Space, huh?

Space is pretty cool, I guess. Ships, you know. Guns and aliens and cargo smuggling and intergalactic rebellion and all that. Not a bad place for a game to take place. At least space is pretty easy to draw.

But you know, there’s an awful lot of it. People kind of forget that, I think. Games like X-Wing and Wing Commander and Galaga all take place in space, of course, but the, uh, size of it all, it just kind of gets lost amid the scrolling screens of enemies and gigantic battleships and Mark Hamill.

I try not to repeat myself too often, but today I’m going to tell you about another trend-setter that made its way onto the Macintosh long before anything like it was seen elsewhere. This one goes out to Escape Velocity, the only game I’ve ever played that made me begin to realize exactly how darn big space is.

To go back and play Escape Velocity, in any of its incarnations (vanilla EV, EV: Override and EV Nova, respectively), now is like playing interstellar Grand Theft Auto, but of course, simply calling it “Game X in space” doesn’t do it justice. I begin my space-faring career with a brand new shuttlecraft – the bottom of the totem pole – a handful of credits, and not a whole lot else. I am my own Han Solo; buying low, selling high, running errands when it pays (and mining asteroids when it doesn’t), running away from pirates when I’ve got cargo to deliver and sneaking by the local authorities when my cargo is less than legitimate. Space is huge in its infinite repetitive grid of black with a few stars scattered here and there in the background, and it’s doubly huge when I’m the smallest, most insignificant little blip on a radar screen that I could be. My life is subject to the whims of whatever ill-tempered battleships or unluckily-placed pirates that happen to be around, and if I’m playing on Strict Mode (no reloading saved games), that puts me in my place pretty quickly. I’ve had a few close calls, of course: There was this one hostile-looking Corvette a few hops away from Sol that had my name on one of its missiles … but I digress.

The headiness of this sense of infinite space is virtually impossible to describe to the layman. It’s that moment where I look at my ever-expanding star map, which started out with maybe two or three star systems and grew to over 200, and I think, wow, this entire world lives and breathes on my computer. Discovering an alien race for the first time, stumbling across a new kind of ship design or watching a large CPU-controlled battle between two political factions; despite so many games taking place in space, not one has managed to replicate the sense of awe and amazement at space’s sheer size and complexity. Screw the internet and virtual public space; Escape Velocity gives me more than enough frontier.

This is all how it feels until I can scrape up enough scrilla to put together a ship that’s big enough to boss other people around. Sure, I can pick fights with whoever I want; I can start my own pirate fleet and prey on the legitimate business-beings, and I can even carve out my own domain out of the star-map, if I’m big enough. But after a few big victories, my reputation will start to spread. Maybe I’ll catch the attention of a few well-connected people who could use my help. Some of them are Good Guys, and some are Bad Guys, but it’s very rarely that clear-cut.

Now, I have my own role in this intricate space opera; it is my ship and my abilities that dictate who wins what, whether planets are Rebels or Confederates or simply blasted to rubble, whether people live or die. I can exercise my agency on this world, leaving my mark on that which had, long ago, felt so incomprehensibly massive, so innumerable. I start to recognize certain people bouncing around the universe, and they – for better or for worse – have begun to recognize me. I have ascended the ranks; I’m rocking the hottest gear appropriate for my political affiliations; maybe I’ve got my own planet or seven. My Rebellion has won, with me at its head, and all the alien invasions have been successfully repelled. But you know, once you’re at the top, the only place to go is down.

So, maybe I’ll take a break for a while. Go outside, read a book, eat some ice cream. But the beauty of Escape Velocity is that I can always come back, start over in my shuttlecraft in some backwater nowhere in the Milky Way, and work my way back up from a small fry to a big fish. And maybe this time I want to be the good guy. Or the guy with the particle beam instead of the cloaking device. Or the one with the alien technology. This is open-ended gaming done right, and it’s up to me to decide what I want to be this time around. Perhaps I’ll decide that I don’t want to come back to this galaxy, and I’ll find another one instead – one inspired by Star Wars, or Gundam, or maybe just strictly the product of someone else’s imagination. And if I’m feeling particularly inventive, I can – thanks to an easily expandable game design, plethora of fairly easy-to-use, code-free tools and a fairly strong modding community – tell my own story to others if I feel so inclined.

Escape Velocity is more than just set in space; it is in love with space. It’s not obsessing about cool ships and new weapons, or flying missions, or anything so gauche. It is the frontier vision we wish we had in our real lives, where we could leave everything behind and set out anew into a world far more expansive then we could ever hope to understand, and slowly we come to control it and make it ours, make it more our own space than our previous homes ever were, all by virtue of having shaped it however we see fit. And no matter how many times we conquer our new worlds, we will always search for more new frontiers to explore, and each time we will look at our expanding star maps and think, “Wow.”

Space is big.

Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long.

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