Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 130 / JUNE 1991 / PAGE 106

Space games for real. (computer games) (column)
by Orson Scott Card

When a gamewright sets out to simulate a real-life situation, one of the toughest challenges he or she faces is the fact that people can compare the finished game against the real thing. Players want a golf simulation to feel like golf (minus the walking); they expect a flight simulator to feel like flying (without having to suffer the drastic consequences of mistakes).

Science-fiction simulations should be much easier, right? After all, nobody's going to be able to hop into a starcruiser and check out what it's really like to explore new planets. The sci-fi gamewright can be lazy and get away with practically anything!

Oh, if only it were so! Unfortunately, almost the opposite is true. The science-fiction audience loves to second-guess the author every step of the way. No matter how great you think your idea is, some reader, or game player, is going to figure out why you're a complete idiot. And then that same reader, or game player, will tell you and everybody else exactly how dumb your inventions are.

Take it from someone well-versed in the trade--you sometimes feel that it's easier to simulate reality than to simulate fantasy.

But, picky and nasty as it sometimes is, the science-fiction audience keeps coming back for more sci-fi games, if only because the computer is the only way the strange and powerful experience of science fiction can be recreated with such immediacy. Boot up your starship, and, for a few minutes, you really seem to soar between the stars.

The roots of starflight games go back to, logically enough, Starflight from Electronic Arts (415-571-7171). Working miracles with CGA graphics, this game gave you the feel of striding through the galaxy, of meeting alien races and either fighting or befriending them. All the while, you searched for the secret of the most ancient aliens--the secret that you had to find in order to save the galaxy. Playing Starflight was like living a grand old space opera--without the fat lady.

Computer technology has come a long way since then. Star Control from Accolade (408-985-1700) and MicroProse's Lightspeed (301-771-1151) are two new entries in the genre that Starflight defined. These two latest entries share several features. Both of them replace the flat, top-down star map of Starflight with three-dimensional star maps that rotate in your view, so that you always get a sense that space is high and wide and deep. Both take you hopping from star to star without the possibility of getting lost that was part of the fun--and sometimes the tedium--of Starflight. And both games give you a chance to compete with alien species in a race to colonize other worlds.

Despite these similarities, though, the games could hardly be more different. Star Control may have Starflight as its daddy, but its mama is the old arcade game Asteroids. In fact, you can skip the whole colonizing routine and just play space combat, with a stunning array of ships to choose from, each with its own particular strengths and vulnerabilities. You can spend hours just discovering different ships, exploring and mastering all of their many features.

When you get into the full game, it begins to resemble a wonderful sort of three-dimensional chess. You move from star system to star system, searching for words to exploit or colonize, fortifying the ones necessary to your supply line. Time passes. Then, suddenly, you find yourself in the same star system with an enemy, and the combat begins. The game never lags, even during the star-map phase of the game. The early phases have a comfortable, unhurried feel.

Geoffrey, Emily, and I have decided that the game is a lot more fun when you play against humans--the computer is just too smart and fast for us. (We haven't figured whether that's because the computer opponent speeds up on my 486 machine or because we're just too klutzy to compete.) When we play against each other, Star Control is a great romp, especially when the viewer's perspective zooms in for close combat and zooms out for wider maneuvering. Dodging planets, swinging around to use our cool new weapons, we get the feel of realtime space combat in a way no other game has ever offered.

Lightspeed, on the other hand, while having a first-rate combat phase, concentrates on exploration and colonization. Like Starflight, it lets you meet aliens and try to make trade or make treaties. What do you trade for? Fuel and spare parts--space combat can really wreck an engine room.

In fact, the most wonderful innovation in this game is that engine room. You'll almost hear Scotty growling, "We're trying to get full power, Captain," as you scramble to steal parts from the blasters to keep the shields up.

Star Control for fast-action combat and chesslike maneuvering; Lightspeed for a fully developed universe and the unfolding of a story. Both games are superb examples of smooth, user-friendly design, both games take you into space with a level of reality that will satisfy all but the most fussy of sci-fi nerds. Yet despite their similarities, they are so different that they prove once again that a good game will always be fresh and new, no matter how many others have already gone down the same road.