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.

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