opin­ions

Steve looks up to­wards the most overused set­ting in games

XBox: The Official Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

The prob­lem

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.

The so­lu­tion

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”

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