One of the things that can be hard to keep in mind about space travel - especially when there are rockets going off and thick clouds of exhaust obscuring the horizon - is that this stuff is mainly about economy. As the ground shakes and the birds scatter, as the bus-sized interstage section detaches, flares and spins softly back to Earth, it can be tricky to remember that what you're watching is actually the triumphant launch of an object that's been carefully whittled down to its barest essentials. Millions of moving parts go into these spaceships, but every nozzle, every pipe, every plastic button on every control panel has to justify itself in the master equations. Ideally, you want the cheapest, lightest booster for getting the most functional, efficient payload into orbit. Space travel's not about what you need to take with you so much as it's about what you've learned you can live without.
This pared-back engineering spirit defines Lifeless Planet, a controlled yet surprisingly expansive science-fiction platforming exploration game that's been made, for the most part, by just one man - first-time designer David Board - and by the modern magic that is cheap development tools.
Look around the huge 3D environments and you'll begin to understand how Board (and the Unity engine) did it, too, employing simple textures, basic geometry and a spacesuited hero whose bulky, iconic form negates the need for complex character models. In place of set-piece action sequences you get playful puzzles which are more concerned with altering the pace of the narrative than tying your brain in knots. There is no combat, and its omission is glorious. Instead of plot twists and lore, you get straight-ahead pulp fiction powered by a bluntly-stated ecological theme and built around two interlocking questions. Firstly, why has this remote world - one that an astronaut has spent decades travelling to reach - turned out to be a grim dustbowl rather than the verdant paradise it initially appeared as when viewed from Earth? Secondly, what kind of person would volunteer for a one-way trip of such a devastating nature in the first place?
It's the search for answers that draws you through the game's daringly large maps. If Lifeless Planet has a handful of central things that really mark it out, that elevate it beyond its occasional bursts of appealing home-made staginess, it's the genuine sense of oppressive isolation it creates and the huge chunks of alien real-estate it employs to do so. You're running low on oxygen from the very beginning here (although the danger, as you move between scattered air canisters, is largely theatre), and the horizon seems to beckon you in every direction. I've never before loaded a game, pressed the start button, and immediately felt so exhilaratingly lost.
In truth, though, picking the right direction is never in doubt. Lifeless Planet is as much about manipulation as it is exploration. From the initial crash site of your battered survival pod through to the truly giant last levels, you're being hustled along a set path by a designer who employs every trick in the book. There are obvious things like trails of footprints to follow, and there are subtle things, such as the angle at which the sun hits a distant landmark, or a gentle pinching-in of a canyon's walls as you move through it. However it's done, it's deft stuff, so deft you'll rarely sense the designer's guiding hand at your elbow. Chunky as your spacesuit is, you'll feel very small and fragile and endangered as you navigate these vast spaces, always responding to the slightest of cues regarding where to go next.
And the places Lifeless Planet leads you to can be pretty memorable. 10 minutes into the game, the mystery of the planet's ecological decline is joined by another more jarring enigma: a derelict Soviet base, with wind-blown shacks, spindly telegraph poles and miles of concrete pipework threading into the distance. With this ingredient - this disarming jolt of the familiar - the story really takes off, as it almost wordlessly shifts you between the natural world, the brutalist human constructions placed on top of it, and the question of how the two came to coexist.
With no combat to control the game's pulse, Board opts for a mixture of ambient storytelling, platforming and physics puzzles. The puzzles are probably the weakest of these three elements, driven by an occasionally clumsy convenience that will place dynamite sticks within arm's reach of any tumbledown wall, say, or leave a spout of lava or boiling water right next to a boulder that will stop it up nice and tight to open a path elsewhere.
Pleasant as these simple tasks tend to be, they eventually become a very gentle tax on your progress. So, eventually, does the platforming, as you jet-boost from one spar of rock to the next, occasionally being gifted special high-powered fuel for tightly-controlled sections that see you executing multiple boosts at once and crossing truly colossal distances. When it comes to controls, there's a certain rough-hewn bluntness to maneuvering in Lifeless Planet. This can make precision jumping sections - particularly one heated episode towards the game's end - quietly frustrating. It can also drive home the sense of inevitable encumberment involved in being an astronaut, however - the sense of being a mild-mannered daredevil rendered childlike by the hulking suit you need in order to survive.
Lifeless Planet's actually at its clumsiest when it's at its most traditionally game-like, in other words: when it's giving you a robot arm to use in some fairly uninspired boulder-moving puzzles, or when it sends twitching alien roots up through the earth to make the ground beneath your feet treacherous. Such eagerness to provide so many ways of varying the pace is laudable, but it's the pure visual storytelling - the pure digital tourism, in fact - that sees this stoical game shine, from the stark prettiness of the landscape itself, transforming over time from arid canyons to ghostly polluted forests, to the eventual appearance of alien wildlife and more.
There are audio logs and a little folksy pondering to keep you guessing, but Lifeless Planet's surprising visual strengths mean that it doesn't really need them. There's no need to restate themes of ecological abuse when all the rusting man-made clutter does it wordlessly for you, from the huge pylons snaking an ugly path across a canyon to a river halted by a vast concrete dam. Happily, as the adventure progresses, you get a real sense of a designer listening to his own impulses more often, leaving puzzles and traversal challenges aside more frequently, opening out the maps until those last levels allow you to explore for miles, and trusting the strange allure of the world he's created to pull you through the whole thing.
It certainly pulled me through, anyway, marvelling at the gentle cues strung through such a seemingly roomy world, pondering the strange integrity of a game that's at its best when it's kicked itself free of genre, of easy pigeonholes, of combat loops and of so many of the other things that games seem to feel they need in order to keep you happy. Lifeless Planet is bold and memorable and oddly sweet in the earnestness of its message and its preoccupations. It's a truly efficient payload. Fire it up and be transported.
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