My first space station is called the Floppy Floater. It is a barren place, so bleak in demeanour that it fails even to qualify as a potential setting for a post-disaster sci-fi shooter, even though it has two whole dead bodies on board. Yet unlike Prey, no alien threat is responsible for these deaths. Only my own hasty and thoughtless decision-making. When will I stop accidentally killing imaginary people using only the dark negligence of middle-management? Never. God-willing, I will never stop doing that.
It’s because I tried to add everything to my space station at once. Stable Orbit starts you off with a single “core” module with a small number of ports where you can attach other modules – an oxygen generator, water tanks, a habitation pod, a science lab, batteries, solar panels, and more – all the shiniest gear the noble spaceman needs to survive. You can also add other nodes and trusses, which in turn have more ports for more modules. The idea is straightforward: click on the ports and add some things. And it needs to be straightforward, because there’s no tutorial to let you know what you’re doing. I’m going to blame the omission of this tutorial for all the disasters that occurred on the Floppy Floater but it was probably only marginally responsible.
Approaching this like I would any other management sim, I first built all the things it looked like we needed to survive. Food storage, water tanks, a waste recycling unit, for only the freshest piss. But you only have $7.5 billion to start with – a pittance! And so I was unable to build the science lab, the module that allows you to research and therefore earn more money over time. This lab is arguably the entire point of sending people into space to begin with.
At this point in my construction efforts a shuttle arrives at the dock with our two crew members. I hope against all reason that they have brought a suitcase full of cash with them, but according to this game that is not what astronauts do. You can’t see your astropeeps and have to rely on the information displayed on a sidebar, which tells you whatever they are currently doing. The astronauts on my station are called Linda and Andre. They are currently listed as “sleeping” and “unemployed”.
I try getting rid of one of the solar panels to see if it refunds my money, but the panel just ejects off and zooms into space like a hat in the wind. I am no richer and now have one less piece of vital equipment. Meanwhile, everything else is overheating, because I didn’t add a cooling radiator to the station and, without that research lab, or a floating suitcase full of unmarked bills, I can’t afford to build one.
A couple of days go by. This happens in a visually pleasant way, with your station timelapsing over the planet and going from dark to light, as if in some BBC production about space travel where Brian Cox forgot to come and narrate the pending tragedy. The lights of cities glare during the nights, mountain ranges and vast deserts are visible during the day. Seeing our festering, boiling planet looking so gorgeous as it spins from on-high is one of the game's finest features. It almost makes me forget that all the lights on my station are now flashing red.
The nodes have taken damage and need repairs, which I only discover later must be done by clicking on them and finding the tiny “repair” option. After this, each component aboard the station starts failing in a cascade of red exclamation points. The solar arrays have overheated. The dock isn’t functioning. The water tanks are kaput. It may be hard to surpass the infamous lines of Apollo 13’s astronauts, but I think “Houston, we have 16 distinct problems” might do it.
Unfortunately, there’s no clickable option that says “bring Linda and Andre home”. In fact, the options open to the player are really just what modules to add, what research to do (if you’ve been smart enough to add a lab) and when to upgrade each part. Management of the ‘nauts only goes as far as committing them to work different shifts. This is definitely a sim about making an efficient machine, rather than poking people to do their jobs. And since I designed this particular machine with a sense of aggressive neglect, the race is now on to see what the spacefolk’s cause of death will be: starvation, thirst, or suffocation. My money is on the whole station disintegrating in the sun. Or it would be, if I had any money.
I decide to speed up time with the small fast-forward button at the bottom of the screen. There is no point in prolonging the inevitable. If you’re prone to optimism you might think: “A shuttle will come and get them before the worst happens.” And indeed this does happen in some circumstances (my next attempt would see another failed station but the two astronauts would be plucked from orbit and brought back to safety). However, the Floppy Floater has a seventeenth problem. To pass the time as the world spun I had idly ejected some more bits of the space station. In the process, I jettisoned the node with the shuttle dock attached. I realised as soon as I had clicked the “eject” button that this was a serious error. There are 14 meals currently left in the space fridge, which is damaged. Linda and Andre are now listed as “Thirsty” and “Marooned”. There will be no rescue.
This has been the most botched space program ever to exist. In total, it has cost me $7.5 billion to learn what any NASA scientist knows without even launching a firework: that space is large and difficult. Just 11 days after becoming the first astronauts aboard the Floppy Floater, Linda and Andre have both died from a lack of oxygen.
My second attempt was much better. I have learned the hard way that this game needs to be approached in a slow and methodical manner, reading all the descriptions of the modules and carefully planning where and when to install new chunks of spacecraft. You usually have to cut a corner somewhere and hope that sufficient money will come in to add the next vital piece of kit. In terms of systems, however, there’s not much to Stable Orbit. It feels at the moment more like a puzzle game. You have to put the station together in such a way that it remains operational but also has enough modular openings ready for future upgrades. And, in the end, it’s about money management more than anything. It also doesn’t help that any space sim with a focus on realism will ultimately be compared to Kerbal Space Program which has both more complexity and more freedom, and has a sense of humour besides. In many ways, it is an unfair comparison, since this only has a one-man development team behind it and remains unfinished. Yet, from a player’s perspective, the Kerbal’s high bar has been set.
My second space station is called the Huge Success. It did not live up to its name. As I’ve said, the astronauts (Alfred and Ezra this time) have abandoned the platform thanks to a food shortage that came about when I abruptly jettisoned the food storage unit to make room for a new module. They would have starved to death otherwise. And with nobody aboard, the lab is unoccupied and generating no money. This is both the appeal and the limit of the game. Learning how to put this puzzle-like station together failure by failure, and keep it running for longer than a couple of weeks, is the ultimate goal. An interesting premise, and the building blocks of a more extensive and complex machine are in place, but I’m not sure how many more billions of dollars I’m prepared to spend on the endeavour.