An Aussie Indie Game Inspired Me To Build My Own Spaceship Cockpit

Image: Gizmodo

Objects In Space is an open world stealth space trading game currently being built by Sydney-based indie studio Flat Earth Games. When I say built, I mean that literally -- to go along with the game's retrofuture, modempunk aesthetic and heavily tactile and complex interface, the team has mocked up its own real-world spaceship control panel, complete with LEDs and VU meters and missile switches.

You can build your own, too -- and I'm going to.

At PAX Aus this weekend, I got the chance to sit down in front of Objects In Space and try out a short demo of how ship-to-ship combat works within the game, which is due for a PC/Mac/Linux release in 2017. Your mission as a one-person spaceship captain is to navigate the Apollo star cluster from station to station, buying and selling goods to make ends meet and survive. Other characters in the game have exactly the same goal, but they might find it more rewarding to turn pirate and loot your frozen corpse.

Objects has the shut-in feeling of submarine simulators like Silent Hunter; your only interaction with the world outside your ship is through your external sensor suite and radar panel, and you're in full control of everything that goes on inside your tiny pressurised pocket of air -- from sensors to ship-to-ship comms to engineering to weapons. You can control every one of those gadgets with a physical button of switch, or monitor battery and power levels with analog meters and status lights for the health of engineering components.

When it's out, player interaction with the wider world around them will come mostly through hundreds of hand-written messages or emails on the comms screen (although there's a beautifully written back story that already exists). That's an honest representation of the reality of life as a spaceship captain -- not glossy and carefully scripted, but cold and lonely and distant.

With the game still in development, a lot of what Objects In Space will become is still yet to be decided. It's an open-world, exploration-based title like Star Citizen promises to be, with your destiny entirely up to your own piloting skills and luck and, potentially, even the quality of the controller you build -- and I'm totally on board with that.

A keyboard and mouse -- luckily, in case of hardware failures -- are always available as a backup, and can be put to good use especially in the comms screen for sending and reading mail. But the console is king. Here's a short video of Objects In Space's latest iteration of the spaceship bridge console, which was on show at PAX Aus 2016 in the Indie Showcase:

In the combat demo, I controlled my 2D block-of-pixels spaceship's orientation with RCS thrusters and activated the main drive, flying through an unnamed system in Apollo before encountering a couple of pirates and dispatching them with torpedos -- all done with the Objects hand-built console surrounding the screen. It was only a short couple of minutes, but for someone that used to use an old Thrustmaster joystick and throttle for X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and Strike Commander in the late '90s, it was nostalgic heaven.

In a lot of ways, this game was made for me. I love shows like The Expanse and the canon of the James S.A. Corey novels that inform it, and some of my favourite series like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly revolve around survival in hostile distant space. I grew up playing Wing Commander and Freelancer and pretending I was in Star Wars. And that's what a short couple of minutes of Objects In Space made me remember and feel a part of.

The experience was enough to make me want to build a controller to play Objects In Space myself, when it's out. I'm lucky enough to have access to a workshop with a bunch of metalworking equipment, so I'll probably work in sheet steel or aluminium rather than the wood that the Flat Earth team has. I haven't done any serious soldering work since uni, so I'm more than a bit out of practice, but I'm willing to put in the time based on what I've played so far.

One enthusiast on the studio's forums, though, has already started 3D printing controller components from black PLA plastic, and is at the point of wiring everything up plus writing some basic code to test everything out. The fact that people are doing this in the first place is awesome. You see a lot of custom controller work going on in the flight sim and racing sim community, but this takes things to the next level.

Objects isn't even close to being yet; the fan that's 3D printing his own kit is working off photos and videos that he's seen online. I was excited by the videos that I saw, but after trying it out in person, I'm more than convinced.

Here's a quick gameplay video from a build of Objects that's about a year old now:

[Objects In Space / Flat Earth Games]


    Hmmmm. Maybe I need an Elite: Dangerous cockpit with big landing gear switch and a Big Red Button just because...

    I saw this at PAX. It was pretty cool.

    I'd love to do something like this, but by the time I reached the halfway point on the article I'd already turned it into a ridiculous project and completely forgotten about the game. It went from a neat cockpit controller to converting my apartment into the Ebon Hawk. I mean why have a button on the keyboard for repairs when you can set up puzzles to press the button that require real world tools to complete?

    I got to play this and the feeling of flicking up the cover to expose the fire button is incredibly satisfying.

      This is the best thing about my Saitek X52 also. In Elite, it's my "deploy weapons" button. Flick up safety cover with thumb. DEPLOY. Then pew pew. :)

    If you want me to laser cut you some panels Campbell, drop me a line, I'm planning to do a set for myself.

    Analogue meter, not VU. Yeah I had to be that guy.

      You saved me the trouble, but I still need to comment on those blue LEDs. I can't see much else because of them.

    I got to play this too and the main thing that got to me was how.jarring it was having to use the mouse to navigate between panels on-screen. Made me feel like it could be so much cooler in VR (were you able to match up your control panel to the game world).

    Apple slim keyboard in the middle of it all? Surely they are no fun for gaming.

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