Sometimes, it’s nice to gaze up into the stars and get some perspective. You might contemplate the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, or try to hold in your mind the fact that even the emptiest bit of space you can see is filled with stars too far away for us to see from our planet. You might wonder if there’s intelligent life looking back at us, and what their memes are like. Maybe you’re tracing one of the constellations, ancient storytelling tools drawn through light-years of space, shapes that will last the course of human history several times over before the ever-shifting universe pulls them apart. Maybe you’re just thinking about Carrie Fisher or Carl Sagan. This week, our panel of contributors share with you some of our favorite stories that take place in the final frontier.
Nagi: Space is not a setting I find myself drawn to frequently. I tend to fall more into the fantasy camp than the sci-fi, although I am aware of the discourse on the distinctions or non-distinctions that separate the genres. My two picks came bubbling up out of my memory, hitting my palate with sweet nostalgia. Many years ago I purchased the game Ascendancy from a garage sale for a couple bucks, and the DOS game blew my mind wide open with its simple-yet-unnervingly expansive exploration and colonization mechanics. You start on one planet with one alien race, and from there you can spend endless hours spreading yourself across an entire star system. The visionary scope of this game feels analogous to Star Citizen, minus about $84 million. Being a DOS game I found out recently that it’s easily emulatable; it took me awhile to recall how to correctly spell the word ascendancy, which had been frustrating previous my web search attempts.
The other space-related media that I found nesting in my brain is the 2011 shonen manga St&rs, about a spikey-haired protag who can hear alien voices in his head, driving him to become an astronaut in order to make first contact on Mars. He enters a prestigious space academy and meets other teens with mysterious powers that all seem to be related to the prophetic messages being sent to Earth by a race from outside our galaxy. The first few volumes of this series build story and suspense so well that I was convinced at the time we had a worthy successor to Naruto or Bleach on our hands. However, this manga ended up being another case of a “popped balloon” narrative; once the story had reached its projected apex, there wasn’t really anywhere good to go from there. The writing took a nosedive and the manga was dropped from weekly serialization shortly after. It’s a damn shame; if the author had planned better when constructing their storyline, or if the production of the work had been more finitely limited (say as a mini-series or a movie), I think it would have met with the much greater success it deserved.
Scriv: There’s a film from the 70’s called Silent Running, about a spaceship containing the last living Earth forest, and the peril it faces near Saturn. I haven’t actually seen it yet (but not for lack of trying–gotta find this movie), but I do have a connection to it through a favorite band of mine. In 2011, 65daysofstatic (who later become known for their score for No Man’s Sky), rescored Silent Running in their own post-rock idiom and performed it live at the Glasgow Film Festival. Response from the fans was immediate: studio recording, please? And so, they did. Their soundtrack is beautiful, sweeping and soaring and crashing in all the right places.
Overall, in terms of favorite space media, though (or, at least, media in which space and space travel is a constant presence), I’m gonna have to give it to the Borderlands video games. Maybe I didn’t watch enough Trek as a kid (I watched The Search For Spock too early and got very frightened), but I tend to lean heavily towards space western over space opera genrewise, and few have made sci-fi as harshly beautiful as Borderlands. Anthony Burch’s writing in the two most recent games cranked the series’s cheeky comedy and emotional resonance to a peak, and when a developer like Gearbox makes it a policy point to celebrate diversity, it just makes their games stand out from the crowd even more. None of them are perfect games, but when you’ve got Borderlands-level flair and the FPS mechanics to back it up, you’re gonna have a good time.
Snacko: When I think of outer space, specifically fiction about outer space, I think mostly of the possibilities. If we could only explore beyond the tiny corner of the galaxy we seem to be trapped in, who and what would we find? What would we learn about our place in the universe? What stories would we have to tell? What would a civilization that developed independently of humanity look like?
Endless Space_2 is a grand strategy game in the tradition of a Civilization or a Master of Orion, with each player taking control of a different intergalactic civilization that has just discovered light speed travel. While most grand strategy games only differentiate factions with a few special abilities and unique units, ES2‘s all play very differently from each other, and this is the real beauty of its RPG-like quests. Every faction has their own story, and each story branches, with the player deciding between three different objectives for each quest. Each quest involves solving some problem the faction has acclimating to intergalactic life which seamlessly twists that faction’s story around the game mechanics, changing those mechanics and allowing that faction’s story to be shaped by them through both scripted and emergent events. For example: the Riftborn, aliens from another dimension trapped in ours, get major bonuses for colonizing certain planets other factions find uninhabitable, ie Tundra planets, and receive penalties for colonizing planets most other races find beneficial, ie Jungle planets. Additionally their population does not reproduce on its own and must be built from colonies. Like other factions, however, other races can immigrate to Riftborn systems and gain the usual penalties from inhospitable planets.
Riftborn quests allow the player to choose whether the civilization decides to befriend smaller civilizations or learn to optimize their military might. If the player finishes a minor faction quest, their diplomacy will approve, while if they focus on military they can build new population faster.
Given that the player will ideally choose the objective they can complete the most efficiently, the society develops depending on what resources and civilizations are nearby. In the same way Civilization so organically models the past 7000 years, Endless Space_2 models the future. It provides a compelling argument that on an intergalactic scale, an alien civilization would encounter many of the same social issues we do on Earth, and then uses its branching stories to model how that civilization might develop. I only hope we get a chance to see how close to the mark Amplitude got.
Miki: To me, it seems impossible to discuss our favorite experiences on the final frontier without mentioning Cowboy Bebop. Smart, stylish and scintillating in all respects, it’s not surprising that the series is widely regarded as quintessential to the modern anime experience.
For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Cowboy Bebop is a 1998 anime series that takes place in the year 2071. Earth has become largely uninhabitable, so the human race has begun to spread across the various rocky planets and moons in our solar system. A rise in interplanetary crime carves out a niche profession for the crew of the Bebop. Meet your new favorite bounty hunters: former hit-man Spike Spiegel, spunky con-woman Faye Valentine, ex-ISSP officer Jet Black, child genius Edward Wong, and their suspiciously intelligent dog, Ein.
The first time I saw the series, I was fifteen years old. It was my birthday, and more than anything, I wanted to empty my piggy bank and go to the local Best Buy, pick out a fancy box-set from the anime section, and watch it til my eyes went fuzzy. With options available like full seasons of Naruto, Fullmetal Alchemist, Bleach and Sailor Moon, my younger self was certainly not expecting to go home with Cowboy Bebop. However, I had never owned an entire series on DVD before. The uncharted territory was too good to pass up. It felt special. “Besides,” I thought,clutching the over-sized DVD case in my hands, “ if Newtype USA has named it the best anime of all time, it has to be good, right!?”.
Now, the year is 2017, and I’m finding myself in the midst of re-watching the same box set I purchased ten years ago. This is precisely why Bebop is an experience worth shouting about. Behind gorgeous visuals, and a lively, dramatic soundtrack (seriously, just listen to “Tank!” or “The Real Folk Blues”), lives a story and characters who seem to grow and change as we do. Not being given an omnipotent voice in the narrative, the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions about characters each time they revisit the series, making room for your own life narrative to influence your interpretation of what you see. Ultimately, beneath the visage of a rowdy, bounty collecting space epic, Cowboy Bebop is not just about it’s cool spaceships and elaborate action sequences, but about the human condition, and how each of us deals with the experience of living. It’s about the journey to claim your identity while stuck between a messy past and an uncharted future. Talk about a story for millennials, yeah?
So, whether it is your first trip with the patchwork crew of the Bebop, or you’re tagging along with these Cowboys for the umpteenth time, the series’ world building policy of “show, don’t tell” will ensure that you’ll never experience the series the same way twice.
Feryx: Now, I must admit that my immediate reaction to this prompt was this clip of Tim Curry from FMV treasure Red Alert 3. And, since Mikki nabbed the one space setting that has ever truly resonated with me, I’m just going to talk a bit about a new fav retro game of mine: Layer Section for the Sega Saturn.
Or at least, that’s one name for it. The game is a Taito shmump originally released in arcades in 1994, the golden age of the genre. There it was known as RayForce, and its sequels, RayStorm and RayCrisis, would base themselves in this naming convention. Licensing issues would force the home versions to go by different names in each territory: Layer Section in Japan, Galactic Attack in North America, and Gunlock in Europe. But Hell, I’ve got the Japanese Saturn game so it’s Layer Section to me.
The point is, this game is an absolute blast. It lacks some of the more baroque scoring and ranking systems of some of the most lauded shooters, opting for straightforward arcade action. You’ve got a straight rapid-fire main weapon, and a targeting reticle that floats ahead of your ship and allows you to lock on to enemies and objects and fire homing lasers at them. Locking on to as many targets as possible is not only immensely satisfying, but also the key to huge score bonuses (and thus crucial extra lives).
The targeting mechanic is the thing that sets Layer Section and allows it to flex a lot of its creativity, because it allows you to target things not only on your own plane, but below you as well. This lends the game an incredible level of visual depth, which such setpieces as space armada battles happening far beneath you, multi-tier bosses with segments stretching downward, and enemy structures and bases that you can destroy and break apart with lasers. Many enemies attack you from ground level, and some can be targeted as they rise up to meet you. This may also be part of why Layer Section is my favorite title for the game: it puts the layered play-field front and center.
The graphics are lovely on their own as well: 1994 was part of the beautiful twilight of sprites, the natural peak of 2D before everything moved into the third dimension. I won’t say it’s on the same level as something like Castlevaina: Symphony of the of the Night, but it’s got some lovely detailed sprites, great scaling all over the place, and the occasional smartly deployed 3D effect such as one boss that phases in and out of an intangible wire-frame form. There’s also plenty of eye-candy that again emphasizes that sense of depth and descent: things like the Earth peaking through holes in the asteroid you’re flying over, or the zooming highways far below you in the mechanized city beneath the surface of the earth.
Depth and descent are also central to the structure and narrative of the game. As is common for arcade action games, the plot of Layer Section is dire and overwrought but barely present within the game itself: 99.8% of humanity has been wiped out in a war with Con-Human, an environmental control supercomputer that went rouge, causing natural disasters and amassing an army of clones. The last remnants of humanity, forced to flee to space colonies, are staging a desperate final mission to return to Earth, break through it’s outer and inner defenses and take out Con-Human as the mechanized core of the planet. Again this whole plot doesn’t really have room to express itself within the game, but it does lend Layer Section a fairly unique progression: Often in shooters, the player will begin the game planetside and make their way up to space as the game progresses, working towards some external threat. In Layer Section though, you are are the external threat, beginning the game at an asteroid base in Earth’s orbit, then working your way into the atmosphere, toward the surface, beneath the Earth’s crust, and straight to the core of the planet. The game over screen highlights this progression by showing a diagram of the planet with a blip indicating how close to the center you got.
I must also mention the soundtrack, composed by Tiato’s acclaimed inhouse band Zuntata. The music ranges from fast and exhilarating to tense and foreboding, and most pretty much everything in Layer Section is an example of the best this era of video games had to offer. And that’s really the bottom line for my entry in this Going Around: There’s really nothing particularly emotionally resonant or intellectually stimulating about Layer Section, it’s just a damn good space shooter.