Lost In Space

FatherJack sets his phasers to bum as he docks with space sims and unleases his load at why they are so bloody complicated.

Games in general are getting easier to play, with tutorials and on-screen hints sometimes extending hours into the gameplay, but one genre seems to have bucked this trend:  the space sim.


It’s not Rocket Surgery.

Space, traditionally, is a bit complicated, hence the mangled quote above, but all the really complicated stuff has already been worked out by the eggheads back at base.  It’s only games like Kerbal Space Program which cast you in the role of Rocketologist, usually you’re just the meatbag sitting in the cockpit with the computers doing all the science bits while your role is usually somewhere between that of a fighter pilot and a truck driver.


HUD’s up.

That isn’t to say that the future equivalent of those jobs is easy, in fact without a number of assumptions games make about future technology they would be punishingly hard.  How would you actually work out where to head in the inky blackness of space, when your destination could be in any direction of forward/backward, left/right or up/down, without all the blinking displays and on-screen indicators which somehow, magically know where you are and what everything around you is.  The fact is without computers scanning and calculating everything millions of times a second, you wouldn’t even know whether you were moving, never mind have any clue as to where.


Flight Stimulator.

Humans aren’t very good at braining in 3D, in fact with our forward-facing eyes we’re not even that good at navigating in 2D.  One way games try to ease us into space sims is by making the craft fly like an aeroplane – with pitch, yaw and roll.  I think that’s a mistake – planes only move that way because they are flying through an atmosphere and have to keep moving forwards to counteract gravity, they can’t move directly up and down.  Spacecraft however can move directly along any vector as well as turn to face any direction independently – sort of like a gimbaled turret on a moving vehicle.


How Do I Shot Web?

The gimbaled turret example is an odd one, as in addition to flying and pointing in any direction, many space games feature guns fitted on actual gimbaled turrets which allow you to shoot in any direction as well.  There are a few ways weapons are implemented in games and it can be tricky to figure out which is the more “realistic” because there isn’t much in the way of real-world examples.  One way is like an old-school dogfighter in a place that only shoots where you are facing, whereas others place you in the turret’s view like the gunner’s positions in the Millennium Falcon.  The third, and probably the most likely to actually happen for reals is when various weapons on hardpoints dotted around the ship give you full 360° cover, but since your crappy eyes can’t see in 360° the computer either presents you with a simplified monkey-view, or takes care of the shooting all by itself.


They are just making this shit up.

I guess that, should we ever need to put guns on spaceships, we would let the computers do the aiming.  Maybe not the actual target acquisition or the decision to fire, but the maths is too complicated for humans to be able to do it all themselves.  However from a game perspective this can end up making the whole thing seem a bit like the game is playing itself.  As a result it sometimes feels like they pile in fake complexity in order to make it seem as if you are actually doing something useful.  Turning your head to look at consoles, pulling up screen menus, switching targets, selecting weapons and flipping switches that don’t really do anything.


Press E to Eject into space.

One outcome of this fake complexity is often that you have a bunch of single-use key presses that you have to learn.  I really don’t know why this is necessary.  Pretty much since Freelancer it is known that basically the best way to fly a spaceship is to click on the bit of space you would like it to fly to, or to select a destination from a star map and have the ship fly there itself.  Some more recent games have tried to address the complexity by having a controller as an optional control method, but these largely force you into using aeroplane controls again and you still have to learn a ton of not just buttons, but button-combinations in order to do everything.


Learn to play.

Early games came with a printed manual and quite often either page with all the keyboard shortcuts on or sometimes a bit of card you put on your keyboard as a reference.  While most modern games either use controls most people know already or quickly teach you to play them as soon as you start, space games have been rather slow to catch up.  A learn-as-you-play tutorial, or ongoing on-screen tips are very rare, you’re often lucky to get a tutorial at all and when you do it is most frequently a text-only one.  Pages and pages of instantly-forgotten detail appear before you.  It’s as if you’ve just landed your dream space pilot job but on your first day you’re sat at a desk with the instruction manual plonked in front of you – which they expect you to learn and remember as if this is the only game you’ll be playing, every day.  It’s not surprising that games like Elite as sometimes referred to as Truck Simulator in space, however you wouldn’t expect someone to be able to safely fly a spacecraft or drive a truck with such minimal instruction.  I wouldn’t let me.



Space games are complicated, partly through necessity, gameplay or design choices, or sometimes just to give the appearance of being more deep.  Things are improving though, in no small part owing to the rise in popularity of console gaming, new semi-stardardised or remappable controls are appearing and in-game tutorials, which still a long way behind most other game genres, are slowly getting better.  Just a few on-screen hints now and then and performing a perfect reverse space-docking should be no more complex than reversing your truck over a pedestrian while shooting a hooker in the face.  Everybody wins.

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