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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era