Space is, modestly speaking, pretty bloody big. An infinite expanse of strange new worlds orbiting unknown stars, filled with wonderful scientific marvels and an existentially terrifying dose of absolutely nothing. It is a setting games are well-versed in exploring, but why do we always do so from behind the barrel of a gun?
First-person shooting among the stars has been on my mind a lot lately. I recently dove back into Elite Dangerous: Odyssey, a game whose 1:1 scale recreation of our own galaxy is so vast that the sheer concept of bringing a shotgun to its billions of explorable worlds feels absolutely laughable.
But that replay came on the heels of attending EVE Fanfest, where developers CCP Games once again announced that it’s still trying to make the EVE FPS happen—despite previous efforts that either languished on PS3 or were so boring as to never make it past early alpha. Star Citizen’s never-ending mission to be every single game all at once has also seen it introduce first-person gunfights (with accurate deformation bedsheet on those bullet-ridden bunks), and even No Man’s Sky’s peaceful pastel galaxy still has you blasting robots and bugs every now and again.
Listen, I’m not against the idea of shooting things in space. Games have been shooting things in space forever, from Doom to Halo to Titanfall 2, and we’ve been using space to create some incredible backdrops for blasting aliens, demons, and each other.
But those are first-person shooters, not grand galactic simulations. When a game can render up hundreds, thousands, even quintillions of worlds but can’t imagine a scenario where you don’t view them through iron sights, it feels like not only a failure of imagination, but a lack of confidence in the galaxy you’ve created. Do EVE’s hypercapitalist fleet commanders really need to be poking each other with shotguns?
That we’re spoiled for good shooters these days doesn’t help much either, of course. When Elite Dangerous: Odyssey dropped, it was immediately clear that this wasn’t a team well-versed in gunplay, weightless and clumsy and scattershot as its outpost fights were. Having to fend off Sentinels on No Man’s Sky’s planets has never not been a chore. If I want to shoot things, I’m going to play a game that’s about shooting things, not something half-heartedly tacked onto a game that’s more interested in spaceflight than gunplay.
It’s probably unrealistic to imagine things could ever be otherwise. Taking our violence to the stars has been a thing for as long as sci-fi has been a genre, and even Star Trek’s supposedly utopian vision of the future involves high bodycounts. Space is our wild west frontier, with bounty hunters and outlaws duking it out on space stations. Packing a pistol is a core part of the spacefaring fantasy, and games are simply a lot better at crafting satisfying firefights than trying to create compelling gameplay loops out of, say, exobiology.
But I want to see them try. When I land on a planet 20,000 lightyears from home in Elite, I want to be able to make meaningful discoveries about what life may lurk under a rock. This is something No Man’s Sky attempts, but ends up weighed down by due to sheer, impossible scale.. What if space travel itself was fraught with danger, pitting you against the vacuum of space in a vessel that frequently needed fixing by hand?
Games are already doing this, of course. Objects in Space treats spacecraft more like the complex, windowless void-faring submarines they are in reality, while Outer Wilds turns a single solar system into a clockwork puzzlebox where each world has its own quirks and secrets. But I want to see these approaches tackled on a galactic scale, one where I can truly feel like I’m taking an interstellar voyage into the unknown.
Games can take us to weird, wonderful, and impossible ends of the universe. I’d just rather not view them from behind the sights of a laser rifle.