Some games we play to compete and show off against others. Some games take us through a story by ourselves or with a friend. And sometimes, a game is just a fancy way of making a number go up.
Space Engine is none of these things. It’s a universe exploration simulator that’s sort of a spiritual predecessor to No Man’s Sky, but it has no aspirations of presenting danger, conflicts or “challenges” in the way games normally do. It’s rather a kind of flight simulator in space, a three dimensional planetarium populated with real astronomical data alongside procedurally generated planets and stars.
The gameplay, which consists of zooming around the universe to inspect gargantuan stars and weird lush planets, is soundtracked by a playlist of ambient sci-fi inspired electronica. It leaves you in a solitary, contemplative mood, especially as you start to develop an intuitive sense of just how far apart everything is.
That’s one of my favorite parts of the simulation. Everything is numbered: You have the indomitable VY Canis Majoris, one of the largest known stars in the Milky Way, with a radius that stretches more than 600 million miles. At its size, it would extend from the center of our solar system beyond Jupiter; a beam of light would take nearly six hours to wind a complete circuit around the star.
When the game tells you that you’re moving at 100,000 miles per hour and yet everything seems still, the information hits the brain at first like a wet sack of sand. The number is too large to mean anything.
But as you travel around the universe for an hour or two, modifying the speed as you fly by or carefully approach a stellar body, your mind begins to relent. The vast distances don’t become decipherable — maybe for most of us they never really will — but they do begin to make a little more sense. The unknown becomes a teeny-tiny bit more known.
Space Engine is something in between a simulator and a video game, but it’s also an example of humanity’s desperate attempts to make the divine mundane, to unlock cosmic secrets, to make the world outside of our world make some kind of sense. And for that alone, it’s worth diving into next time you’ve got a quiet night to yourself.