What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of 2001: A Space Odyssey? Is it Moonwatcher throwing that bone in the air? HAL singing to Dave Bowman while he slowly gets unplugged? Is it the Monolith standing at the base of a hotel bed?
Recently I’ve been thinking of another of the film’s iconic sequences – Heywood Floyd’s trip to the moon in the first hour. He stops off half-way on an orbiting space station, and suddenly this astronaut is chatting to his daughter by video phone, navigating a futuristic Howard Johnson’s and even chatting to Leonard Rossiter on a sofa.
What I’ve only recently realised is that 2001’s actually quite a self-contained film. An awful lot of the action – if you could call it that – takes place on the Discovery, a spaceship en route to Jupiter. The reason the film feels so expansive is partly because of the hominids at the start and partly because of the stargate at the end, sure, but much of it comes down to that trip to the space station, where we get to see a little of the wider world of the future.
Oddly, I think space ports play similar roles in other movies. A lot of Star Wars takes place on the Millennium Falcon or the Death Star, so it’s down to Mos Eisley, a hive of scum and villainy, to pad out the universe. Space ports are where creatures from all corners of the galaxy mingle. It’s where art directors get to go wild, and where the wider universe of a film gets a careful airing.
It’s the same with games, too. 2001 is very directly referenced in Elite – these slowly turning giants with the slot mouth that is so very hard to dock with can;t help but bring to mind The Blue Danube when you see them, and they bring a sense of universal infrastructure to this Thatcherite space-trading game. But recently I’ve been playing two other games and really enjoying their unique spins on space stations, space ports, and the roles they play…
The first is No Man’s Sky, a game I don’t play as much as lurk inside, looking for the perfect photo opportunity. No Man’s Sky has a mode that strips out most of the busywork. I like to load this up and park inside a space port and spend hours watching the ships that come and go.
Like everything else in No Man’s Sky, the ships you’ll see are procedural. But because they’re tech rather than organic stuff, you get to see the pieces that feed the procedural generation more clearly. It’s a way of getting your arms around this dizzyingly vast game.
And the designs are beautiful. As I sit and watch in come sleek roadsters with pointed noses, strange blue-bottle choppers, snub-ended A380s with wasp eyes. The best ship I ever saw was a bit like a pear that had grown antlers. In the do-anything mode you can buy any of these craft you want.
So the space port, while it resembles Elite’s from the outside – the stately turning bulk, that slot mouth to aim for – is actually more like the little conveyor belts carrying dishes inside a Sushi restaurant. Except instead of dishes they’re beautifully crafted spaceships, each as desirable as a little die-cast model. You get a sense in this often lonely game of a world of commuters, truckers, explorers. The universe of No Man’s Sky can often seem chilly when you’re out there in it. But in a space port, the universe comes to you and it’s glorious.
Compared to other games, the Spaceport in Industries of Titan might seem rather unexciting. Industries is a city-building game in which your corporation tries to make a living on the wretched surface of one of Saturn’s poisoned moons. The Spaceport is your source of new citizens. They arrive in ships along with scatterings of resources and you can buy them to live in your colony.
While it’s a chunky addition to the world map, this Spaceport is really just a menu, listing incoming ships and displaying their cargo along with the prices you might pay for it. Stripped back as it is, though, it’s actually one of the most evocative spaceports I’ve encountered in a game.
That’s because of the names and the locations, I think. One ship might offer 6 citizens and no resources, or a handful of mixed resources and fifteen citizens, but it will also give you a name and a point of origin – the MSS Freyja en route from Jupiter, the Tigris docked from Venus.
It’s lovely to consider – and it expands the grimy world of Industries of Titan. Fresh air! Sort of. Here is a cruise ship from Earth! Here is a prison ship from Luna. Hover over each listing and you get an image of the ship along with a little text about it. That cruise ship, the Melody, harkens back to the days of ocean cruises on old Earth – luxury and comfort! From Venus we get an old junkyard hauler, or the “standard workhorse of Saturn and its Moons”.
What’s happening here? It’s a way of buying resources, really, since Citizens can be monetised once they’re on the planet. It’s actually horrific, and that’s the point of this game – everything that happens in it is horrific when you look into what you’re actually doing.
And it’s also another glimpse of the wider universe that the game cannot otherwise support. You get the solar system arriving at your front door with a sense of its problems and limitations and out-and-out horrors. Shamefully, you also get just a little bit of the glamour – if you really squint – of interplanetary travel, and of stories that take place amongst the stars.