Can videogames follow in the footsteps of history’s greatest science-fiction artists?
The space race of the ’50s and ’60s was more than just a triumph of engineering – it instilled in the public a sense of optimism about humanity’s future and transformed the earliest astronauts into instant celebrities upon their return to Earth. While their feats were inspiring enough in their own right, they had some help in stirring up public fervour. Some of that help came from unlikely places, like the visual artists who, by collaborating with scientists and engineers, were able to depict a plausible vision of humanity’s future among the stars.
According to Dr Jeff Norris, a team lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the most important of these speculative artists was an American painter named Chesley Bonestell. Throughout his career, he created images that inspired the American space program, and even collaborated with the legendary aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun.
Norris sees that same potential to inspire public thought about space travel in the medium of videogames. In February, he gave a talk at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas challenging game devs to pursue this objective, and enlisted the help of Vancouver-based developer Blackbird Interactive to create a proof of concept to accompany his talk.
What emerged was Project Eagle – an interactive Mars-colony simulation built upon the foundation of Blackbird’s previous title, Homeworld: Deserts Of Kharak. “At first, NASA was thinking of doing something a lot smaller in scope than what Project Eagle turned out to be,” Blackbird CEO Rob Cunningham tells us. “Jeff’s first idea was, ‘Maybe you guys could do a little 360-panning painting or some kind of little VR thing,’ and we were like, ‘Well, why don’t we just build a full-on Mars base?’”
To stay true to the spirit of Bonestell’s work, Cunningham found that there were two crucial elements that the team had to pay close attention to. First, Project Eagle had to be accurately reflective of the actual science and engineering going on at NASA. “Like Chesley’s work with Wernher von Braun, our work was informed heavily by Dr Norris and his team at JPL,” Cunningham says. “Every time we were designing a building or positioning something for Project Eagle, we would constantly be in touch with the JPL team to bounce ideas off them.”
Cunningham points to a variety of ways that the design of Project Eagle was shaped by NASA’s input, from the depth of well required to reach water on Mars’ surface, to the size of the game’s communications arrays, and the nature of the material that habitation modules were constructed from. “All of the terrain data came from NASA as well,” Cunningham adds, “so the actual physical shape of the Gale Crater [the location on Mars where NASA’s Curiosity rover landed, and the setting of Project Eagle’s colony] and the textures that we were using were all sourced from NASA spaceships, which was awesome.”
The second hurdle for Blackbird, if it wanted to live up to the high standard of Bonestell’s work, was to present a speculative vision of future space travel that was covering new ground. “Our first designs were very much the stuff you might recognise from The Martian or whatever, where it’s little rovers and inflatable hab modules, and it kind of looks like igloo outposts. As we started getting into that, it occurred to Aaron Kambeitz, our chief creative officer, that while this was cool, it really wasn’t Chesley Bonestell-level cool – it wasn’t anything that no one had seen before.” To meet that ambition, the Blackbird team had to reconsider its timeline. The original plan was to set Project Eagle in the 2030s, but to fully explore the concepts Cunningham and team had in mind, they pushed the setting later, finally settling on the year 2117. One of the big ideas this allowed them to explore was the ‘megadome’, a far larger structure than what’s usually depicted in hypothetical Mars colonies.
“If you’re going to have a permanent outpost on Mars, there’s got to be some sort of place where people can stretch their legs and breathe in some fresh air and get an actual enclosed, safe, but open area, so that’s where [Kambeitz] came up with the dome. The logic was that we wanted to build a base that was like the beginning of a bit of a civilisation.”
In the span of a single month, Blackbird managed to bring Project Eagle from novel idea to finished product, ready to show off at DICE. Time will tell whether the studio will inspire the public the way its predecessors did, but Cunningham says the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive so far. Whether it becomes a freely-available public demo, or evolves into a full-blown commercial game is still, Cunningham says, to be decided – but we rather hope he, like those that have come before him, will choose to reach for the stars.
“The physical shape of the Gale Crater and the textures we were using were all sourced from NASA spaceships”
Rob Cunningham, founder and CEO of Blackbird Interactive