The early-access space sim works to keep the player positive, even with crushing isolation in mind.
At first glance, Astroneer appears to be similar to other games of its ilk, the Steam early-access sandbox survival and exploration games. With each new single-player game of Astroneer, you are launched from an orbiting satellite, carried by a small pod to safely land on the surface of the presumably uncharted planet. From that point forward, you are completely alone, left to explore the vibrant new terrain and to develop a productive industrial center in the process. It is this solitude, and the way it is portrayed, which makes Astroneer unique.
When exploring each new planet, Astroneer both aesthetically and mechanically communicates a unique sort of playful solitude. Rather than imposing upon you the loneliness that often accompanies games centered around solitary existence, Astroneer is encouraging and even a bit of a tease. Even with the game’s multiplayer option in mind I feel that with or without companions, many aspects of Astroneer come together to evoke that feeling of being alone.
The colors of the world are remarkably striking; as you go about your work harvesting resources, you are not traversing a visually barren landscape. Instead, the small, (potentially) human avatar jogs around in a deep purple field, with tastefully neon yellow grass swaying, and white-capped orange pastel mountains on the horizon. Alone though you may be, the world’s beauty feels more exciting than isolating.
The music is another huge highlight. A sci-fi synth creates soundscapes that match the unknown world. The songs brim with potential, and are appropriately sparse, leaving a great deal for the player to fill in with their actions in the world. While avoiding being overbearing or too spooky, the soundtrack is still mysterious, and speaks well to the world’s hidden secrets and undiscovered artifacts. The music helps to keep you company and motivates you to continue exploring, no matter how aware you are of your complete and utter isolation on whatever planet you find yourself on.
Yet another aspect of the game which takes your mind off of what, in another universe, could be a frightening loneliness, is the way you move around the world. Few games that I’ve played have the same feeling of smoothness or playful lack of friction that Astroneer commands. It’s fun. It’s just enjoyable to sprint across the surface of the planet, sliding as you go. Or even in the buggies that you can build, the laws of physics feel a little bit weaker here, as you speed along and fly off of jumps that your similarly Newtonian-law-defying terrain tool helped to create.
Many survival and exploration games that detach you from the world and pit you against whatever threats that world can offer work to frighten you, or at least make you very aware of your mortality. Astroneer does the opposite. Yes, you can die in Astroneer. But in some work of miraculous technology, if you do face your end, you can simply respawn at your lander pod, and have the option to retrieve whatever materials lie with your unfortunate, possibly human corpse. Further, the satellite in the sky, orbiting high (though not too high to reach) above the planet’s surface, as well as the ruins of other exploration missions, inform the player that you are safe, that you’re not as alone as it might initially seem. Though you can find enormous skeletons of long dead creatures, there are no signs of skeletons or remains of other Astroneers (I’m avoiding saying humans because I have a feeling that the player is not controlling a human) with the space wreckage you can find, implying a rescue or escape by the past explorers.
In one particularly memorable moment, I found myself stranded in a solar-powered rover, having strayed a bit too far after the sun dipped below the horizon. As I waited for the night to pass, with the colors darkening and the music becoming soft, trouble in the form of a stone-tossing storm climbed its way over the nearby mountains, making its way directly towards me. And I did as any brave, intrepid explorer would do: I dug a hole and hid until the storm passed. The muffled winds overhead died down, the periodic clunk of deadly rocks ceased, and I carved my way out just in time for this planet’s sun to signal the start of a new day, and my ticket home. Speeding across the deep purple plains towards my home base, I was well aware of my isolation on this strange world. Yet the beauty of the world, and the simple enjoyment in driving my silly space vehicle, made the isolation bearable.
The worlds of Astroneer are not all positive and playful; the numerous tunnels trailing for miles beneath each planet’s surface are unlit and hostile, with poisonous plants and treacherous terrain. And even as you develop and spread out, it’s hard to escape the reality that you are still the only sentient being on this planet. But work is always there to keep you company (an idea I might explore in another piece), and Astroneer offers a fun, playful universe that entices you and succeeds in conveying the joy of discovering new things, alone.