Spaceplan is probably the best idle game currently available for $2.99/£1.99 – and you can’t say fairer than that. With a sales pitch as beguiling as it is bonkers, Spaceplan’s ‘total misunderstanding of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time’ takes you on a whirlwind space tour littered with pseudoscientific misconceptions, crisp futurist beatz, and a wondrously iconic art-style.
Tasked with feeding potatoes into the sun until it collapses into a black hole – with the ultimate goal of Earth-rescuing time travel – this is a game that approaches its scientific underpinnings with infectious frivolity. Running like an over-excited puppy from the Big Bang through general relativity to imaginary time, no element of our anthropic grasping for a unified theory of everything goes untouched by the thresher of creator Jake Hollands’ imagination. Well, it’s maybe a little light on quantum mechanics.
But what to do with an idle game? A book perhaps, to pass the time between clicks?
And so Spaceplan became the background radiation to my reading of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. In order to gain a broader understanding of creative culture’s scientific illiteracy I then watched Interstellar, figuring that if Matthew McConaughey’s rugged visage can’t convey the complexities of space-time then surely there is no hope for us. I have also previously seen a Star Wars film. I consider this a sufficiently representative sample of popular culture.
I was prepared to be disappointed by a dearth of science. But disappointed I was not, for Spaceplan is strong(ish) with the scientism. At first I had considered the central mechanics of kinetic, photovoltaic, and potato-based energy generation suspect, especially as this energy is then converted into matter (more potatoes). While converting energy into matter has long been theoretically possible, and recently made practically possible, I still have the faint inkling that these mechanics somehow violate the laws of thermodynamics. Unfortunately, without knowing the inner workings of the ‘Thing Maker’ – used to produce the game’s many potato-based tools – it’s impossible to fall on one side or the other. One point to Spaceplan, zero points to pedantry.
Hidden amidst the wry, somewhat self-conscious humour of Spaceplan’s writing is the overall goal of the game: to turn the sun into a black hole, hide in it until the universe completes another cycle of crunch and expansion (reversing time in the process) and finally save the freakin’ world. While Hollands may have side-stepped the snare of thermodynamics he has gone hurtling into the quagmire of space-time. Spaceplan leans heavily on the idea that the gravity of the singularity would slow time sufficiently to allow a human being to survive an entire cycle of the universe and throws in some spurious claims regarding the reversal of time’s arrow. This latter point may be that nefarious artistic license rearing its ugly head once more, or a confusion over imaginary time, but in either case Hollands seems to have given little thought to how one might survive the Big Crunch – even trapped inside a black hole you still gonna get crunched! A point for pedantry.
That said, at least Spaceplan makes a real attempt to grapple with the potential outcomes of surviving inside a singularity. Contrasted with McConaughey’s black hole adventure in Interstellar this is a breath of fresh air. The poetic gestures made by the Nolan brothers may hit all the right notes on a cinematic level, but they’re undermined by the smorgasbord of semi-theoretical concepts hinted at but under-explored. The result is a somewhat saccharine science swamp in an otherwise relatively tight film. Minus one point Interstellar.
In Spaceplan’s later sections most of the previous devotion to scientific principle has eroded, yet in many ways it’s here it really starts to shine. Up until the singularity Spaceplan closely follows the path of many a clicker: clicking to generate energy, building to generate energy, watching the things you’ve clicked and built generate energy – but from this point on it morphs into an ever more engaged experience, arguably ditching the ‘idle game’ label altogether. At its climax Spaceplan seems able to conjure all the feelings I have ever had regarding space travel: fear, awe, inspiration, and the loneliness of humankind in the enormity of the universe are captured in the final multiverse hopping spectacle. I probably would have paid the asking price just for that.
Spaceplan leaves me with a sense of satisfactory ambivalence. One of many things that sprung out at me while playing is how badly pop culture deals with cutting-edge science. Spaceplan makes a valiant effort, and at least admits its own limits, but it’s strange and sad to me that there are so few cultural artifacts that successfully explain and explore the implications of some of the greatest discoveries that mankind has ever made. It feels that in some sense, works like Spaceplan and Interstellar give up at the most important moments: they reach the border between the intuitive and the deeply unintuitive and, instead of summoning new metaphors to make sense of the world, raise their hands and shrug in defeat.
Yet still, I can’t help but love this light-hearted, idle adventure that flitters on the edge of the clicker genre. It inspired, and provided, a fitting backdrop to a thought-provoking few days. It’s an absolute bloody gem and one of the few games (ever) to get unanimous nods of approval amongst the Outermode staff. It’s been a wild ride through time itself and I honestly cannot wait to see what the mind of Jake Hollands brings us next.
Thank you, space potatoes: