Space has captured our imaginations since we were painting star charts on cave walls. Ever since we were able to look up at night and realize that there was something else out there, we’ve been collectively obsessed with the vastness of the universe. It only makes sense then that videogames would provide us with a perfect outlet for exploring our relationship with our universe. Whether capturing the infinite potential of the final frontier or encapsulating the fear of the endless sublime, here are some games—in no particular order—that best capture the feel of life among the stars.
Toys for Bob, 1993
Many games have attempted to capture the expansive feeling that comes the moment you see an entire galaxy open up before you. Unfortunately, the time and technology constraints many studios face often results in a sort of abridged endless ocean of stars—a backdrop of limitless pricks of light with only a handful of systems or planets actually open to exploration.
Star Control 2 is perhaps the only game to overcome this limitation and give players a galaxy to explore that was truly, well, astronomical—and it did so in 1993. Star Control 2, originally appearing for the 3DO (yes, really), serves as the template that even Mass Effect follows. The enormity of the galaxy was only amplified by the meagerness of your initial ship—running out of fuel and being summarily stranded on the back end of Bumfuck, Cerberus was a constant fear.
While the studio has since evaporated and the Star Control name finds itself in the tenuous possession of a disinterested publisher (just mention the name Star Control 3 and watch series fans cringe), the game is now available in its entirety—for free—under the open-source moniker The Ur Quan Masters.
CCP’s enormous outer space-based MMO holds the distinction of being one of the longest-running MMOs around today. Recently entering its second decade, EVE Online attracts players as much for its hands-off approach to governing player economics and politics as for its stunning deep-space backdrops.
The game community is so large and broad there are several real-time news sites dedicated to keeping interested parties up to speed with happenings in the EVE-iverse. Known cheekily in some circles as “MS Excel In Space,” the game’s astounding complexity is either its greatest strength or its greatest weakness, depending on whom you ask.
Despite our collective fascination with space, finding oneself lost in the vast infinity of the universe with no way back is one of our culture’s greatest fears—as evidenced by popular media from Lost in Space to Stargate Universe to Star Trek: Voyager. Few games are able to capture this creeping dread like MiClos’ mobile trek-a-thon Out There.
A game predicated on finding your way across billions of light years in an attempt to return home, the game’s beautiful art and music belie the constant loneliness you feel as you watch your fuel and oxygen reserves tick steadily down toward empty. While not inherently violent or aggressive toward the player, Out There remains one of the most existentially terrifying games I’ve come across yet.
Sleeping Beast Games, 2012
We’ve all had childhood fantasies of standing aboard the bridge of a starship just like our favorite captains and taking control of a crack team of space-experts on our very own vessel. Spaceteam exists to recreate that feeling, in all its stressful glory.
Less about navigating space than it is about navigating the tumultuous waters of effective cooperation among multiple players, Spaceteam will tax the patience of even the most stalwart of helmspeople as you and a group of first officers attempt to flip widgets, toggle doo-dads and power-couple flux capacitors on increasingly truncated timelines. A shining example of how mobile devices can carve a niche among the couch co-op games, Spaceteam is best enjoyed with a few space-beers to help ease the tension.
Lazy 8 Studios, 2013
It takes a special game to make a list of best space games when the player herself never actually sees space, but Extrasolar is such a game. Lazy 8’s game of, ostensibly, scientific exploration and planetary research combines photography, multimedia and ARG-like levels of intrigue to provide one of the most uniquely presented narratives games have seen in recent years.
Of course, as with most things, there’s more to the world of Extrasolar than originally meets the eye. While you may be signing on to drive a rover around a faraway planet snapping pictures, the ensuing plot-thickening is some of the best bait-and-switch narrative design to-date.
Games like to use the cosmos as a unique and fantastical setting, taking for granted the sheer effort and force of will required to even get there in the first place. Not so with Kerbal Space Program. This deceptively adorable simulator tasks players with developing a program to take astronauts (well, kerbonauts) into orbit and beyond.
Unlike other games that treat things such as take-off and landing as givens, nothing is relinquished for free in Kerbal Space Program. Real-world (or, close enough anyway) physics are brought to bear in ways that will make players curse gravity like never before. Despite its cute aesthetic, Kerbal is not a game to take on lightly. Simply put, if you don’t know what periapses, delta-v or Hohmann transfers are, be prepared to do near-academic levels of research, as the only way to conquer the pull of Kerbin’s gravity is to build rockets that are capable of taking you into orbit (and hopefully back). While both the Kerbal rockets and their occupants have a tendency to be distressingly explosive, the feeling of accomplishment from successfully landing a mission on the Mün is unmatched by any fight against a dragon or headshot spree. It may seem intimidating, but few games capitalize as strongly on the intrinsic reward of self-determined accomplishment. And I mean, it’s not like it’s rock…oh wait.
Firaxis Games, 1999
If much of our popular sci-fi literary canon is any indication, colonizing a distant planet or moon is fertile ground for speculative fiction. Who better, then, to tackle interstellar colonization efforts than the company that practically revolutionized the strategy sim?
While not actually developed by the illustrious Mr. Meier himself, Firaxis’ Alpha Centauri is one of the most in-depth and thought-provoking entries in the grand strategy catalog. Much more than just “Civ in space,” Alpha Centauri is more like a sci-fi novel in game form. Taking heavy cues from Kim Stanley Robinson and his seminal Mars series, Alpha Centauri is less about accumulating culture or building military units and more about engaging with fundamental questions of extraplanetary ecology, politics and religion.
Sure, your terraforming efforts may give your society a huge boost to production, but do you care that you’re also severely damaging the planet environmentally in the process? What responsibility do you have to peacefully coexist with the planet’s native life forms? What should the guiding ideology be moving into this new stage of human colonization? These are some of the questions that Alpha Centauri raises through subtle narrative tricks and expertly written character interactions.
Bohemia Interactive, 2013
Space is a fantastic setting for our fantasies because the vast unknown of its limits allow for anything and everything to happen. But outer space also represents a very real challenge for us today—even within our own solar system, scientists struggle to unravel the secrets of even our closest interplanetary neighbor.
Take on Mars from Bohemia Interactive is especially interesting given its parallelism with the real-life Curiosity rover mission and the upcoming Mars I project. The lengths to which Bohemia went to create as topographically and areologically accurate as possible a representation of the Red Planet is inspiring. More a virtual tour guide than a series of challenges, players can guide their own rovers around digitized versions of the Gale Crater, Olympus Mons and the Martian polar caps. For a game so grounded in reality, it is perhaps the most successful at actually taking players to new worlds.
Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic and occasional developer. He writes his bios in the third person because that’s what everyone else does. He reluctantly claims responsibility for what you will find on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.