Flying in the Sandbox: My Affection for the Space Sim

In a previous entry, I discussed the fall of the space sim. Here, I want to take a moment to try and explain why I love it so much (namely, which I love the combat space sim, which is what I’ll be referring to here).

For those who haven’t played one, I’ll give you a quick breakdown. From Wing Commander onwards, the space sim follows a pretty straightforward pattern. It takes place in the future, usually in a setting where humans have colonized neighboring star systems (the exception being the various Star Wars space sims, which obviously take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). There’s a war, either between Humans and an invading alien species (Freespace, Wing Commander) or Sol-based humans and their rebelling colonies (Independence War, Colony Wars). You’re a fighter pilot located on a capital ship, and the game is composed of a series of missions. You get a briefing, laying out the planned mission – raiding a supply depot, escorting some freighters, taking down a capital ship, whatever – and off you go. Sometimes things go as planned, sometimes not. There are often intermission cutscenes and plot-building devices, but most of the story tends to be told through voiceovers and events in-mission.

So that’s a dry account of a pretty predictable formula. Doesn’t inspire a lot of love. It’s hard to explain, okay?

The best explanation I can give is that there’s a zen quality to the space sim. Particularly in contemporary games, environments tend to be cluttered with objects and visual stimuli that are just window dressing and have no bearing on the game. In the space sim, well, you’re in space; most of the surrounding area is empty. The only topography are other ships, space stations, and the occasional asteroid, and all of these are relevant in that you need to directly engage them  (or avoid smashing your spacecraft to smithereens on their bows.) In a sense, this is the original sandbox, the landscape constantly shifting as these objects move around in space. The player’s movement is completely without limits, and yet being in the right place at the right time is the key to the game. You want to be BEHIND the enemy fighter, not in front of it; you need to intercept that bomber at just the right point before it reaches its target.

It’s a utilitarian design. The greatest space sims add some emotional elements, but the gameplay is cold calculation, plotting trajectories and trying to line up the crosshairs in front of the enemy ships. But it’s an automated process; there is rarely time to really THINK about your strategy. The space sim occupies a strange temporal space, too fast for a strategy game, too slow for those used to first-person shooters.

Then there’s your ship. You are not some all-powerful hero. You’re just some dude floating in a hostile environment in a bucket of bolts, and fighting to get the most out of your machine is half the fun; transferring energy from weapons to engines, shifting shield power forward for a frontal assault. Some of the more advanced games did a lot of modeling on the damage, Independence War being the king – it models 40 or so different ship components, and you can use the engineering panel to direct repairs and make some tough choices. This sense of vulnerability is expounded by the genre’s design; Independence War aside, you’re never flying a capital ship. You’re just a little fighter, a cog in a large war machine. Too often games treat the hero as some variation of The Chosen One, and it’s a pleasant change of pace when you’re just another grunt.

The good news is that, by and large, the genre has aged pretty well; only the lack of mid-mission saves is really obnoxious to a contemporary player. I’m currently playing Freespace: Silent Threat Reborn (a fan re-imagining of a mediocre expansion pack to the first Freespace) and it’s a blast; the fact that the Freespace community has spent a decade rebuilding the engine from the ground up certainly doesn’t hurt. I’ve always been surprised at just how dedicated they are to the series, but having reconnected with the space sim I’ve begun to understand. For whatever faults it may have, it is wholly distinctive; there is no equivalent inside or outside gaming. In a world of derivatives, that’s high praise indeed.

Article by Dylan

Dylan Holmes is a 20-something from Seattle. By day he works as public librarian; by night he tries to balance voracious media consumption with some modicum of a social life. His accomplishments include being the author of one book (A Mind Forever Voyaging: A History of Storytelling in Video Games); inventing numerous Arnold Palmer variants; and being able to balance on an exercise ball indefinitely. His failures are too numerous to list.

4 Comments


    1. There’s also a fan sequel to Freespace 2 called Blue Planet (released in two parts) at http://blueplanet.hard-light.net/. I’ve heard nothing but fantastic things about it, and the motivation to play it is what led me to replay the first two (since by this point I’d largely forgotten the plot).

  1. I contemplated creating a space sim myself a few months back, but I didn’t move on it because I couldn’t really see a place I felt I could improve on, and the vast emptiness of space was actually too much (or too little) for me to follow. I felt that I should add a fairly constant environment of some kind, but also felt that doing so was counter productive to making a “space” game. So I pretty much abandon the idea.
    I’d love to revisit it if I can think of a way to appeal to both sides, or try out a new formula.

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