Yesterday I was feeling pretty down because, well, I knew tomorrow would be today. On a lark, I decided to try out Astroneer, because it's managed to remain among Steam's top sellers for a month, which is no small feat. Turns out, it's just the game I needed.
Astroneer is the most fundamentally optimistic survival game I've ever played. It helped me feel good about humanity and the future despite everything going on right now, if only briefly. It's a game about constant awe and wonderment. From the get-go, it makes you feel like a flea lost in the overgrown, matted hair of a giant. I mean, this is the game's opening:
The start screen is you, sealed like a pea in a tiny, helpless pod, overlooking a randomly generated behemoth. And then you launch. It's immense. When you land, you're greeted by patchwork plains of colour and majestic twinkling in the distance. It's like somebody dropped a planet into a pool of Elmer's glue, construction paper and glitter. You just want to look around and breathe the whole place in. Except you can't, because there's no air.
Astroneer is about human perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. Instead of conquering your environment, you must learn to understand it and live in harmony with it. If you don't, you'll die of suffocation — or a rock storm, which is not the name of an emerging power metal trio, but is instead a literal storm of rocks.
I've been playing solo, which means there are only two characters in the game: Me and the planet I'm on. When I started out, I was completely at the mercy of my environment. If I strayed from the general vicinity of my pod for more than a minute or so, I'd start suffocating. I was able to collect resources within a region the size of a rich person's backyard. I could only wonder what lay off in the distance.
Astroneer's early goings, especially, are about discovery — both in terms of understanding your environment and learning what you're capable of. Each tiny step forward is a triumph. When I first figured out I could build tethers to create oxygen-rich pathways away from my base, I nearly whooped with glee. I'll be honest: It took me an hour and a half to figure out tethers were a crucial game mechanic. A tutorial would have been much quicker. But I got to figure it out! Me!
Astroneer encourages you to constantly feel awed by yourself and your surroundings. "You're an intelligent human," it basically says. "You can do this without hand-holding." It tells you almost nothing, but it guides you through feeling. You get all this delightful visual and sonic feedback when you collect something, or create something, or even just admire your surroundings:
The game encourages you to explore, to do, to try. It believes in you. It does not, however, want you to become complacent. Even once I built out my base a bit and knit together a web of oxygen-bestowing tether tendrils, I had to remain acutely aware of my surroundings. One ill-conceived small step or giant leap could land me at the bottom of a hole, or lost in a cave, slowly suffocating and choking on gasses emitted by bulging alien flora.
The cumulative effect of all this is that you really get to know the planet you're on. You gain ground slowly, venturing out a little further each time before returning to your base. Before long, places that once seemed leering and dangerous start to feel like home. They're part of your daily walk, your routine.
Some resources replenish over time, creating further incentive to revisit areas every once in a while. In my case, this had the added effect of reminding me that while I hadn't encountered any aliens, per se, this place was alive. Astroneer's interface for resource gathering revolves around reshaping the land, but you can create as well as destroy. Once I realised this, I started meticulously filling in all the chunks of land I ripped out. I didn't want to leave this big, beautiful place I'd come to love pockmarked with pot holes and other ugly footprints. I didn't want to take over it or dominate it. I didn't want to use it and move on. I wanted to be part of it.
It's a far cry from other survival games I've played, which pit you against the land and the life that populates it, whether it's controlled by AI or other players. There's a ruthless sort of cynicism present in the mechanics of those games. "Get yours before somebody else does," they seem to say. "Control, conquer, dominate. Build the best base and fuck who or whatever stands in your way."
That's not to say games like Ark: Survival Evolved, Rust and Don't Starve aren't fun — they're extremely good games — but they're not particularly hopeful ones. Even No Man's Sky, which I initially read as a sort of anti-colonial game, still felt the need to sick drone robots on you if you started getting too handsy with the scenery. It was a game built with the idea of human greed in mind.
What's amazing about Astroneer is that it doesn't hem you in. Not explicitly, anyway. The game is almost entirely wordless. And yet, I figured out so many things, discovered so many places and came to the conclusion that I should work with my environment, not against it, to succeed, all on my own.
Those messages are embedded in the mechanics, and they're good messages. People are smart, and we don't have to be harmful or inconsiderate to progress. Our future could be one of peaceful, mindful exploration — rather than one of fighting, domination and subjugation — if we seek to understand the unknown instead of fearing it. Astroneer feels like a game that believes in people, and I'm glad I found it when I did.