October 8, 2009

Ponder Yonder

So last time we took a quick glance at life, the universe and everything. This time I'd like to share some thoughts... or better yet... feelings about the second of the three with you. I won't be rambling on about how immensely vast space is, though. Well... not exactly, that is... HEY! Wait!! Where are you going??

Have you ever spent half a day browsing through Wikipedia reading through articles about the universe, different discoveries that were made far outside our own solar system? Did you stumble upon articles about eerie space phenomenas you'd never heard before, chemical properties you'd never imagined before and inexpressible names you'd never tried to spell before? Well... I did. Twice!

The Big Picture

And you really get the strangest feeling when then stepping out of your house, feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin and watching the sunlit ground, the shiny concrete, the moss grown trees. Recognizing that all the everyday hassle, the superfluous ruckus just doesn't mean a frickin' thing! It's then you realize that - presumably - all the people around you (especially the ones CREATING the superfluous ruckus) don't see the big picture!

Taking a stroll around town, you see the creations we humans accomplished. Houses, streets, cars, schools, everything. What if something from outer space, some incomprehensible something would happen? Something that had effect on our planet? Something that would galvanize the whole world! I do believe (note: without worrying about dangers from space!) that it's quite possible! It almost seems natural - just think about the fact that we know next to nothing about space, what's behind the whole thing or what's "beyond" it!

We all would get along a whole lot better if we'd just focus on how insignificant we are and that everything we're doing on Earth merely serves the purpose to enable and embellish our lives! It doesn't have effect on ANYTHING else!

It's like we're hamsters in a cage that's standing in a room in some house. It's extremely hard to get out of the cage, to begin with! So what does that hamster do instead? It ignores the rest outside the cage. It can see the room, it can look outside the boundaries - but all it can do is focus on what's going on in its own small "world". It cares about food, about drinking, about cleaning its "lair", about cleaning itself and about passing the time. If there's some other hamster around in that cage, it cares about that one too, of course.

Exactly like that, we choose to not care about what's outside Earth (our "cage") because we're not going to get out anyway! And the hardly apperceptible vastness BEYOND our solar system (the "room in which the cage stands")? We try to IMAGINE what it's like out there but that's all - and even that is hardly possible!

But the fact that we're merely imagining the whole thing out there results in a strange effect - at least I think so because I'll never be able to validate it. It's as follows: imagine you're asleep, randomly dreaming of a specific place you often visit in daily life. This usually feels sort of strange. The place you're dreaming of doesn't feel as sharp-edged, as clear, as well-defined than when you're actually there. If anything, it feels more cottony, blurry and... well... dreamlike, actually! So I BET that's how it would be if we were to roam in outer space. Everything will be a lot clearer than in our imagination - and really corporeal! Because it's not just some place we imagine! It's something that really exists - even if most people chose to ignore it.

Most people don't even try to imagine anything at all! I mean... go ahead and ask some guy from Wall Street if he has recently thought about the universe. Apart from thinking you're some esoteric sandal-wearing hippie who believes in the power of stones or in the existence of fairies he'll be splitting his sides with laughter. It's all a matter of perspective, I guess.

The Urge To Escape... Again!

Ever felt the need to get off this planet to just see what it's like outside? Of course we don't have that possibility (unless you, reader, are an astronaut, which I highly doubt), so all we can do is: escape into artificial worlds, into a simulated universe. Ever heard of "Elite", "Frontier" or "Starflight"? Yep, those are REALLY old computer games. But they do the trick a lot better than newer simulations. No, I'm not kidding. Yes, I DO know what I'm talking about. No, I'm not going to shut up. Oh yeah?? Well, same to you, pal!

These are really brilliant. While the graphics - of course - can't compete with space games that are released nowadays, there are plenty of realistic features that simply aren't contained in recent space simulations. Of course, games like "Freelancer", "X²: The Threat", "X³: Reunion" and "Darkstar One" try to follow the footsteps of their spiritual predecessors but at the same time lack one single element that's been craved by many gamers who enjoy this genre:

Landing on planets!
I mean... what would you find most interesting when having the ability to roam around in space with your very own vessel, your trusty, speedy, nimble spaceship. Would you prefer to board space stations and visit all the same places over and over again (i.e. bar, commodity merchant, ship dealer, mission terminal - isn't it always like that)? Communicate with other spaceships via radio? ─ Or would you rather land on a strange, unfamiliar planet and explore its surface, anxious about what wonderous otherworldly beings, colonies, ways of life you might find...? Now...? ...... I thought so! :)

In "Starflight" you may land on each of the countless planets and explore them. The word countless might not say enough, so let's be specific here: there are 270 star systems and 800 planets. All yours to explore! In the different versions of the game, the exploration part looks different too. You can fight or capture creatures, you can mine minerals or find cities, ruins, crashed spaceships - now THAT's the sort of exploration I was waiting for! That's the thing I'd actually do in real life if I had the chance to! Here are some screenshots you might find interesting (click to enlarge):

Of course... graphically it's not really satisfying. But there are so many nice descriptions that really motivate your imagination so that you're able to imagine what it might look like if you were actually stamping through this strange terrain. When you scan the planet before you land you get informations like what gravity that planet has, what the surface consists of and so on. When then exploring the surface you get infos like "it's raining" or "it is hazy", so that you can imagine everything a lot better. Again: it's not perfect but a lot better than just static screens in tabular form, isn't it?

"Frontier - Elite II" also provides that great possibility - and this time in full 3D! Then again, the 3D aspect might not look as appealing to persons of this generation - as it's kept completely polygonal. And again, the aspect of imagination is important because naturally it'll never look like that in real life. But you get the idea! Take a glimpse at these (click to enlarge):

The best aspects about the universe in "Frontier" are:
1.) You've got a whole huge universe on two small disks (and I'm not talking about DVDs or CDs - it's really only two small 1-MB-3,5" disks)!
2.) The universe depicted in the game is absolutely true to the REAL universe out there! The real development on the game started back in 1988 and the game was eventually released in 1993!! Most of the time was spent for research and inquiries about the universe! The development team (most of all David Braben, the true creator of the "Elite" series) took all the information they could find about star systems and their locations and made a huge star map which is even acknowledged as true to the original universe. (Of course the regions that are unknown to humanity consist of planets that are merely made up and thus have randomly generated names, too.)
3.) Believe it or not: there are 100 billions (read:!!) star systems contained in the game, most of which have their own name and individual properties. There are systems with one and systems with many planets you can land on (except for gas giants). Even if you could see each planet in only a second, you could never see each one in your LIFE!!!

Here's a "small" version (2250 x 1819 px) of the
star map that was delivered with the game.
Please click to enlarge it in all its glory - it's amazing:

You might wanna scream right now. You have the words "There ARE some modern space simulations which feature the ability to land on planets!!" on your lips, haven't you? Well... you're right. There's almost always the possibility of landing - but once you're on the planet there's not much to explore. There are mainly the four aforementioned locations (often depicted by single static tabular screens). You never have the chance to actually SEE something of the planet! (Except for maybe "Privateer II: The Darkening" - but that doesn't really have that many planets to see. It's great that they're all different and the landing sequences and different locations are beautiful! But there's not much to actually explore because you've got to stick to the storyline mostly...)

Well, there IS a quite modern game in which you have the ability to land on planets and explore them in full 3D first person perspective glory. It's called "Parkan II" and apart from the fact that it crashes about 5 times per hour it's not too well made in other ways either. The only "lifeforms" you'll ever encounter on planets are stupid robots that instantly attack you and spit out some really ridiculously pathetic comments - I can't decide what's worst. Other than that there's not much to do on the planets themselves. I do admit that the planet surfaces look gorgeous...

...but there's really not much to do; you'll find yourself bored quite quickly, strolling around without purpose. The only place you can go is some trading outpost (which looks alike on EACH of the planets). So it's not really that interesting after all. What a letdown.

So I guess there's only one thing for me to do when yearning for space exploration: dig out the old disks, fire up the old Amiga 500 and wait for the long loading sequences to finish...