For any number of reasons, games set in space form the backbone of our medium. For the most part, they feature the kinds of narratives you'd find in a YA book with a cool space dragon on the cover, but sometimes, they strive to be a little more. Some games take that concept of space, which most people have never really interacted with, and finding the ways it intersects with a primarily interactive medium. Which is to say, sometimes games are about big, empty voids, and sometimes, they like to contemplate infinity, and maybe even mechanize it.


Asteroids isn't the first video game. It's not the first successful one, or the earliest series to still be around (sort of), or even all that fun today. But, it's one of the first big hits, and also the first time the general public got to see a video game's conception of space: a big, black empty void.

You'd be surprised how few high-resolution screenshots exist of a game from 1979.

You'd be surprised how few high-resolution screenshots exist of a game from 1979.

Asteroids is a pretty simple game. In fact, its iconography s probably the simplest in any game side from Pong. You are a triangluar space ship. You shoot big lunpy masses that are probably asteroids, you know those because the game is called Asteroids, and you've likely never heard of a traiangular asteroid. The government hides them too well. Between the triangle and the lumps, that's about it, but they all get the point across retty well. You are in space, you shoot asteroids. How do you know it's sace? Well, it's black. How do you know you're a space ship? Well, what other trianles are there in space? Why are you shooting asteroids? Look, stop asking so many questions, kid.

The iconography of space in games is fascinating, as it hasn't really evolved very much since. At the end of the day, space is, by it's very definition, a big, empty void. To a certain extent, every game owes its depiction of space itself to Asteroids, but Asteroids owes it to techincal limitations. Who's to say Astroids wouldn't have been somethign very different had the develoers been able to render coloured backgrounds? Space and games are tied together from the very beginning, through technolohy and iconographic storytelling (or, uh, conceptelling, as the case may be), and it all starts with Asteroids.






Once again on the iconography train, Metroid takes that whole "limited palette with which to represent space" thing and runs with it. Metroid is a glitchy, desolate, and altogether unfriendly game, and pretty much every environment it presents you with replicates that with stark black backgrounds. Part of it, like in Asteroids, comes from technical limitations, but another part comes from the ideas behind the game itself.

Contemplate the void. Lose yourself in the void.

Contemplate the void. Lose yourself in the void.

Metroid's name is a strange Japanese portmanteau of the words "metro" and "android". Presumably the android in question is Samus, or alternatively is just a reference to the android in Alien, which Metroid owes most of its existence to, but it's the "metro" part that's more interesting. It's taken from one of the many synonyms for subway, with the idea being that the dark tunnels of planet Zebes are like subway tunnels. The game's design works with that simile too. Every area is either a long vertical or horizontal shaft- dark and claustrophobic, with almost no sense of direction.

It's not the world's greatest game design, mind you, but it's terribly effective at getting across that space can be more than an infinite, endless void. It can also be constricting, confusing and upsetting. It can get you lost and keep you from moving too much. The stark black backgrounds may represent shadowy caves, but they're far better at setting Samus against the background of an infinite space that's just toying with her as she scrambles in the dark.



Mass Effect 2:

In a less depressing take on infinity, the Mass Effect series takes a more Star Trek-y angle on space, namely that humanity is awesome and we fix all the problems of the wacky aliens up there.

To be fair, that's not all Mass Effect's galaxy presents. What it's actually really good at pulling off that makes it unique on this list is that it leverages infinity as a thing to be explored, rather than feared like in Metroid. The best piece of music in the Mass Effect series is the map theme. It's slow and pensive, in a way that always makes me consider my next destination a little more carefully. It sets a mood for more thoughtful exploration, and though that's usually offset by the fact that Commander Shepard goes into things guns blazing more often than not, it works for that time I spend on the map, looking at the galaxy.

Mass Effect's universe is actually finite, in that you can see the edges of "hospitable space" every time you open the map, but it never feels that way. Every planet you visit has some sort of story to tell, and even when it's underwhelming, it's proof that there's always something to be explored. Within the series, Mass Effect 2 does the best job of this by having you wander around the galaxy, putting together a crack team of (possibly criminally insane) experts. The game is a 20-hour trust exercise, as you take them from planet to planet, solving their personal issues that might get in the way during your inevitable suicide mission. Putting personal stories involving characters you've come to care about in various planets scattered across the map is a pretty excellent way to make the galaxy feel much bigger than it really is.


FTL hates you. It hates you so so so much, and you have no idea why. I don't either, honestly. It hates me just as much, and we've barely met. FTL is a roguelike, which is a gameplay designation used for game with primarily randomly generated events that kill you a lot. FTL takes the concept, and puts you in a rebel space ship, tasked with escaping the empire. Every time you complete an event (ususally a space battle), you have to make a jump to a new sector, and try to make it through as unscathed as possible. Battles are top down, as you command your crew to various parts of the ship so they can man certain machinery you'll need to survive as you attempt to blow up the ship in front of you.

This is probably the point at which you die. Space travel is fun!

This is probably the point at which you die. Space travel is fun!

The reason I bring it up in this list is that it's one of the only game examples I can think of that uses space in a scary way without playing on the concept of infinity. Metroid teases you with the infinite, but severely restricts you, while something like Mass Effect 3 tries to use enemies like the reaper's closing in as a way to show you that the infinity is shrinking. Meanwhile, FTL tasks you simply with running away. You have to get away from your enemies, it's that simple. The only problem is that you have infinity in your way, which is a genuinely terrifying concept.

Every time you jump to a new sector of space, you end up with a whole new scenario, new problems to deal with. The unpredictability of infinity is actively fighting you, and it's up to you to think on your feet and survive. The enemy is closing in, sure, but you can literally run forever, it's simply about leaping over the obstacles instead of stumbling. Not knowing what's ahead is the scary part of FTL's space, though it's rarely all that terrifying. FTL isn't a horror game, but the tension that it crafts by utilizing the fact that space has an infinite number of obstacles is something I' don't think any other games has ever pulled off.