It’s August, which we refuse to think too deeply about. But you know what’s great to think too deeply about? Stars. On nice, clear summer nights, you can see all kinds of stars if you’re lucky, even if those stars are in games. So let’s talk about them!
What games do you feel have done something particularly interesting with stars or constellations?
Zainabb Hull: I really enjoyed the stargazing mini-game in Night in the Woods. It felt a) really queer (because stars) and b) I appreciated the way it’s used to connect with Mr. Chazokov, who made me feel deeply comforted. The storytelling felt like an elder passing down history and folklore that might otherwise be lost. I was definitely that nerdy kid who wanted to listen to those stories when other kids around maybe didn’t have that interest, so these scenes felt cosy and bittersweet.
Sara Davis: Constellations play a role in most Elder Scrolls titles: Tamriel has twelve constellations associated with different months of the Tamrielic calendar year, like the zodiac, plus a thirteenth sign that wanders around the sky just because. In Morrowind and Oblivion, you select one as a birth sign in character creation, and it grants you some passive abilities. In Skyrim and Elder Scrolls Online, you can change your constellation and associated abilities by activating a standing stone, which has a nice Druidic kind of vibe. That was the extent of it until ESO, which uses the constellation motif again and again in tomb puzzles and even has a series of zone quests involving constellations come to life.
Also, The Sims. Every title in the series has some form of telescope or observatory through which you can watch the stars and gain Logic… although doing so leaves you vulnerable to alien abduction.
Melissa Brinks: Definitely agreed on Night in the Woods. The stargazing minigame is such a peaceful reprieve from what can otherwise be a game that’s very stressful thematically. It also ties in nicely with Lost Constellation, a prequel to Night in the Woods, which feels a bit different in tone and expands the world of the game even further. I love that this world is built on stories, and that those stories stem from the characters’ relationships with and interpretations of the world around them. Even in a world that feels increasingly divorced from nature (both our own world and the world of the game, which is both a growing city and a decaying town of vacant lots), we still have that connection.
Screw interesting, which games have the coolest/prettiest stars or constellations?
Zainabb: I’ve spent a long time just watching the skies in Skyrim and Fallout 3 before it. I think there was something particularly entrancing about Fallout 3’s starry skies, which contrasted so much with the post-apocalyptic wasteland beneath them. It was also the first open-world game I played on the PS3, on our tiny HD television screen, and I’d never seen graphics like that before. I haven’t been able to play many of the more recent RPGs with notoriously gorgeous scenery, like Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Witcher 3, but I expect I’ll spend much of my time watching the horizon when I’m finally able to play them.
Melissa: I’m a notorious Skyrim disliker, but you’re so right—the skies are gorgeous! One of my favorite things to do in that game is just watch the skies and see the stars and the weather patterns. They’re really gorgeous and do a lot to add to the sense of loneliness and survival (even if it isn’t really a survival game) evoked by traveling long distances.
Sara: Along those lines: I’ve been an Elder Scrolls player since Morrowind on my very first Xbox, and I do recall the feeling of loveliness and loneliness watching the moons rise and set as I explored. At a critical juncture of the Morrowind main quest, you must enter a specific cave at either sunrise or sunset, which are sacred hours for the daedric prince Azura. Usually that meant getting to the well-hidden cave when you got there, and activating Wait or Sleep for a few hours. I was annoyed by this mechanic when I played it, but 15+ years on I still think about waking up into the pinkish-purple light of dawn or dusk.
Also, I may be alone in this but I did like the astrarium puzzles in Dragon Age: Inquisition. I love a mini-game, and these were perfect for a completionist like me: a little bit of a puzzle, a little bit of lore, and a little bit of loot for your trouble.
Emily Durham: Okay, this isn’t a joke, but I really think Animal Crossing: New Horizons’s meteor showers (and really just the sky sceneries in general) are so beautiful. I spent a lot of time just sitting on a cliff by the ocean, watching the night sky, wishing on shooting stars. On that same note, I spent a lot of time jumping around during the beautiful meteor showers in Spiritfarer and swooning to the music, which is somehow both breathtaking and heartbreaking (which is befitting, as it’s Giovanni’s unlockable location event).
Also, earlier this year, I became fully obsessed with Outer Wilds, which in addition to being a space exploration game (more on that later) is also a game about a technologically advanced society learning about an even more technologically advanced (but long extinct) society by uncovering runes, correspondences, and physical remnants. It’s slowly uncovered that the ancient society, the Nomai, were obsessed with finding the “Eye of the Universe,” and in their search, the game goes pretty remarkably deep into quantum physics, black holes, relativity, and more (you can even break spacetime in the game by using white holes and black holes in an extremely silly ending that involves a kazoo cover of the theme song overlaid on the credit sequence). I am interested in stars and space, but I’m not especially learnéd in such areas, so I’ll mostly just say here that I think the stars, planets, comets (“The Interloper” especially, of course), and every other part of this game is beautiful and impressive and wonderful.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there are a lot of games that are set in outer space. Why do you think the space setting appeals to so many gamers/human beings in general?
Zainabb: I didn’t really get the “space” thing until I played Mass Effect, and since then I’ve become Extremely Excited about space, in video games and in real life. I think my feelings today are more complicated because space is simultaneously inherently cool and also constantly approached with a western colonial lens that depresses/enrages me. There’s still so much about space that we don’t understand or even know about, and I think the endless possibilities of what “space” could look like excites people and sparks our imaginations. It’s also scary: infinite darkness that we can’t survive in naturally, black holes and the possibility of life that takes shape in ways we literally cannot fathom.
Unfortunately, I think the way that we tend to approach all this mystery and openness is to colonise and control it. I’m always interested in new theories about dark matter or the identification of a distant planet, but whenever there’s a new report about traces of water in other parts of our solar system, I think, “But water’s what gives us life. Other parts of our galaxy might not need it. We have no way of understanding that.” The way we think about space is so often colonial, imposing (usually white, western) knowledges onto worlds where those knowledges are probably mostly inapplicable. We can see this in our pop culture too, where so many aliens are humanoid (just maybe with dangly or pointy bits on their faces). As much as I love Mass Effect and its sense of universes too large and diverse to ever fully experience or imagine, it also employs a severely colonial mindset, from the militarised team you lead to the racial categorisation and widespread cultural segregation of different alien beings.
Migration is a normal part of human life and history, but there’s a reason we call it space “colonisation.” Many people see space as the future dwelling of humanity but the reality is, as we’ve seen with all those white male billionaires shooting off into the atmosphere recently, colonisation is led by those with power and is resourced by the labour of those without. Some games explore this future, like the Red Faction series and Killing Time at Lightspeed, which consider issues around working-class labour in space and what space “colonisation” might mean for those remaining on Earth.
Migration is a normal part of human life and history, but there’s a reason we call it space “colonisation.” Many people see space as the future dwelling of humanity but the reality is, as we’ve seen with all those white male billionaires shooting off into the atmosphere recently, colonisation is led by those with power and is resourced by the labour of those without.
Sara: I think, for me, encountering and falling in love with Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic was a sensation of recognition: I’d already imprinted on Star Wars as a kid, and the sensation of discovery they offered was in a way rediscovering something I already loved. I’m prepared to die on the hill of all space operas being inherently nostalgic. You venture into the unknown and find… yourself? How extraordinary! But I think that feeling of nostalgia just supports what Zainabb was saying about the pleasure of space exploration being interwound with the pleasure of controlling and/or colonizing the frontier—even Star Wars itself, which depended on the visual language of Westerns to no small degree. It doesn’t have to be so, but it frequently is.
Melissa: Yes, I agree with all of the above. I’m not huge on space games, myself (jumping the gun on the next question, whoops!), but there is something exciting about space and its possibility even to me. But like both Sara and Zainabb said, there’s also a strong tendency to lean into colonialism in games that feature space, especially if they also feature humans exploring.
I don’t know that it has to be that way (I would love to see more games where colonialism is less of an emphasis!), but in the same way that zombies became an easy shorthand method of allowing violence against “acceptable,” supposedly apolitical enemies, I think space often functions as a similarly “acceptable” and supposedly apolitical place to enact colonialism. As the gaming community as a whole becomes more aware of the fraught nature of genres like 4X games (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate—this is the basis of games like Civilization and Crusader Kings, even if we no longer use that terminology to describe them), I think space becomes a tempting alternative, as if colonialism doesn’t have any harm unless applied to human beings. But we know that that’s not true—colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, and similar forces have had horrible and at this point irreversible effects on the planet and its wildlife, not just on other humans.
When we’re thinking about exploration and expansion into space even in fictional game settings, we should do so with care and imagination, not just replicating the same exploitative systems but with rockets and terraforming powers.
Do you like space exploration games? What do you like about them, and what’s one exciting moment that sticks in your mind?
Zainabb: I like the idea but I don’t think I’ve actually played many. I think I frequently run into the same colonisation problem as mentioned before. My main memory of space exploration in games is the Mako sequences in the first two Mass Effect games. I know a lot of people hate the Mako but I loved how silly the driving was, and just the feeling of roaming around different planets. TTRPGs like Alone Among the Stars excite me because they can be more about introspection and stretching your imagination than colonisation, depending on how you play.
Sara: I suppose this is a safe space to float my theory: Mass Effect: Andromeda is space Skyrim (and Not That Bad, Actually). I played it twice—and both times, what stood out to me above all is how melancholy the game is. This title absolutely has its issues with colonialism, but it’s also not all military heroics and strategic alliances. The sidequests show that, by leaving a galaxy behind, the Andromeda Initiative population has given up something incalculably vast and are processing their loss in myriad ways.
Melissa: As I mentioned above, I wouldn’t say that I like space exploration games. But I did quite like the very brief time I spent playing No Man’s Sky, primarily because there is something really exciting about not knowing what’s going to be waiting for you when you land. The game is definitely not outside of the exploitation problem—when I played, very soon after release, your primary method of engaging with the game was strip mining each planet for elements—but seeing new creatures, new color configurations, and beautiful (or ugly!) scenery was exciting every time. If the game had given me a little more excitement to work with or mechanics that were a little less about strip mining, I might have been more inclined to stick with it.
Emily: Like Zainabb said earlier, I really like space games, taken with a grain of salt. I have been on a No Man’s Sky kick recently, but lately (in the last couple weeks or so) I’ve fallen off of it, in large part because I got bored and annoyed with the “discover a new planet, and build a station there, and mine all of its resources” gameplay. Not only is it repetitive after a while, but like, we as a society of gamers and game developers can do better than just basing all of our games on colonialism and imperialism. I’m tired of it, it’s tired, it’s bad, can we just not.
That said, there are some space exploration games where you explore for the sake of exploring, which I can fully get behind. I mentioned before that I LOVE Outer Wilds, which is a game that was pitched to me as “Myst, but in space.” I love that you’re going through the tiny solar system, piecing together the history of these planets, this galaxy, the Nomai civilization and your own, and not placing down “I FOUND THIS FIRST!!!” flags everywhere as you do it. You’re approaching the discovery element from a place of curiosity, not colonialism, and that’s one of the things that makes it so special, and even rare.
Since ancient times, astronomy has inspired amazing cosmological mythology and lore. Tell us about a video game with astronomy-inspired mythology that gives you lots to think about.
Melissa: I think this answer is best served by me refusing to look anything up, so please note that I may be misremembering here. I’m going to answer Night in the Woods for this question as well, because while it’s been a long time since I last played the game, I have this half-remembered idea that the people immortalized in the stars are primarily just average, everyday folks. Not only does that speak to the game’s sort of Richard Scarry-esque appeal (with an anticapitalist bent, naturally), but it also celebrates the achievements and impact you can have without being, you know, a great hero or child of prophecy or whatever. Just as Mae and her friends have real, tangible impacts on the people around them and become immortalized to us, the people who exist now only in folktales remembered by people looking at the stars do as well to the people of that world. It’s not about being big or important, it’s about doing something, anything.
OK, I have now done the research and I’m only partially right. In addition to “a fish” and Ferdinand, who mostly climbed a lot of mountains, you do have a bell that rings at the end of the world and Adina venturing below the earth, but you also have a big snake famed for being destroyed by a group of villagers who banded together. I rest my somewhat poorly argued case.
Emily: Seconding Night in the Woods!
You know what goes great with astronomy? Astrology. Which game character do you think is a classic [zodiac sign], and why?
Zainabb: The fish man from Resident Evil Village is a Virgo.
Melissa: Morrigan from Dragon Age is a Scorpio. Signed, a Scorpio.
Emily: If my very thorough and intense research is to be trusted, it sure seems to me like Sayge (my son) from Breath of the Wild has the big personality, loud wardrobe, and slight ego associated with a Leo. Am I wrong? Leave it in the comments.
Emily Durham is a freelance writer by day and a Sidequest copyeditor by… also day. When they’re not editing or playing with cats, you can find them playing Celeste or Hollow Knight, sewing korok cosplays, or… playing with cats. You can find their tweets at @sedimentalvalue.