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screen shot
A screen shot from the game SpaceStationSim.

Review: SpaceStationSim

SpaceStationSim
By Vision Videogames
http://www.vision-play.com/products/game1/index.html
Windows 2000/XP
US$29.99

Not many of use get to build a space station, which is a shame really, since it’s actually a lot of fun. At least it is when you strip humanity’s most complex and expensive engineering project down to a series of problems like “Do we need a microwave in the Destiny module?” and “How can I maximize the number of hamster experiments on the centrifuge?” as is done in Vision Videogames SpaceStationSim.

An in-depth, business simulation “Space Station Tycoon” game this is not, but there are already a good number of games in that genre out there, from early classics like Karl Buiter’s 1988 “Earth Orbit Stations” and the1992 German sensation “Space Max” to the most recent offering in 2003, Mistaril’s excellent “Space Station Manager”. These games provided wonderfully detailed simulations of the gritty details of budget management, detailed crew and experiment selection, launch selection, and the rest of the stimulating top-level bureaucratic decisions that need to be made. But these games have always felt like interactive spreadsheets (albeit fascinating interactive spreadsheets) and nothing even close to an experience of what life may be like on a Space Station. SpaceStationSim eschews the hard-core management focus and deserves merit as the first simulation of space station life, bladder-challenged astronauts and all. It is an immersive and endearing game that, although ultimately a bit shallow, those with a love of games and space should consider picking up.

SpaceStationSim eschews the hard-core management focus and deserves merit as the first simulation of space station life, bladder-challenged astronauts and all. It is an immersive and endearing game that, although ultimately a bit shallow, those with a love of games and space should consider picking up.

The premise is, of course, to build the International Space Station out of the forty-plus different modules and components that have been faithfully modeled on their real-life counterparts. Vision Videogames collaborated with NASA through a Space Act Agreement on the game and it definitely shows when it comes to modules and components. From the cramped Zvezda with its oxygen candles to JAXA’s Japanese Experiment Module, complete with Exposed Facility and Experiment Logistics Module, you definitely feel like you are building the International Space Station with the same Lego-blocks that the big kids use. The level of detail is impressive. Most components come in the form of International Standard Payload Racks and ESA Columbus model has the ten rack slots in exactly the configuration it’s supposed to. Of course, you can build it in whatever configuration and order you like: you don’t need to have any Russian modules apart from the Zvezda if you don’t want to, or you could practically build a second Mir if you wanted. There are a plethora of different components that need to be managed and maintained by your astronaut, from atmospheric components, such as those to remove contaminants, regulate the humidity, oxygen and carbon-dioxide level, to the more everyday necessities like microwaves, showers, toilets, and beds.

Perhaps the most important components are the seven scientific ones, the successful operation of which generates “flags” from the supporting countries of that experiment. Flags supposedly represent political support for the project and are SpaceStationSim’s dollars which you use to pay for your modules and components and which you get from the five different agencies of the game (CSA, ESA, JAXA, NASA, and RSA). This keeps it all nice and simple but, since experiments are so easy to do (you just need an astronaut to turn them on), support for the project is never a problem and you quickly find yourself with more flags than you can shake a Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator at. Furthermore, because the amount of flags that an agency generates depends on how many flags were invested in a given experiment by that agency, the rather perverse end result is that the agencies which are required to fund the most experiments end up being the most willing to fund more projects. This of course ends up creating a “virtuous cycle” leading to the Canadian Space Agency, which for some reason has disproportionately high required-payments on the experiments, paying for the majority of the station. An interesting result, to say the least.

But, maybe I’m being too cynical and that those interested in increasing human activity in space should look carefully at this intriguing “flag-based” economy. Flags: the killer app for space. Who knew?

With the amount of flags virtually never a problem, the prime impediment to construction is the availability of given transportation elements. Each of the five vehicles (Space Shuttle, Soyuz, Proton, HTV, ATV) have their appropriate individual role to play and I was happy to note that, at least early in the game, I was always waiting on the shuttle since, of course, it was the only thing that could deliver the modules. There are never any problems with the launches and the time between available shuttles is always a regular amount of time so there’s often nothing to do but to wait and watch life on your space station. Which is perfectly fine since this is exactly where SpaceStationSim excels.

The outside view of the space station is superb and one the best yet seen in a space station game. You can zoom in and out and look at the station from any angle. Although the Earth itself isn’t modeled in as much detail as it is in Space Station Manager, you can still clearly pick out geographic features and enjoy the sight of your home in low Earth orbit passing over the Caribbean. But, if the outside view is more than passable, just click on any module and you instantly become immersed in your station. Using an innovative cut-away view that allows you to look inside your module from any angle, you can watch as your astronauts go about their daily chores, spinning from one end of the module on route to another, fixing broken components or talking on the S-band communicator—all this to some truly incredible in-game music.

…the rather perverse end result is that the agencies which are required to fund the most experiments end up being the most willing to fund more projects. This of course ends up creating a “virtuous cycle” leading to the Canadian Space Agency, which for some reason has disproportionately high required-payments on the experiments, paying for the majority of the station.

In fact, the music is really one of the standout features of the game. Vision Videogames president and game designer Bill Mueller previously did sound design for MicroProse and his experience in this area shows. Each module has it own “theme tune” which gives the International Space Station a sense of real personality. There are the fast-beats of the activity-jammed Destiny module, the space-operatic tones of the Centrifuge, the quietly triumphal notes in the US habitation module, and distinct music for each of the other fifteen-plus modules. Each song turns that part of the space station into a place with real atmosphere and gives SpaceStationSim a feeling of human life that has been sorely lacking in all other space station simulations.

The other source of real life in SpaceStationSim (apart from parrot, hamster, and ant farm experiments) is, of course, your astronauts, who watch DVDs, insult and compliment each other, run experiments, and generally do what humans do, except here they’re doing it in space. You can have a total of four astronauts on the station and, like in most “The Sims”-type games, you can customize how they look, creating a crew consisting entirely of Mohawk-sporting women or a diverse mix of genders, nationalities, and fashion sense. More important choices are their job (“astrotech” or one of three types of scientist) and the number of skill points you assign to their characteristics such as courage, constitution, leadership, playfulness, social, and tidiness. How you distribute your points will determine how often your astronauts need to eat, shower, go to the bathroom, talk to somebody, and generally how much you’ll need to baby them along.

Now, I’m not generally a fan of those types of games. If I wanted to worry about when people—besides myself—needed to eat and go to the bathroom, I’d have children. And, truth be told, the micromanagement of your astronauts’ needs and bodily function does become rather grating at times. It’s common for your astronauts to complain about their chief concern over the comm with a “Houston, I’m starving” and then go off to do something else—at the opposite end of the station from the food—only to complain again later about how hungry they are. It does become annoying that you have to specifically tell this particular “best and brightest” example of the human species that he needs to eat. You definitely find yourself wanting to say, “Listen buddy, if you can’t find the fridge on four-room space station yourself, you deserve to go hungry.” Although having to tell the astronauts when to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, and shower does become annoying, it does properly incentivize you to create an efficient space station layout so that you can deal with these complaints as quickly as possible—which of course is the whole point of the game.

I think it’s safe to say that this is one of the best contemporary space program-themed computer games for kids I have ever seen. It’s complicated enough to keep them interested, it has a youthful personality, the decisions that are required reward creativity, and, most importantly, it’s fun.

There is no question that building and outfitting your station and watching your astronauts float around inside, provides for a half-dozen hours of solid entertainment. But once you get the hang of it and figure out how best to layout the station, it all become a bit too easy; you simply turn on your experiments and watch the flags roll in until you reach so many that the game can do nothing more than declare you the winner and flag-tycoon supreme. Although you can keep playing after you win, the only thing really left is the rather numbing activity of continuing to instruct your astronaut in the basics of how not to starve and go space-crazy. There’s also not a lot of variation in the game. Although the “space tourist”, complete with Hawaiian shirt and ridiculous hat, comes on regularly to try and break your machines, he doesn’t present much of a challenge and there seems to be no other random events to spice things up. I’ve heard the station can encounter meteoroid strikes that can cause decompression but I never experience this in my games, each of which each lasted a few hours. All that being said, the organizational element is sufficiently involved that it should keep the interest of younger players, at whom the game is clearly targeted, much longer.

I think it’s safe to say that this is one of the best contemporary space program-themed computer games for kids I have ever seen. It’s complicated enough to keep them interested, it has a youthful personality, the decisions that are required reward creativity, and, most importantly, it’s fun. And although there isn’t a great deal of replay value for more experienced gamers, I, personally, am fine with that. Although short, it is the most immersive experience in running a space station yet. NASA even thinks that it has serious merit as a 3-D design simulation as it has contracted Vision Videogames to do a ‘proof of concept’ for a simulator that would help design the layout of the CEV. You probably won’t play it for dozens of hours, but then, how many of us really have time for that these days? If you are a gamer and have at least a passing interest in the ISS, you owe it to yourself to download the free demo. Have a quick read of the instructions and, avoiding the slightly buggy tutorial, jump straight into designing your own personalized International Space Station. Just don’t forget to go to the bathroom.


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