Spa­tial aware­ness

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

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