I know Chris Roberts' Star Citizen gets a lot of press, but it's Elite: Dangerous from David Braben's Frontier Developments that has me hot under my spacesuit. If anything, it's Braben's attention to detail and the depth of the simulation that intrigues me, so I wasn't surprised to learn today that Elite has one of the most accurate representations of the known universe ever to feature in a game.
Before I completely explode from hyperbole, the game does of course take its own liberties for the sake of gameplay, but thanks to the power of modern PCs, rather than rely exclusively on clever procedural generation to create a varied, yet realistic representation of the mysterious black void we live in, Braben has been able to use actual scientific data for the next Elite.
This might sound counter-intuitive at first — surely more power means more complex algorithms? This is true, but when you're memory-constrained, procedural generation is really the only option if you want to create a massive world with loads of variation. Once you have oodles of RAM and drive space to play with, that's when you can add real data, such as existing star systems and galactic phenomena, to complement the fancy code.
According to an interview by Simon Parkin in The New Yorker, Braben hasn't just cherry-picked the most interesting or pretty astronomical bodies either:
"I wanted to make the galaxy as accurate as possible so that the results of that exploration would make sense to people," Braben said. "In the game, every single star in the real night sky is present, some hundred and fifty thousand of them, and you can visit each one. Even the clouds of stars that make up the Milky Way are included: some four hundred billion stars, their planetary systems, and moons are present, all waiting to be explored."
But wait! Leave a few gibs for this next part, which is even more awesome:
Elite's model has expanded Braben's understanding of planet formation and distribution. Braben boasts that his games [sic] predicted extra-solar planets ("These were pretty close to those that have been since discovered, demonstrating that there is some validity in our algorithms"), and that the game's use of current planet-formation theories has shown the sheer number of different systems that can exist according to the rules, everything from nebulous gas giants to theoretically habitable worlds.
Emphasis mine. The article goes on to mention that the game packs in "a great deal of up-to-date astronomical information", so even if you're not keen on the game itself, if you just want to fly through the universe as humans understand it, Elite is about as good as it gets.