Starfield’s delay – announced on the same day we all got our first miraculous glimpse of the supermassive black hole at the centre of our own galaxy – got us thinking about space, and adventure, and space adventures.
So we decided to gather together a few games that we feel capture similar vibes. They’re mostly games set in space, but not exclusively, and crucially, we think they’re all brilliant. (We’ve also tried to steer away from the most obvious candidates, because by this point you don’t really need someone to suggest another playthrough of Mass Effect or Fallout, or even KOTOR.)
The best game on this list is also the best game on most lists. Outer Wilds gives you a bottle solar system to explore and an intoxicating degree of freedom in how you go about it. There’s a great clear-headed simplicity in how you move around, get into space, and deal with the elements, that’s combined with a planetary system of dizzying intricacy and sometimes brutal dynamism. This results in a game that offers a low barrier to exploration and a great reward for thinking deeply about what you find.
Like another game on this list – the next one down, in fact – Outer Wilds is gleefully omnivorous. Expect references to quantum mechanics alongside banjo ditties and the option to toast a marshmallow over a fire. The DLC also gave us gaming’s most satisfying and complete ring planet, with just a touch of the Center Parcs lazy river to it.
One of the great joys of real-world space exploration is seeing something hazy and far off slowly come into view. Pluto is a spec, then a blur, and then its own world with frozen deserts and ice-chip dunes.
Genesis Noir feels a bit like this. For a long time it was a GIF here and a playable aside there – a little bit of double-bass coupled with a point-and-click in which you sketch your own constellations.
Brilliantly, it kept this activity bear playfulness for the final game. This is a witty, sonorous story that brings together a vast range of ideas and influences, like a giant black hole hungrily chewing through a nebula. New Yorker cartoons, Ralph Ellison, jazz, physics, detective thrillers and the pleasures of interacting with digital toys, nothing is excluded from this generous playfulness, and nothing feels out of place. Also, there’s a lovely visual joke about the theory of inflation. SOLD.
FTL is a game you almost feel like you could play with a pen and piece of paper, but on a PC it’s a sublimely generous thing, part tactician, part dungeon keeper, part villainous prankster.
And it all seems so simple at first. Manage your ship and your crew and make it from one part of the cosmos to the next, staying ahead of pursuers. In truth, though, disaster lurks everywhere, ready to scupper your plans and, at times, drive you to feats of brilliance that will make you feel differently about yourself. Any space game can throw in a good dogfight, but it takes something like FTL to make you feel capable of fending off a boarding party of torpedo robots while your engine room is on fire, your shields need repairing, and you’ve accidentally vented half your crew into space.
Like Outer Wilds, MirrorMoon EP gives you your own stretch of space with a secret hidden in it. But while the first game on this list is folksy and personable, MirrorMoon keeps its distance from the player, dropping you into low-poly worlds lit by the same simple, but lurid colour scheme, and filled with challenges that play out on a surprisingly grand scale.
All of that is wonderful, but at the heart of the experience is a ship’s control panel that is at first daunting and impossible, but which slowly yields to experimentation and thought until you feel a proper sense of understanding. MirrorMoon EP is like nothing else. It’s absolutely glorious.
Sea of Thieves
Not a spaceship in sight, granted, but this luminous confection of all things pirate seems like a brilliant fit for Bethesda’s promise of a Han Solo Simulator. And besides, doesn’t the best science fiction, from Captain Kirk to M John Harrison’s K-space, invoke the stately warfare and maneuverings of vast, creaking galleons?
Sea of Thieves is a dream of adventure, a vast living ocean providing the home for a scattered archipelago of pirate dens and forgotten dunes. Visually and sonically it’s an absolute delight, and it rewards prolonged play, particularly since its custodians keep adding stuff to its sandbox. Never has it been more fun – and more dangerous – to pick a point on the horizon and head for it. And if that’s not tinged with the glories of outer space, what is?
This is special, a stylish, sparsely illustrated take on exploration that steps aside from the colonialist tendencies of so many games to focus on a personal journey to find one’s place in the world.
And it’s a gorgeously realised world, a video game landscape that lets empty space set the mood and control the tempo as you travel betweeen the wrecks of ancient ships, and over the xylophone bones of old creatures trying to make sense of everything.
The reward for the hours you spend here is a rare sense of peace and calm. Sci-fi often takes us to strange new places, but few let you immerse yourself in such a way that the ground you’re moving across starts to feel like home.
Beyond Good & Evil
Beyond Good & Evil is a Zelda-ish game that actually feels like a sci-fi novel, one of those brilliant European ones which has a vast, oddball cast, and a serious, one-for-the-epochs title like, well, like Beyond Good & Evil.
Hyllis is a beautiful watery planet under threat of invasion and gaslighting all at once. You are Jade, a photojournalist out to get the truth. Locations are dreamy Venetian fantasies and the supporting cast is capable of generating real emotions in even the chilliest player. Best of all, beneath the main campaign is a side-quest of quiet brilliance: catalog the creatures of this endangered world, one at a time.
In Other Waters
Gareth Damian Martin’s latest game, Citizen Sleeper, would have rounded out this list beautifully, but there’s something very special about In Other Waters. This is a trip to an alien landscape that focuses on its oceans and the life that swarms and multiplies within. It’s a panoramic piece of science fiction that feels gigantic in scope, even as it plays out on the dials and doohickeys of a diving apparatus.
There is something about being in an alien world yet remaining at a slight remove that makes the fantasy of extraterrestrial exploration all the richer. In Other Waters is genuinely transporting – and if you found Citizen Sleeper on Game Pass, it’s worth searching back for this.