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Space games should be terrifying

Red alert.

Outer Wilds - a view of a black hole against the vastness of space.
Image credit: Mobius Digital/Annapurna Interactive

Hello! Welcome back to Captain's Log, a mini-series on the things we love about space - and how video games so brilliantly engage with it. You can read all of our pieces in the series in one place as they go live, here at the Captain's Log archive. Enjoy!

Pity the poor Kerbal. His expression remains passive as his hastily bodged-together ship slingshots around a planetoid and sails off course. Fatally. Kerbal Space Program is a wonderful sandbox that lets you build ships to navigate the universe. It also has these delightful moments of existential dread as ships flake apart, run out of fuel or just sail off into the endless darkness, never to be recovered.

With Starfield just around the corner, I have been touring space games to enjoy a variety of terrors. Star Wars: Squadrons looks fairly close to Starfield's dogfights, and proves a good place to start. I soon find myself cowering as laser fire drums loudly against the canopy. Dashboards spark, alarms blare and desperate attempts to redirect ship power to my shields prove futile.

Space is a perfect setting for games. Dashboards map nicely to game pads, keyboards and flight sticks. What's more, starfighters are fragile beasts. I rarely feel as vulnerable in games as I do in a cockpit under fire. Shields fizzle out - no-no-no-no - enemy ships lay siege to the exposed hull - aaaaaah! It's almost a relief when the ship explodes in a puff of superheated gas. This isn't just a heath bar sliding to zero: it's a catastrophe.

Outer Wilds trailer.Watch on YouTube

Space games can deliver so much more than the panic of a swift death, too. The task of exploring a solar system can create moments of awe and terror. In Outer Wilds you blast off in a wonky little vessel to assemble logs scattered across nearby moons and planets, but quickly encounter strange, disconcerting interstellar phenomena.

The ship's controls are chaotic. It's easy to accelerate too hard. A few times I've bounced off moons and space stations with a firm bonk, only to be sucked towards the nearest star and flung into a far corner of known space. These are moments of complete disorientation. There is no up or down; you're being carried around by the eddies of spacetime. Whatever plan you might have had is gone, replaced by an overwhelming desire to stabilise and find a place to land.

Even better - beyond these delightfully horrible piloting disasters - Outer Wilds creates a sense that anything could be lurking among the stars. Even the map is weird. There's a pair of dancing planetoids called the Hourglass Twins over there, a comet called The Interloper looping around the system and something sinister called the Dark Bramble. What could that be?

There's an old Star Trek episode I used to rewatch obsessively in which the Enterprise gets stuck in a giant pink space amoeba. Ever since, I have enjoyed the idea that the final frontier can be both deadly and extremely odd. Only games like the Outer Wilds have recaptured some of that magic since.

A Kerbal in a space suit smiles with delight
Kerbal Space Program. | Image credit: Squad/Private Division

Amid Starfield's huge collection of planets I hope there are a few strange places like these. I can fight monsters in a thousand games, but only space games can make me feel lost, vulnerable, panicked and sometimes very, very small. For a final stop on the space terror tour, I recommend EVE Online. Itself a monument to the terrors of unchecked human enterprise, I prefer to avoid the corporations entirely and instead take a mining ship to a cluster of asteroids in the middle of nowhere.

I zoom out, and zoom out some more, until the ship is just a tiny spec against the nebulae. Then think about that poor Kerbal spinning off into the cosmos and marvel at how vast, uncaring and thrillingly awful it all is.

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