Planet-Searching In Space Engine


Despite not really being a “game” at this stage, Space Engine has become probably one of my “most played games” of 2015 since installing it earlier this year. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve been slowly learning to use its interface to navigate its star systems, and having a lot of fun while doing so. It’s also probably the first time I’ve gotten truly involved with anything resembling those sandbox games without objectives, which are all the rage today.

I never really got into Minecraft because I’m so used to having a goal in my video games. I like having freedom, but that usually means the freedom to determine my own approach towards objectives a game has already established. Minecraft wants you to figure out your own objectives, and I guess I’ve never stuck with the game long enough to do that. It’s taken Space Engine for me to understand that kind of approach, which is ironic.

Games like Minecraft and Elite at least have sets of rules which may imply objectives. In Elite there are ships you need more money to buy, in Minecraft there are things you need materials to build or perhaps characters waiting out there. Space Engine has none of these at this point. Eventually its developer wants to add a survival and base-building game, but right now there is only the “Planeterium” mode which is literally just a tool with which you look at things. It also has pretty much no limits on where you can go. You can click on a planet billions of light years away and instantly zoom right to it. The only moderately hard thing to do in Space Engine right now is finding certain kinds of things.

When talking about space exploration perhaps the most pertinent pursuit that comes up is the search for extraterrestrial life, and that’s kind of what I embarked on in Space Engine for a while. The game doesn’t actually render aliens, or any life of any kind really other than grass textures, but will tell you if a planet has life in its description (unicellular, multi-cellular, marine, sub-glacial, etc.). For me that ended up being enough because even in this simulation life is rare enough that finding it is a fairly special moment.

Usually I would just click on a random star, go into the space map (which has a really cool 3D grid look to it I wish Mass Effect had), zoom out to see the nearest star systems, and click on each one until a description said one of its planets had life. Just by doing this I was able to semi-frequently find interesting-looking planets: water worlds, ringed earths, eyeball earths, things like that. On a couple occasions I found gas giants orbited by multiple water world moons. I kind of started to feel like Captain Picard, searching for M-class planets. What I never found though were truly “earth-like” planets.

After a while I started to wonder about the Earth Similarity Indexes (ESI) of the planets I was finding. For reference, I think Mars has an ESI of around 0.6 (1.0 being Earth itself). Most of the planets with life I was finding had an ESI around 0.8 — very Earth-like but still also very alien. After discovering the search function in Space Engine and filtering out temperate terra planets (planets with oceans and continents) with atmospheric pressure and size close to Earth’s, I started getting a lot more blue and green worlds with ESIs above 0.9. Even among those, things have gotten pretty varied. I’ve found Earth-like moons orbiting gas giants, “cold Earth’s” mostly made up of oceans and ice caps, water worlds with solitary landmasses, and Earth’s with green or orange skies. The picture you see in this post is of a temperate terra with a water world moon.

People seem to be pretty worried about whether No Man’s Sky will be fun to play. While I think some people have legitimate concerns about it, I’ve been able to get a lot of enjoyment out of a game that’s similar but without any actual challenging game. No Man’s Sky will limit how fast you can travel and put all kinds of challenges in your way, so you’ll be seeing new star systems much more infrequently. I think a major key in how interesting the game remains will be rarity of garden worlds in it.


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One thought on “Planet-Searching In Space Engine

  1. I’ve heard of this game but not yet checked it out. Looks like a worthy sucessor to Celestia though.

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