By Cara Ellison on March 11th, 2013 at 7:30 pm.
There’s this… game? I don’t know how to describe it now, with my heart in my mouth. I am chewing my own heart. Space Engine probably isn’t a game. It’s… It’s a universe simulator. It’s galaxies and galaxies in a tiny zip file. And the most amazing thing is we live in it. And that it is so very beautiful.
Space Engine simulates our universe in the most beautiful, silent, slothful way, until you are delirious. It is free, Russian, and 699MB on your HDD. It’s everything in space in a little folder just there on your desktop. Jim mentioned it way back, but it’s had an interface revamp and white dwarfs, neutron stars, gas giants and black holes inserted, clouds cover planets, in spacecraft mode you now have motion control, gravity forces, collisions with planets. It just deserves more of a mention. Ste Curran pointed me towards it on One Life Left, and then flicked me towards it like a speck of dust in low gravity atmosphere. I floated, happily, towards a crash landing in a nebula.
I awoke on RS 8403-114-9-67729840-780 A5, a procedurally generated temporate terra with life. Areas of the known universe are represented using actual astronomical data, and places uncharted by human astronomy are procedurally generated by an expert coder, Vladimir Romanyuk. From this generated terra RS 8403-114-9-67729840-780 A5 I looked out on millions of galaxies, more stars than can be counted. I brought up a map of the universe, clicked on a gas giant, and went on a journey at hyperspeed outside the known universe. It makes you feel so very small, and so very in awe of everything. It makes you feel like Star Trek cannot possibly be far from us (though Tribbles may indeed be a fiction, and how much I want a replicator for endless Aberdeen Rowies and they are never bloody going to invent them are they). There is no music or sound in this game, much like in the vacuum of space, but I defied, DEFIED space – and put Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon on – as is tradition a la Freaks and Geeks’ “The Garage Door” episode. I highly recommend putting this on whilst you play, or perhaps my fully elated Liquor, Midnight, Tokyo as accompaniment. NO DRUGS. That would be irresponsible. Unless it’s flu medication. Go on. Get off your face on Calpol and The Great Gig In The Sky. Run along now.
The much touted New Interface is great – though you will stare at the command list in the menu for a long time, trying to memorise all the things you can do. Amongst many things you can press 1 to free-mode to fly through the universe, like God overseeing His work, or perhaps you’re an agnostic and you prefer to wander via spacecraft mode by pressing 2. Wave your mouse to the bottom left and you can select to Go To a selected planet, and you zoom through space at hyperspeed. Click to land on the planet, if you like, and press to fast forward time so that clouds roll past, and the sun rises on your part of the planet.
Oh yes, did I mention you can control time in the universe? From the ‘manual’ (a tome, a digital tome): “[L] key accelerates time to 3, 10, 30, 100, 300, etc. The [K] key slows time down. The [J] key changes the direction flow of time. The [Space] key stops and resumes time. The [\] key restores time to its normal (real-time) flow rate. Combination of [Ctrl]+[\] sets the current time to the computer’s system clock time.”
You are a god, a goddess, a supreme being. I spent time dreamily contemplating my role as this goddess over creamy purple and blue planets, regarding them benevolently. By pressing tab you can think of a planet – yes, Earth, or anywhere – scroll or search for it – and travel there via autopilot, drift in the skies of somewhere you are familiar. Or you can spin the scroll, click at random, journey to strange corners of the murk.
You can orbit, if you choose. Or you can just fly. All the places you have visited, real or generated, are there in your own personal log. You can go back to any of them in your own time. Or look them up on Wikipedia and see for yourself that 130 Electra is a real place.
I can’t mention this enough: one man, Vladimir Romanyuk, has mapped out the known universe, and then procedurally generated further universe based on how ours already functions. He deserves our attention just for that.