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Voyager's legacy: where have all the space games gone?

Disconnected bank holiday musings about the future of a genre

Every time you think technology has lost the ability to impress, trapped in a mind-numbing feedback loop of hype and planned obsolescence, think of Voyager 1 - a 35-year-old knuckle of sensors and emitters warmed by clusters of deteriorating plutonium that's now over 18 billion kilometres from Earth, barrelling along at speeds of over 17 kilometres a second. Voyager's mission is partly one of discovery - it has sent back photographs of the larger planets and their moons, including the famous "family portrait", and is one of NASA's few sources of data on the limits of the heliosphere, an impossibly vast cloud of charged particles "blown" outward from the surface of the sun.

It's also a means by which we ourselves may be discovered. The probe is a message in a bottle, the carrier of a gold-plated information disc (Voyager pre-dates the commercial debut of the CD by five years) that contains images of Earth and its occupants, spoken greetings from our bigwigs, representative ambient noises like whale song, and a Greatest Hits collection of human music, from Mozart to Blind Willie Johnson.

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All non-interactive media, you notice. Here's a bank holiday pub topic to chew on: think of the videogames we might send to the stars, for the benefit and instruction of alien races. Halo? Too xenophobic. Tetris? Too distracting - they'd never get round to finding us at all. Civilization? Well, it's as much a history book as a game, which could be useful, but given that 99% of Civilization matches end in a state of toxic global mistrust and hysterical, knight-versus-fighter-jet conflict, I worry that extra-solar travellers might conclude we're a species best left to our own devices.

To express a journey such as Voyager's in a mere videogame seems dangerously presumptuous - more so, even, than trying to express the realities of war, or sadness, or religion. Perhaps that's why so few console developers have taken aim at the stars in recent years, though I doubt the motivations are quite that noble. Among those few is Bungie, Master Chief's sometime patron: the studio's always-online Destiny is a grand tour of a solar system overrun by a rogue's gallery of extra-terrestrials.

"We're all space junkies at Bungie," writer Joe Staten told OXM not long after announcement, explaining that our immediate interplanetary neighbourhood is quite weird enough without the aid of fiction. "With every new image from Mars rovers or the stuff the Cassini probe is sending back, it's pretty incredible stuff, and we think that even without making things up, there are some pretty neat things that we can go and see in our solar system." That said, Bungie has made things up, in the form of a magnificent, long-abandoned human empire, and rediscovering those things rather than probing the unknown appears to be the point of this bold new IP. Moreover, it's possible the act of space travel itself will be handled automatically, making Destiny not so much a space game as an incurably nostalgic infantry combat simulator equipped with starry-eyed loading breaks.

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Perhaps the problem is that space is too barren and featureless a setting for latter-day designers. If that's the case, it flies in the face of what we now know about the so-called void, a tangled web of gravitational pulls, dark matter and radiation, and it's rather ironic, given that the proposed emptiness of space is precisely what made it so attractive to the industry's pioneers. A massive tract of nothing is a remarkably easy and inexpensive environment to code, leaving artists and programmers with a resource surplus to blow on ships and their capabilities.

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