Video games are a great way for us to journey into the unknown of space, but how realistic is spaceflight in video games?
As one of humanity's greatest curiosities, video game developers have often explored the great unknown in their games. Whether it is initial attempts at single-line space graphics, such as Space Invaders or Asteroids, or the entirely immersive experience which some of the best space VR games have to offer, it has been the aim of many game studios to explore the unending boundaries of space. However, while numerous games let you explore the great unknown, they approach the subject of astrophysics with varying degrees of serious thought.
For some games like Mario Galaxy, Astrobot: Rescue Mission, and the majority of the best Star Wars games, the science of space travel is safely thrown out the window to make room for interesting visuals, engaging storylines and fun gameplay. Whereas others such as Elite Dangerous and No Man's Sky create narratives completely wrapped up in what they have researched as theoretically possible considering our current knowledge of all the differing physics of the universe.
So let’s examine the wide spectrum of possibility for spaceflight in games; what we have tried and tested with the science available currently here in real life, and what we believe to be possible, to the downright absurd science fiction some games employ all in the name of entertainment. So if while playing your favorite astronomical shooter you have ever wondered if any of it was at all possible, read on to find out.
Spaceship shape and size
Our current efforts to get into space are constrained by issues of size. It takes a lot of energy to put stuff into space with rockets, so we need to keep things as light and streamlined as possible. That’s not the case once you actually make it into space though. With no stresses or forces acting on a spaceship, it can theoretically be any size or shape you want it to be.
Space is also pretty frosty, so you will need some of that warmth in the cabin to keep everyone happy. On the flip side though, spaceships with large power supplies also need a way to keep themselves cool. In space, the only way to lose heat is via radiation (opens in new tab), a rather slow process. To prevent the crew of a high-power spaceship from being cooked, spaceships need advanced solutions. This comes up in Mass Effect series, where the SRV Normandy (opens in new tab) has an advanced cloaking device, but it can’t use it indefinitely due to the heat build up. It has to shut it off and let the heat sinks cool down to avoid cooking the crew.
While people have questioned the shape of crafts like Star Wars' iconic Death Star, a perfect sphere is not as unrealistic as you would think. As space has near zero resistance to objects traveling through it, a sphere is as good as any other shape. In fact, it has positives over other ships such as Dead Space's USG Ishimura. While the skeletal structure looks amazing, all those bits hanging around are likely to cause issues when hit by the pretty much infinite debris floating around up there. Boosters and jets would be placed alongside any shaped craft to stop it spinning out and give your ship direction. While players may love entering the USS Enterprise in one of the best PSVR space games, those exposed engines are just asking to get owned.
While you may laugh at the blocky design of say Kingdom Hearts’ Gummi Ship, it is actually not as impossible as it seems. From an engineering standpoint right angles are not optimal for structural integrity, however, the small size and ability to place thrusters alongside your craft, definitely coincide with science. There is another thing which our humble Gummi Ship got right. It does not ever travel very far.
Going the Distance
When you’re looking at powering your spacecraft, there are two things to consider: powering its flight in space, and actually getting the thing into space in the first place. At the moment we use rockets to put things into space, but this isn’t an ideal solution for massive objects.
Rockets are huge, and yet they only carry a relatively small payload into space relative to their size. This is because of what NASA scientists call the "tyranny of the rocket equation (opens in new tab)" . In short, the more stuff you want to put into space, the more fuel you need. This means you need more fuel storage, which is more mass, which means you need more fuel. So, to increase the size of useful stuff you put into space, you have to dramatically increase the amount of your spacecraft that is dedicated to liftoff (That's why NASA's Saturn V moon rocket was so big.)
Now, you can solve this issue by just building your spaceship in space in the first place, so it never needs to get off the ground. Of course, you still need to get all the parts to build it up there, unless you use something like asteroid mining to build the core structure. We could also use a space elevator, like the one seen in Halo 3 and Halo ODST, to transport parts into orbit and construct the ship there.
When it comes to the fuel vs weight questions most games tend to ignore it. However, some games like the Pikmin series keep you within a very limited space. Pikmin even goes further to show you collecting resources from the local area to re-fuel. However, there are games which take the realities of short distance space travel even further.
Kerbal Space Program tries to recreate closely the realities of building a spaceship. You begin by simply orbiting your planet, and many ships explode in your first efforts. The Hohmann transfer orbit, the method of moving between two planets while preserving fuel by taking advantage of the proximity of the two planet’s orbits, is the method used by experts currently and the one used by the titular Kerbals.
If you want to keep physical realism in spaceflight you generally have to remain in your solar system. This is because figuring out how to keep people alive long distances, let alone how to get there in the ever expanding universe causes even more theoretical problems. Where is the fun in keeping to your solar system though? Let’s see what games have come up with to transport life beyond the Milky Way.
Frozen in Time
Cryosleep, stasis, reanimation... whatever you like to call it, if you travel vast distances in your space game the likelihood is that you use one of these methods to prevent your crew from perishing. Not only does it stop their cells from aging over large periods of time, but it helps save vital resources like water, food and oxygen for other parts of the trip. The Halo games use it, and Alien Isolation is famous for its stasis pods but this is just a trope of science fiction is it not?
In the 1960s, scientists were actually working hard on the concept of cryonics (opens in new tab) — freezing and reanimating live bodies. By injecting rodents simultaneously with a freezing agent and a form of aircraft anti-freeze, they managed to freeze them completely solid as if dead. Initially they used hot spatulas to awaken our frozen friends but they would often be badly burnt in the process. However, after a lot of research and failed attempts, scientists managed to reanimate hamsters almost 100% successfully via a microwave, with no health concerns even after several rounds of freezing. Our surviving furry friends were then allowed to retire.
Unfortunately for interstellar explorers, they were unable to replicate these experiments on larger bodies. Anything bigger than a hamster will die before the cells freeze. There is promise with medically induced comas, which greatly reduce the need for resources, however, the longer someone is in one the greater the effects to their health. Comatosing someone for more than a few days can lead to issues with speech and movement. So if you cannot freeze the person, you need to make the ship go fast.
Faster than light travel
If you can’t freeze them, speed them. With the universe expanding faster than the speed of light, you also need to travel faster than the speed of light in order to be moving forward at all, not just drifting further and further away. However, Einstein fans will know you cannot move through space faster than light.
Wormholes and the idea of folding space is popular but I wanted to focus on the spaceships rather than what space is doing. There are a couple of theories though, the most plausible seems the idea of moving space not the ship. This involves making less space in front of you and instead moving the space behind you. This theory is popular in the Mass Effect universe which uses fictional Element 0, a material with a negative mass in order to create this effect.
Despite the developers looking into theoretical physics for inspiration, this method is still just the stuff of science fiction in reality. Firstly, the problem of time dilation remains. The universe around them would still age even while the crew remain intact rendering many of their missions moot. Also we cannot be sure of the effect warping space would have on the objects in the wake of the movement, but it's safe to say that having the fabric of reality warped with you in it probably wouldn't be good for you.
The Best of the Worst
As for the worst representation of spaceflight in video games; that award must go to Pokémon Omega Ruby/ Alpha Sapphire where in the post game you summon a Mega-Rayquaza before riding it into space and smashing head first into an oncoming meteor. Let’s ignore the fact that a 10-year-old has the ability to summon the most powerful Pokémon in existence and that the meteor which would crush your child's body. We will accept those as possible in the given universe.
However, the speed with which Rayquaza breaks through the Earth’s atmosphere would create so much atmospheric drag that there is no way your body would not be ripped from the monster. Even if there is some sort of harness device, which is not visible in the cut scene, your body would be dragged through all available holes. Even if you survived that, debris would likely rip through your spacesuit at those speeds exposing and killing you. It is wild that a game in which you enter a volcano without protection would fly in the face of realism like this. In summary, you're dead. Sorry.
While this is just a surface look at spaceflight in games, you can use the few ideas explored to examine the crafts in your favorite games and figure out if any of it is at all possible, probably ruining your immersion and experience.