Steve looks up towards the most overused setting in games
Space. The big empty hole in the sky where the Moon lives. The dark place where smells aren’t. That vast expanse of nothingness in which ancient stars dance to timeless beats, locked forever in a cosmic conga line, tracing a funky path through swirling nebulae and roaring galaxies. For years, astronomers have tried to determine what exactly space is made of, but besides figuring out that it probably has something to do with hydrogen, they’ve come up empty-handed. “Whatever it is, we know that you can’t breathe it in,” the renowned scientist and space expert Carl Sagan once said, “or else your freakin’ head will explode, buddy.”
In spite of – or perhaps because of – the enduring mystery of space, the infinite cosmos forms an outsized role as a setting for videogames. Most of the earliest games were set in space for reasons no more complicated than because the default background colour of a television set is black. The limitations of ’80s arcade machines meant that games like Space Invaders, Galaga and Asteroids could only ever have been set in the featureless vacuum of space, where there were no complicated clouds to render or wild animal mating calls to simulate.
But once the idea of space had got its claws into the one-track minds of game developers, it would not let go. Today, with the sole exception of Chessmaster (which takes place in a haunted chess dimension, inside of which the doomed Chessmaster has become trapped), exactly 100 per cent of games are either set in space, or on the surface of a planet that exists in space.
Call me an astronomical cynic, but I believe there’s altogether too much space happening in games. The recently updated No Man’s Sky is absolutely spilling over with the stuff, providing players with nothing short of 18 quintillion planets’ worth of space to explore and crash into. That’s as many planets as there are atoms in a familysize Domino’s pizza (probably, I don’t think anybody has actually sat down and counted them).
The upcoming Doom sequel is partially set, yet again, on the well-trodden moons of Mars (one of the most famous residents of space that there is) with the usual few detours into the yawning chasm of endless fiery misery that is Hell. Even further into the future, Bethesda is teasing us with more of the black stuff with its upcoming and entirely spacebased RPG Starfield, which promises to be positively dripping with boring asteroids and comets and the like. It’s space as far as the eye can see. You can hardly move for all this vacuum.
To stem the tide of space games, these starry-eyed game developers need to have their attentions focused back on terra firma. To do that, they need to be enticed with some cool new ideas for interesting places to set their games. Here are just a few original suggestions for settings that haven’t yet been used in games, which you can have for free: 1 A secret Boots pharmacy deep inside the molten iron core of the planet. 2 Trowell South Motorway Services Area. 3 The section of IKEA where you can buy a cheap hot dog. 4 The car park next to the beach where people try to surreptitiously change out of their wet swimming trunks by holding a towel around their waist and shimmying from side to side, but invariably the towel slips and everyone gets a quick flash of a bum cheek. 5 Anywhere in the Netherlands, frankly.
Armed with my incredible ideas, developers can finally begin expanding their horizons and introducing their players to fascinating locations that are neither giant craters nor military bases in orbit around collapsing neutron stars. To escape space for a while would be a breath of fresh air.
Steve also writes for City A.M.
“Starry-eyed game devs need to focus back on terra firma”