Concept art from Star Citizen, the new game from Chris Roberts, the creator of the Wing Commander series. Image: Cloud Imperium Games
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From Elite to Star Citizen: the new race to revive the old space game genre

As a new wave of games reclaims outer space as a setting for action and adventure, we ask if we are looking at an empire striking back or just an attack of the clones.

One of the first computer games I ever played was called Elite. It was about being a spaceship commander in a vast universe. You could add more weapons to your ship and be a bounty hunter, or you could load it with cargo to be a trader, or - if you were like me - you could be that guy who crashed into every space station that he ever tried to dock with. It turns out that six-year-olds don’t make good spaceship pilots, but it gave me a taste for the genre that remains with me still.

Over the years other games, including Elite’s own sequels, would offer their own takes on the theme of space ships doing space ship stuff and run off in different directions with it. While Elite established the sandbox spaceship game, others would approach the genre differently. Some would focus on a narrative built up over a series of tightly-scripted missions; others on multiplayer dogfighting; and others on more of a thoughtful, flight simulator approach. Things were going fine, different tastes were being catered for, and with the arrival and implementation of things like 3D graphics it looked like the space game was all set to live long and prosperously as a staple of PC gaming. This all came to a somewhat abrupt halt around the turn of the century. Over a comparatively short period, the Wing Commanders, X-Wings and Freespaces stopped being made. Some ended sooner, some later, but the lights went out on many of the big space game series.

There are exceptions of course. EVE: Online still continues to defy the many exaggerated rumours of its own demise, while the X series - especially X3 and its various expansions - represents perhaps the pinnacle of the old wave of space games. (Especially as the recent sequel, X-Rebirth, was a complete load of dingo’s kidneys.)

The return of the space game was hinted at here and there, but it was when Star Citizen’s crowd funding project took off that things really went up a gear. Star Citizen itself didn’t appear, of course, but it didn’t have to - suddenly, interest in the space genre was rekindled. Even people who dismiss Star Citizen as a cynical experiment in whale milking can’t ignore that it has helped to bring life to a genre that had seemed lost.

From heroic solo projects such as Limit Theory and early access games like Space Engineers, to more mainstream projects like No Man’s Sky and the return of the venerable ancestor itself in the form of Elite: Dangerous, the list of incoming space games is growing - and it looks like it will to continue to do so, if this new wave of games succeeds critically and commercially. That may not be as easy as it first seems, however, and fans should not get cocky.

The problem for space games is that in many ways the things that they used to do are being done in other games in other ways and sometimes better.

For example, the sort of combat common to space games isn’t as unique and amazing as it used to be. Typically space game combat was based on the Star Wars style, or sometimes, in the better games like I-War, some additional tricks were thrown in so players could take advantage of better physics. In its day that kind of combat was fun and exciting, but competition from conventional aircraft simulators was severely limited back then. The comparison now for space games is against games like the DCS modular simulators, or for fans of less-realistic flight systems there are games like War Thunder. Space, being space, can be a somewhat drab backdrop compared to swooping around mountains and dodging power lines.

Secondly, many of the tropes of the sandbox space games have been picked up by other genres - for example, the cargo-transporting element that the Elite series always included. Comparisons between the trading side of Elite: Dangerous and Euro Truck Simulator 2 might seem a little unflattering but they are not too far off the mark. Pick up cargo, go to a place, unload cargo, make profit, buy better hauler to carry more cargo, repeat. You might be able to make the Kessel Run so fast you have to measure your speed using a unit of distance, but do it often enough and it will get old.

One factor that we need to consider is that Elite: Dangerous can be played multiplayer. In theory you can lead a group of ships, but only if you can find other human players to follow you. This presence of other players also means that if you do choose to spend your time hauling cargo there’s a possibility somebody might blow up your ship just because it’s there, which isn’t always as fun as it sounds.

Getting the systems right to protect players from acts of malicious violence while not making the game utterly toothless is incredibly difficult. One side will be end up feeling alienated from being pushed to the margins, and, potentially, losing either side completely could ruin the experience for both. This is a problem that both Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen will face, the latter also having to deal with the inherent problems of balancing the pay-to-win elements of its business model. While space games like these are not unfamiliar ground for their developers, the multiplayer element is. The addition of other players has the capacity to ruin anything or make it the best thing ever, or even both at the same time.

Of course it is easy and unnecessary to knock games that haven’t been completed yet for flaws which they might not eventually have, but that is not my intent. Video game fans like to follow a pattern of building expectation to dizzying levels and then hating games for failing to meet those inflated expectations rather than valuing them for what they are. Sometimes we all need to dial back those expectations somewhat.

Take Star Citizen. It’s making a lot of money, but its budget is still a long way below that of a typical AAA game, such as Halo 3 or Watch_Dogs, while its ambition is far greater. As a result it is likely that it will not be the second coming of the Great Prophet Zarquan, instead it will tickle fans of the genre in ways they have not been tickled for a long time and maybe win over some new players. This ought to be enough. Nobody except the most diehard fans of Chris Roberts’s earlier work should be expecting some miraculous super game.

Similarly, Elite: Dangerous - while visually very striking and as good an advert for the Oculus Rift as has ever been made - is not the sort of game that everybody can just dive into. It’s a simulator and a slow burner; an uncompromisingly old school game in almost every way, and it offers very little of itself at all to casual players looking to dip in for a bit of interstellar ultraviolence. This will likely lead to misunderstanding, frustration and anger among many players, but there will probably also be thousands of more patient, contemplative players methodically enjoying the hell out of it.

The future is bright for the next generation of space games and brighter for the genre as a whole than at any point in over a decade. We just need to keep in mind that we’re still talking about a small cluster of indie games and while they look very promising they might not be the droids we are looking for.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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At best, The Confession Tapes makes you feel unease. At worst, despair

Netflix billed the show as a true-crime binge-watch – but its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

Would you confess to a crime you hadn’t committed? For some days now, I’ve been asking myself this question. Furious and punchy, my gut tells me immediately that I wouldn’t, not in a million years. But then comes a quieter, less certain voice. Isn’t guilt, for some of us, a near-permanent state? Apt to apologise even when I’m not in the wrong, I cannot believe I’m the only woman alive who tortures herself in the small hours by thinking she has unknowingly done something very bad indeed.

All this was provoked by The Confession Tapes, billed on social media as “our” next Netflix true-crime binge-watch. In this instance, however, the breathless excitement is misplaced: binge-watching would seem to me to amount to a form of self-harm. Yes, it’s compulsive. Stoked by bloody police photographs, the atmosphere can be suspenseful to a queasy-making degree. But like Making a Murderer and The Keepers before it, its prime concern is not with crimes committed so much as with the American justice system, for which reason its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

At best, it will leave you feeling uneasy. At worst, you may find yourself sinking down into something akin to despair.

Director Kelly Loudenberg tells six stories over the course of seven episodes. Each involves a brutal murder (or murders) for which a perpetrator (or perpetrators) has (have) since been safely (unsafely) convicted. All are linked by one factor: the conviction was secured primarily thanks to a confession extracted by the police under extreme circumstances. Lawyers were not present; mind games were played; interviewees were exhausted, unstable, traumatised. In one instance, the authorities took what’s known as the “Mr Big” approach: undercover officers, playing their roles with all the gusto of a local am-dram society, pretended to be gangsters whose criminal networks could save the accused from death row if only they (the accused) would provide them with all the facts.

Why did juries believe these confessions, unaccompanied as they were by forensic evidence? Here, we go back to where we began. “No,” they told themselves. “I would not admit to a crime I had not committed.” Either such citizens have no softer inner voice – or, more likely, the idea of listening to it is simply too terrifying.

Predictably, the majority of the accused are poor and ill-educated, and perhaps this is one reason why the case of Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, two articulate middle-class boys from Canada, stood out for me (the pair were found guilty of the 1994 murder in Bellevue, Washington, of Atif’s parents and sister; at the time, they were 19). Or perhaps it is just that I still can’t understand why an American court considered “Mr Big” evidence admissible when the technique is illegal in the US? (The “gangsters” who encouraged Burns and Rafay to indulge in the most pathetic teenage braggadocio I’ve ever witnessed belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.)

The saddest part of this tale: hearing Burns’ father, David, describe his prison visits. (Burns, serving a life sentence without possibility of parole, has exhausted all his appeals.) The strangest part: the way James Jude Konat, like all the prosecutors in this series, was so happy to perform for the camera, more game-show host than lawyer.

It feels obscene to move on, but move on I must. W1A (18 September, 10pm) is enjoying a bewilderingly long life (this is series three). Is the joke still funny? I think it’s wearing thin, though this may be born of my own recent encounter with the BBC’s bizarre machinery (humiliating, in a word).

Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) and her team of media morons have been bought by a Dutch company, Fun, where good ideas are celebrated with silent discos. One idea is a YouTube-style platform, BBC Me. Meanwhile, Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) is helming – nice BBC word – a group that will deliver the corporation’s “More of Less Initiative”, and a cross-dressing footballer has successfully plonked his bum on the Match of the Day sofa. Business as usual, in other words. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left