In the early morning sun, I see the golden seam flickering on the side of a mountain. Clouds breaking and forming overhead cause the glow to disappear and reappear. A lighthouse in the distance, made of rock. I begin my journey across the barren environment, treading carefully. I bound across the plains, a gleeful jump in each step.
This is a strange, new world and I’m not quite ready to run.
Leaving the safety of home base is dangerous – I have to keep an eye on the power in my space suit and the oxygen levels. To make sure I can cross the plains unimpeded, I manufacture some tethers from a common compound and begin to place them as I walk across the untouched ground. They connect me to home base like electrical cables, keeping me power pack charged and my lungs full.
Once I reach the mountainside, I realise it’s too steep to run up. So I pull out one of my tools and begin to reshape the landscape. I build steps of rock and soil and then carve a hole into the mountainside. A cave is born.
I am, quite literally, moving mountains.
Inside the cave, I flatten out the ground and walls, then turn around and face the entrance. Looking outside, I can see home base, barely, a minor blemish flanked by the purple sky. I’ve lost track of how high up I am. I mine the golden seam and gain valuable power for my suit, then decide I’m going to build a bridge, from here, high upon the mountaintop back to base.
I begin to reshape the landscape, building rock over rock.
This is Astroneer, a sci-fi industry and exploration game from System Era Software. Currently, Astroneer is in pre-alpha, which means that the team behind it are still developing the game, ironing out the bugs and adding features, all the time. At present, there is no tutorial level or introduction for Astroneer – there is merely a controls screen that helps you understand which keys to press to perform the various functions of Astroneer’s faceless, mute astronaut.
As you first load up the game, you are confronted by the image of 5 pods, lined up in a row, the mirrored domes of astronaut’s helmets beaming back at you. You select one and the pod releases, is jettisoned off into space, floating calmly onto an alien planet. It’s here, when you first step out onto the rocky plains, that you begin to discover Astroneer.
Discovery is built into the foundations of Astroneer. From the moment you step out of your pod, you have very little at your disposal – the terraforming tool [I use terraforming here in the sense that it manipulates topology, rather than ecology or atmosphere], a space suit and the pod (which turns into a home base and is expandable, if you have the right materials). At the outset, I began to dig deep holes into the ground and watch them disappear into darkness. I didn’t even realise that the terraforming tool could build and flatten rock, so I kept digging down and the peering into holes like a child into a wishing well.
Quite obviously a portmanteau of Astronaut and Pioneer, Astroneer bleeds the emotion of discovery, exploration and crafting. There is little sense of urgency. In my time with the game I haven’t encountered anything or anyone else that wants to hurt me. Sometimes I stray off the beaten path a little too much and my oxygen runs low, but the penalty is not harsh – a respawn in home base with my resources lost.
The joy of venturing further, leap by leap, tether by tether, feels natural. It’s a progression limited by the landscape. The further you go, the stranger things you will find, the more resources you have access to. There’s something innately human about that feeling. A natural high of seeing things for yourself for the first time.
It’s a meditative experience.
I pull out the terraforming tool and aim it at the ground ahead of me, pushing it slightly further forward as it corrodes the earth like an acid burning through steel. I angle the trench at 45 degrees to the flat plain I’m standing on, just enough so that I don’t lose footing on the way down. Eventually, I run out of rock to eat away and a giant cavern opens up beneath me.
There are plants – wait, are those plants? – that weave out of the cavern floor. A straight drop down will kill me, the distance is too far, but of course I have a terraforming tool that can raise rock platforms out of flat earth. Aiming it directly at the ground, I build a geological spire I can use to descend to the cavern’s floor.
I get caught up in the exploration, and making a geological spire instead of a geological staircase was a mistake with dire consequences. I forget to attach tethers, keeping me bound to home base and a constant supply of power and oxygen. I have solar panels on my backpack, but the cavern is beyond the sun’s reach, rendering them useless.
Now, running low on power, I don’t have the ability to use my terraforming tool and build a way out. But that won’t kill me. The lack of oxygen will make first steal my consciousness and then, not long after, my life.
I run through my thoughts – fuck, idiot, fuck, is there are power seam around here, surely there is?? there isn’t, fuck, now what.
This is a lonely place to die.
Space is lonely.
What is it that endures in the human spirit when faced with loneliness? How do we overcome that?
In Astroneer, multiplayer is possible – you can get other astroneers to join you in your perambulations across the unnamed planet, but without them, there is [currently] little other life to interact with. Thus, playing through Astroneer becomes all about the joy of exploration. The experience of discovery. Staving off the lurking shadows of loneliness for as long as possible. Avoiding, as long as possible, the isolation by pushing further and further at the boundaries of the game world. Searching for purpose upon the surface of a planet you have not seen before and that has no waypoints or beacons or landmarks or flags planted in sand.
In that way – Astroneer has captured the spirit of space exploration.
As a result, it is a powerful meditation on the human spirit.
Want more of this? Follow Jackson on Twitter!