Dying in Space

I failed to restore oxygen to the moonbase.

It was devastating, at first. I knew that I was going to fail long before the moment actually came—by the time I had about 8 minutes left, I was pretty sure that the end wasn’t going to be pretty. I put it down to my inability to grasp the minigame soon enough: I wasted about five minutes dicking around with the welder before I realized what part of the circuit board I was supposed to be playing with. There was also the issue of my poor robot-driving skills. To top it all off, I also actually got lost a few times—a tough task, admittedly, since there were only about three locations on the entire map. With eight minutes left, the seconds were counting down and there was no one to blame but myself and my incompetence. My incompetence, yeah, and certain fanciful misconceptions I had developed about the game while playing it. See, I kind of psyched myself out, when it comes right down to it. Yeah. Weird. I pretty much worked myself up into a terror. But I would have been perfectly satisfied with this self-inflicted terror, however, if it hadn’t led me to make a rather disappointing discovery about what happens when you fail the game’s scenario.

Bottom line: NASA ruined their own game for me with their squeamish space-positivism.

Moonbase Alpha is supposed to be played in multiplayer mode, pretty much. But when you tackle it alone, it’s got a certain atmospheric element that I think I might have missed if I’d played with another human—a strange combination of cheery optimism and desolate harshness that strikes me as particularly odd. In recent weeks, Neptune’s Pride and Gregory Weir’s Looming have given me the pleasure, if it can be called that, of some real quality intentional hopelessness. On the other hand, Moonbase Alpha is one of those games where you can’t tell if the desolation is intentional or not. I’m not sure if it’s just in my head—a conundrum I’m intimately familiar with after years of reading ‘hard’ science fiction. Space madness! It’s like I’m part of some crazy space-horror novel, I guess, but super low-key, and without the blood running down the inside of the visor dome and all that.

Moonbase Alpha is not necessarily for the kind of small children who tend to be obsessed with astronauts. It was, apparently, inspired by America’s Army, and that says a lot about the direction it takes, I think. It’s actually quite tough on the first playthrough, and though it’s got some cute minigame mechanics, there’s an awful lot of silent trudging, drab regolith, suffocating dust, and fiddly difficulty. Playing it alone, I really did feel like a bewildered, trapped spaceman. There isn’t any music. There aren’t any people to see. It’s in the Unreal engine, but everything feels rather more dusty and much less shiny-shiny-slick-and-fancy than other Unreal games tend to look. The disembodied voices of your fellow spacemen, stuck indoors with a dwindling oxygen supply, are more anxiety-producing than they are comforting.

Meanwhile, however, we’ve got the contrast of pretty LCD panels on the outsides of all our important moon-buildings, a bright glowy UI, oddly adorable maintenance robots, and the whole euphoric people-living-on-the-moon situation to deal with. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to think about the situation. If I’d succeeded in fixing the oxygen system, I doubtless would feel quite different about the game now. I’d probably be focusing more on the cute than the lonely.

See, I really did psych myself out: I was convinced, throughout the whole playthrough, that the astronauts would die, that they would suffocate to death if I didn’t save them. Dead astronauts are the creepiest things modernity has offered us in the past fifty years. Americans these days generally only pay attention to astronauts when they’re dead, or in peril of dying, and everyone loves putting them in movies and scaring the fuck out of us with them. (If you’ve seen Sunshine, you’ll know exactly what I mean.) I myself have a particularly strong fear of dead astronauts. As a child I desperately wanted to be a live one—specifically, a Payload Specialist. I even got to go to Space Camp in Florida for my tenth birthday, a gift that, to this day, remains the best present I have ever recieved. Space occupied a pretty significant portion of my daily thought-load—I would lie in bed for nearly an hour before falling asleep every day and try to imagine what it would be like to do a spacewalk and repair a shuttle. I almost always had nightmares after doing that, but they were particularly awesome nightmares, so I put up with it. Only a few weeks after Space Camp, though, I was diagnosed with diabetes. I immediately convinced myself to give up the whole plan. Didn’t stop my scary dying-in-space nightmares, though.

So when the game began, I immediately convinced myself that these astronauts would die if I didn’t save them. I don’t know if the game tells you otherwise right at the beginning and I missed it, but I was sure that I was the last hope they had, and that they were all slumped in their living quarters, slowly turning ice-blue, while I hopped desperately through the rising dust like an idiot. Imagine my surprise when, the moment I fail, the trapped astronauts suddenly speak up and announce that I can go back and try again, and that my failure’s only resulted in a lost day of productivity!

Listen, NASA. We gamers believe certain things about space. We believe that space is vast, and detailed, and largely friendly; we also believe that it’s as crowded with alien life-forms and awesome laser-gun fights as Canaveral and JPL are with PhDs. Your cute little robots are a step in the right direction when it comes to that kind of propaganda. But as Americans, as science-fiction nerds, we believe other things: we believe that spacemen die, horrifically, on television, with fire in the sky and immense mechanical screeches and explosions and bits of Our Heroes The Spacemen plastered all over the continent. Children of my generation know the ISS, but we also know Disaster in Space. We’ve read the books. We’ve watched the movies. We’re fascinated with space because it’s recently become a place for robots, not for people, and we know why.

I know why you made your design decision, NASA, but for God’s sake, let your spacemen die. It’s the only way we’ll ever be excited about your digital moon.

Leave a comment


  1. I find it fascinating that sometimes we can convince ourselves to care or believe in a game world, and discover to our horror that the game world doesn’t respect what we invested in it. It shakes you up and shouts: “It’s only a game.” It’s almost like the game scoffs that it’s all your own fault, you brought it upon yourself.

    Neptune’s Pride, of course, doesn’t do that; you were lucky to get out of Neptune’s Pride so early, Laura. Those of us still in the game are experiencing progressive mental breakdown.

  2. Laura, isn’t Moonbase Alpha rated E? What kind of traumatizing scenarios are you wishing on the children?!

    There is one game that features enough astronaut death to make up for this one and then some: Redder – http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/529992

    • Shnissugah

       /  July 8, 2010

      Clearly she’s wishing the same traumatizing scenarios on the children that she had nightmares of as a child.

    • You make a good point, but I sort of think that terrifying lunar asphyxiation is what being an astronaut is all about. Not including it feels wrong. Apollo 13 was rated PG, but that didn’t stop them from making a films almost entirely about impending space-death.

      Redder is definitely worth checking out. Few games pull off nonlinearity so well without using locks and keys.

      • lauramichet

         /  July 8, 2010

        I played redder the day it came out. I was up on the top floor of dartmouth’s library spending two hours trying to finish it while my homework sat unfinished. It’s excellent.

      • I did the exact same thing, except for the Dartmouth bit. I’m not usually one to follow specific games that closely, but Anna Anthropy is exceedingly good at getting my attention.

        I think I’m going to have to play through Redder again now.

      • Lots of comments imyinlpg that the lack of progress in the Space Program over the last few decades is due to immigrants. How callous are you? Do you have no shame? The lack of progress in the Space Program has NOTHING to do with the demographic transformation of the U.S. You talk as if the average white American, who spends his Sundays getting drunk watching football and eating pork rinds, could put a man on the moon. The white guys who worked on the Apollo Program were the top percentile of whites, and they were hardly regarded by their fellow racial kindred as what an “ideal” male should be. Funny that those “White nationalists” who love to brag about the white race putting a man on the moon are the same people who would have tortured and abused those same scientists when they were adolescents. NASA has always discriminated on capacity. You do not get to be an aerospace engineer because you are brown, since this is a profession where, for you to exercise it, you need to pass extremely strict tests of competence. This is a matter of law. A Latino who works for NASA is brighter than over 99% of white people, and he is far more capable of putting a man on the Moon or Mars than the “Al Bundy” types that represent the overwhelming majority of white Americans. Everyone who works for NASA except for PR secretaries are brilliant irrespective of race. The reason why there has been no progress in the Space Program over the past decades is as follows. Please try to follow me with your pea-brains. The Cold War is over, and there is no incentive to spend hundreds of billions of Dollars on something that has no economic return. Then, there is the technological cap. Distances in space are HUGE and truly gargantuan leaps in technology will be necessary for space travel to be accomplished in the space of a Human lifetime. This does not apply to traveling to Mars and coming back, which can be accomplished in a few years. In the case of Mars, the reason why we haven’t landed a man there is because there are no incentives. A man-tripulated trip to Mars would cost upwards of a quarter trillion Dollars, and you get nothing out of it except boasting to foreigners how great your country is – which is meaningless for us non-nationalists who live our lives through ourselves and not through abstract entities. As for the more distant planets in the Solar System, forget about it. Given our current rockets, it would take 20 years to get there and come back. We would need to increase the speed of our rockets by a HUNDRED fold to make such a trip feasible. It is a technological cap. In the case of interestellar travel we would have to increase speed by 100,000 times getting close to light-speed. NASA engineers are selected just as rigorously today as they were 40 years ago, but coming up with rockets a hundred fold faster than what we have today is as hard as integrating general relativity with quantum mechanics. The reasonw why it hasn’t been done is because it is REALLY hard and not because NASA average competence has dropped. The problems are not the rockets, which can withstand the blasts with the new Carbon alloys we have but the power source. We don’t have a power source dense enough to provide energy on the scale required to achive these speeds. We would need something like matter/anti-matter(total annihilation). Going back to the topic of Latinos, even if it were proven that there was something special about whites, which there isn’t, it still doesen’t mean that Latinos will never achieve great things. Most white Americans are of Northern European descent. Northern Europe was almost completely devoid of achievements up to the 16th Century. Go read Tacitus and you’ll see that the ancient Greeks and Romans regarded your ancestors as morons. Things change.

  3. I think the image of the dead astronaut is actually a big factor in the deaths Isaac can suffer in Dead Space.

    It’s actually scarier that you can’t see the faces inside the helmets too well. That could actually be a good jumping-off point for a sort of astronauts-face-virus/mutation story. You try to bring back injured or trapped astronauts, but you can only check for anything wrong once you’ve brought them back to the station or wherever.

    • lauramichet

       /  July 13, 2010

      did you see Silence In the Library, one of the best episodes during Tennant’s last season as The Doctor?

      Doctor Who sure got itself some slick astro-horror

  4. This has become quite a strange discussion about watching astronauts die.

  5. The thing that gets me is how the fact that they didn’t die is, conceptually, such a big lie. Even though we’ve sent quite a few people up into space quite a few times, it’s never “routine” — every time we do it, it’s still really fucking dangerous. You see it a lot in sci-fi, but that’s because that’s what space exploration is: dangerous!

    Why take something that’s so inherent to space exploration and get rid of it? Argh.

    • lauramichet

       /  July 13, 2010

      If the whole idea of this game is to rassle up some support for a kind of scientific research we’re already well on the way to abandoning (manned space exploration), NASA’s obviously trying to recast the activity as positively as possible.

      I just realized, however, how strange it is that the game is focused on a DISASTER in space, but eliminates death. NASA made the concession that it’s chiefly disasters that fascinate us when it comes to space exploration, but re-possessed that idea and tried to turn it to purposes more-useful to its institutional mission. “Yeah, space is about disaster– about overcoming disaster! We’re not wearing those flag pins on our space-suits for NOTHING, y’hear?”

  6. Watching the Boston Marathon with Ray Allen!

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