Still Playing: Space Engine

Space Engine, you don’t know how beautiful you are. You cannot because, unlike most games, you’re not some cleverly unspooled showreel of art. You’re science, an infinite series of outcomes in which beauty is just an accident. But what an accident it can be.

I’m torn between two analogies for Vladimir Romanyuk’s planetarium: fishing and gambling. Both carry discouragingly low odds of success, but just one such moment can get you hooked. That success can be subjective, often subconscious. Both are ‘activities’ that share much in common with ‘games’, leading to the usual questions about what a videogame can and should be attempting.

Space Engine kind of recognises this by suffering a few identity crises. A barebones model of the cosmos (if such a thing can exist), its menu has gone from being entirely utilitarian to something “game style,” according to its patch notes. It offers several modes of movement, one emulating a spaceship but the default being full-blown god mode. But not even that can serve up its wonders with anything approaching regularity. The mind-blowing scope of its universe is simply beyond all speeds and mechanics.

Loading the planetarium for the first time, you’re presented with what is, to all intents and purposes, an infinite blanket of stars and galaxies. A scroll of the mouse wheel sends your speed into measurements you’ve possibly never heard of, and the usual WASD controls will fly you at a godlike clip. But it’s never enough. There quickly comes a point where the tiny dots on screen aren’t even stars, but actually vast cosmic spirals a million times bigger than most game universes – and it looks like there’s a million of them. And so, as with many of the best games, you resign yourself to simply existing in this place, alone with your anecdotes.

The best thing for it is to settle into one of those galaxies and just start clicking systems. Hit F2 and up comes a thumbnail list of local planets; select one and double-tap G and you’ll warp right to it. Hit Shift+G and you’ll fly right down to the surface where terrain and atmosphere are procedurally generated to whatever level of detail you’ve dared to specify. The maximum, warns the manual, will render mesh and texture detail forever.

When I fire up Space Engine, then, I’m fishing for planets and gambling my time. I haven’t even established a pattern for what a ‘good’ planet will be, and I’m not even sure such a formula exists. But you sure as hell know one when you find it, and it looks like what you see here. A ‘bad’ planet is just a rock wrapped in gas, indifferent to the stars. What you’re looking for is chemistry: colours that mix, air you can feel. “Life from lifelessness,” to quote the irresistible Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan.

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