Space Agency is my new counterexample to the claim that games should always privilege gameplay mechanics over theme, presentation, and enthusiasm.
Frequent the same online gamers’ haunts that I do, and you’ll eventually become involved in a well-meaning but inevitably doomed discussion of what makes for a good game. If you’re supremely lucky, everyone will have read their Wittgenstein and will agree at the outset that games are too varied to permit any definitive answer to that question, and we should accept that not all good games are good in the same ways. But it’s likely that at least some of your interlocutors will advance strong claims as to what sort of things games ought to be. Enter Space Agency. Despite its simplistic, repetitive gameplay it somehow manages to be a good game, thereby showing once again that games are most curious and surprising things.
Space Agency is a straightforward game about building rockets, launching them into space, releasing payloads into orbit, docking with space stations, exploring the solar system, and returning to Earth. It offers each of these elements (and more) as a separate mini-game, and each mini-game, considered on its own, is nearly as simple as can be. They’re like those five-minute in-browser Flash games that exist just to distract white-collar workers briefly from their drudgery.
For example, to launch a rocket, you just tap to fire your engines, and then steer left or right to alter your trajectory—but don’t go too far to either side! Then as you achieve orbit, the launch mini-game blends seamlessly into the docking mini-game. To dock your capsule to the space station, use your maneuvering thrusters to set up a careful approach—but remember to account for inertia! See? Simple. The mini-games take just a minute or two to learn, but their beguiling design makes them tough to master. Taken one at a time each would be dull, but stack enough of them up and things get more precarious and exciting. The alternation between them helps keep them fresh, and each success ratchets up the tension since failure at any point means you’ll have to restart the whole mission. This cold-hearted design seems appropriate, given the subject matter. It’s very cold in space.
The game’s campaign consists of 16 missions. Their objectives range from Mercury-style single orbits of the Earth to full-blown lunar exploration and beyond. Missions all begin on terra firma with rocket construction. You get to select first-stage and second-stage rockets of various sizes, as well as boosters, payloads, fairings, and connectors from an inventory of United States, Soviet and British designs. Everything you add to your rocket increases its weight and costs money. These and a mission time limit provide the game’s three major constraints. A design that just clears budget and is weighed down by huge components will be lucky to earn a bronze star, but you can replay missions in pursuit of that elusive silver or gold.
There’s also a “free mission” mode without any objectives or budget constraints, but it isn’t quite as amusing as I’d hoped. There just isn’t enough to do in Space Agency for it to succeed as a sandbox game. That’s okay, though. Save whatever RPG or management elements might contribute the necessary depth for sandbox mode, and let this game be pure and sleek as the Saturn V itself.
Space Agency’s closest gaming kin has nothing to do with rocketry: it’s the tabletop game Jenga, in which the slightest misjudgment or failure of dexterity can bring the whole edifice crashing down, whereupon begins the labor of picking up the pieces and rebuilding the tower. In Space Agency, if you flub your final reentry to atmosphere you’ll have to start the mission all over again. But the cycle of failure and repetition never feels malicious or unforgiving. This is partly because each failure tells you something interesting about how better to approach the problem next time. Plus, it’s your own dumb fault you wasted your thruster fuel on that ill-advised “runaway dreidel” maneuver so you couldn’t reenter at the proper angle. Just like in Jenga: the law of universal gravitation didn’t decide arbitrarily to screw you over, you just have clumsy fingers. You’re more likely to blame yourself than the game.
Space Agency is obviously space-themed, but it’s no hardcore space simulator. (For that, you may want to wait for the forthcoming, er, Space Simulator.) Any complaints about infidelity or realism would be missing the point. It has other charms. Its clean, cartoonish graphics and addictive sound effects (countdowns to liftoff, radio beeps, explosions and the like) do much to compel attention. The music shifts from boisterous techno during launch to serene and calming when you hit orbit. And that’s when something funny happens to me. My mind wanders; my heart flutters as shared, inherited memories are jostled to the fore. Before I know it I’m scrambling for my Burnham’s Celestial Handbook and a planisphere, or thumbing through my old copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s The Promise of Space. For a game that by all rights should be repetitive and frustrating, why do I seem to sleep better after playing it? It makes me dream big dreams. Too often with games we talk about what they make us do, and not enough about what they make us want to do.