Innovation Culture

From Spacewar! to Starfield: a look back at video games that propel players into space 11-16-2023 |  5 minutes


Do you yearn to fly through space, exploring its vastness or battling to save a planet, zooming around at warp speed? Year after year, pixel by pixel, video game developers have sought to provide that experience by creating vast, realistic realms. In 2021, the Elysium Fire team even designed a Minecraft map that features Ariane 5. Video games based on space travel, however, are nothing new; the first pixelated images date back 60 years. Our review of eight iconic games shows how the depiction of space exploration has evolved. Enjoy the ride!

Minecraft x ArianeGroup

Minecraft X ArianeGroup

Spacewar! - 1962

Released in 1962, Spacewar! was way ahead of its time. It was created by a group of American students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with the aim of testing the performance of a PDP-1 computer. The two-player game involved torpedo-firing spaceships battling for space supremacy. Newton’s laws of physics figured prominently, which made it all the more realistic. It was the first multiplayer action game, and the first competitive one, as well: the Spacewar! Olympics, held in 1972, was probably the first-ever video game tournament. Not only did Spacewar! pave the way for games set in outer space, it was also placed on a list — the start of the game canon at the U.S. Library of Congress, no less — of the 10 most important video games in history.

Elite - 1984

Developed by David Braben and Ian Bell, and released in 1984, Elite offered an unprecedented playing field — eight 256-star galaxies — and accomplished no small feat by packaging the space trading game within a 20kB program. Elite is a digital combat simulator in which commanders cruise space aboard cargo vessels, do legal or illegal trading, encounter pirates, or simply explore. As opposed to other games at the time, Elite is not narrative-based; there is no need for players to complete a mission within a given length of time. Imagination and player choices are what make the adventure special.

Wing commander - 1990

Released in 1990, Wing Commander was Chris Roberts’ baby. He promised gamers an entirely novel universe. He certainly delivered: the game combined an intricate storyline, cutting-edge graphics, and an immersive experience. For the first time, players engaged in epic space battles, and were at the center of intricate plots. Wing Commander laid the groundwork for space flight simulation. The game was a resounding success given the number of spin-offs that followed.

Mass Effect - 2007

Developed by BioWare, the Mass Effect saga could hold its own against blockbuster movies and might even give Star Wars a run for its money. The four-part odyssey takes place aboard the starship Normandy: You play as Commander Shepard and spend endless hours making decisions that will have major consequences for the entire universe. Space and terrestrial exploration, the discovery of extraterrestrial civilizations, and grandiose battles, the game offers a very individual and entertaining experience in deep space.

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Kerbal Space Program - 2015

An extremely realistic space exploration game, Kerbal Space Program was developed by Squad and released in 2015. Designed from the unusual perspective of a space agency, players run a space program and build rockets with the help of cartoonish humanoids called Kerbals. Known for its realistic simulation of spaceflight and its advanced physics, the game is challenging and makes for an educational and fun gaming experience. Building a launcher capable of reaching the Kerbolian solar system entails painstaking attention to detail and careful consideration of gravity, center of mass, specific impulse, thrust, friction, resistance, and more.

No Man's Sky - 2016

Imagine billions of planets in an endless universe where it is virtually impossible for two players to meet. This is the reality in No Man’s Sky. Published and regularly updated by Hello Games, it has become a must-play game for space exploration enthusiasts. Available in single and multiplayer modes, the objective is to survive in space. Players establish bases and build planetary colonies, analyze local fauna, pilot battleships and cruisers, engage in galactic battles, and learn alien languages. The universe has never seemed so vast.

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Outer Wilds - 2019

Twenty-two minutes: that is all the time players have to break a time loop they are stuck in before their sun goes supernova and everything is destroyed. On planet Timber Hearth, the space program is counting on you to explore the galaxy and learn about your ancestors. Once you have blasted off in your wooden spacecraft to explore the six-planet solar system, your piloting proficiency is required to solve problems and prevent becoming engulfed by the sun. Outer Wilds’ accurately simulated gravity makes it much more than a simple space exploration game. A unique, mysterious experience animated by spellbinding, evocative music.

Starfield - 2023

Released in 2023 by Bethesda, Starfield is one of the decade’s most ambitious video games. Midway between No Man’s Sky and Mass Effect, the role-playing game is based on the exploration of more than 1,000 planets aboard a customized spaceship. Your goal as a space traveler is to find mysterious artifacts strewn across the galaxy. Landing on Mars or on the Moon has never been easier. Players — who can create their own personas, such as transporters, interstellar merchants, or space pirates — create their own adventures and roam the universe at will.

Discovering outer space, whether through realistic flight simulation or daring escapades, will continue to inspire gamers around the world. Over the past 60 years, video games set in space have not only revolutionized the world of gaming, they have also brought our endlessly fascinating and endlessly vast universe closer to us. Do they inspire career choices among starstruck players? They could well be working for ArianeGroup today …