Starflight: When Emergent Play Was Only a Floppy Away
When gamers think about open-ended games these days, the Grand Theft Auto series is often the first sandbox-style series that comes to mind. But my fondest memories of exploring a seemingly-endless world come from piles of floppy disks, back when the Electronic Arts logo was an inexplicable amalgam of cube, sphere and pyramid. In 1986, not long after my chance to search the new world for the Seven Cities of Gold, Binary Systems helped me crew my ship to save Arth (no... not Earth, Arth).
Following a long dark age, an archaeological dig helped humanity rediscover faster-than-light technology powered by the rare fuel Endurium. I was selected to be one of the few captains given a bare-bones ship, enough Endurium for a year's flight and just enough cash to hire a crew. To last, I'd have to fund my own operations through exploration and entrepreneurship. Most of the first wave of explorers had not returned, and the few that did encountered strange worlds and hostile aliens. What computer gamer could resist so hopeless a task?
A few mineral-collecting expeditions to the local planets yielded enough cash to secure fuel for a longer trip, opening the entire galaxy before me. Literally hundreds of worlds and nebulae were scattered about this cluster of the galaxy. I could land on any of them, cruise the surface, and kill or capture anything I encountered.
These worlds were made possible by the power of [gasp!] fractals. The use of these algorithms allowed developer Binary Systems to create around 800 unique planets using mere kilobytes of data. Each world was unique, with geography that made intuitive sense and remained constant through every visit. After a little exploration, several worlds became familiar friends as I returned repeatedly to harvest minerals and capture the dangerous, tentacled aliens that could be sold to fund my expeditions. There were so many worlds that the designers themselves claimed not to have visited them all.
Soon, the joys of exploration fell before the onslaught of fear. No longer was I just outfitting a better ship, identifying worlds for colonization, and hauling precious cargo back for the people of Arth. A little contact with the aliens wandering through the inky blackness of space revealed that Arth might be doomed by an alien threat. Diplomacy and sheer firepower became my tools for prying the secrets of the universe from other sentient beings.
The universe still lay before me, open to exploration, but the doomsday threat made me privy to innumerable secrets hidden throughout the galaxy. Just as GTA: San Andreas rewards those hidden jumps with cinematic views in slow-motion, Starflight made every clue feel like a unique and powerful discovery. Each new artifact, coordinate or ruin led to a new secret. Who was not humbled as he gazed upon the ancient formation known as the Most Magnificent Hexagon, or awed by the Bladed Toy?
Starflight began with a wide open universe, and then repeatedly unfolded, offering even more possibilities and secrets until I felt like just one gamer, facing the majesty of the universe. As a game, it seeded the minds of gamers and developers who later embraced titles like Star Control. As a story, it managed one of the most horrifying twists in memory, and reminded us to watch our fuel carefully.