Game: Prey
The first Prey had a lot of problems (that I, among with nameless others, are hoping the sequel fixes with its fun-looking bounty hunter antics), but the dizzying disorientation caused by popping out of upside-down portals and walking up magnetic rails was nothing sort of spectacular, doubly so in the midst of a fierce shootout. It made me sort of wish there was more to to game than the same old gooey alien antagonists and vagina doors. You wouldn't think you'd get sick of walking through vagina doors especially, but that's Prey for you.
See Also: VVVVVV (being able to flip your gravity led to many interesting platformer scenarios, in this delightful but all-too-brief Indie classic), Dark Void (before the jet pack, Dark Void's chief unique feature was having shootouts across vertical planes. Not recommended for acrophobics. A less kind person might go on to say that the game's not recommended for anyone), Dead Space (Isaac does the vertical magnet-boot walking too, and there's more than a few sequences where there's no gravity whatsoever and enemies fly at you from all directions. Shattered Horizon's also all about the zero-g combat.)
All this space and time stuff is super heavy, as Marty McFly might say. I think my next blog series will be on puppies and bunnies. And ponies, since they seem to be a big deal with a certain trio of podcasters 'round these parts. Won't that be an insightful read?