Some of you who grew up in the 90s, as we at UPT did, may remember the Wing Commander computer games. Fighting against the feline-esque Kilrathi you were aboard a ship that launched fighters to combat the enemy in space. Being one of these pilots you were then dog-fighting against your alien counter-parts. This wasn’t the only game to explore space combat. You had the X-Wing and Tie Fighter series and the excellent Freespace as well. All these guys took the space sim genre and made it memorable.
These weren’t just combat flight simulations; there were already several developers, including MicroProse and Dynamix who had their own flight sims. These games were chances for us to go new places to see new things. The worlds felt open and expansive and not just because you were in space but because you felt you could go anywhere in the universe. No gravity and only your own vague sense of “up”, we were able to fly around and shoot lasers and other futuristic weapons to save the galaxy. Flying around as huge capital ships fought their own battle it was easy to get lost in the blackness and stars. The heart of what made Wing Commander so engaging was not its physical accuracy, but its ability to put the player in the midst of an epic landscape.
However, there is a fine line between entertainment and simulation. While being space flight sims, they were more focused on the fun aspects rather than actually simulating what space flight would be like. There were a few not so memorable space sims that used Newtonian physics to mimic how spacecrafts would actually behave in space. There was even a Sims clone which allows you to virtually controlling your astronaut in the International Space Station. Certainly there is a place for simulations with accurate physics model and mechanics grounded in reality.
With the recent landing of the Mars Curiosity, there is a re-insurgence of interest in space– from toys to Angry Birds in space. How the frontiers of space will be depicted in entertainment and media over the next decade will shape how future generations see the human race’s place in it.