Space Engineers and the Joy of Building Stuff

Lighting effects are pretty!

A few weeks ago, I was chatting to a colleague of mine about computer games and that. This, by itself, is not unusual or noteworthy, but after a pleasant period of agreeing that games are pretty great we ran into a sudden difference of opinion.

She asked if I played Minecraft.

I do, of course, and having just agreed that Lego is awesome, I was sort of surprised when she declared that Minecraft was for kids and that it was without merit as a thing for adults to mess around with. I argued that it was a complete experience, that there were survival and exploration elements and and and…

I’m not very good at arguments. When people say things that surprise me or present a viewpoint I hadn’t considered, I need to go away and think about it for a while before I can form a coherent response. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I was right all along! That’s just not the way that conversations work, of course. You can’t suspend one half-way through, and then expect the other person to even remember what you were talking about next time you see them.

ANYWAY, I was wrong. Minecraft IS all about building! Of course it is. And that’s great! Sure, the terrain generator is legendarily good, and there are all kinds of spectacular landscapes and caves to discover. And you WILL get eaten by zombies and exploded by creepers if you stand about too much. Really though, would I have played even one-tenth as much of the game if you couldn’t build or tunnel? If there was nothing to MAKE? Minecraft, but you can only look around and punch zombies.

This isn’t about Minecraft. But it is about building things. IN SPACE.

Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace!

Space Engineers has a number of advantages as a platform for building things.

  1. It is in space.
  2. You can build spaceships. You can then move them around and DO THINGS, such as shooting other ships or ravaging asteroids for materials to build more ships.
  3. What, you want more?

It lacks the exploration and survival elements of Minecraft. For the most part, that is – if you stay in space too long you’ll die, because humans are pretty bad at staying alive in hard vacuum, and you can optionally enable meteors that smash all your stuff up like incredibly annoying creepers that you can’t wall out. The current lack of meaningful exploration isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. While you can build some pretty amazing things in Minecraft (a friend and I once built Ironforge at full scale – we couldn’t find a mountain big enough to put it in, so we had to build our own mountain over the top), you can’t build starfighters, or construction ships, or salvage corvettes or battlecruisers or ridiculous supercarriers with gravity catapults that reduce your framerate to single-figures.

Space Engineers is about building things. It’s only about building things. Oh, you can do stuff with the things you build, but you have to build the things first in order to do the stuff! Um. And that. Yes.

About a week ago, a friend and I built a ship. Previously, we’d built lots of ships – construction ships, drones, mining ships, fighters – but until recently we’d never really built a large ship. I’d refitted a captured NPC mining hauler as a salvage corvette, but that doesn’t really count since most of the ship was built before we got to it. We were temporarily material-rich having uh… salvaged several passing trade ships floating wrecks, and we decided that we needed a heavily armed and armoured combat ship to go after the military escorts passing through the system.

We were building in survival mode, where each and every block requires materials to construct, and must be placed down by hand and then “welded” to completion. Carrying around enough materials in your spacesuit to build anything is somewhat impractical – it takes about four trips backwards and forwards from storage to build a large reactor – so ideally the ship needs to be built methodically, so that a construction ship full of components can get to and build each block.

We didn’t build particularly methodically. We didn’t plan anything out. We didn’t have any idea what SHAPE it was going to be, even! No sketches on scrap paper. No amusingly terrible MS Paint concepts. We just got together in one location and started laying down the hull.

I love this screenshot. It's so atmospheric!

If we’d taken minutes from our… design meeting (location: floating around in space while speculatively placing armour blocks) they would probably look a bit like this:

  1. Ship must use heavy armour
  2. About corvette-sized.
  3. Big spinal-mounted front cannon! Like that ship from the thing.
  4. Internal space. It had to have internal space for walking around in and compartments. We thought that this was important, and were very concerned that the ship would be too full of STUFF.
  5. Ooh! Hangar bay. For drones? It can go underneath.
  6. It’ll probably be heavy and need quite a lot of engines.
  7. What about… oh, I guess we’re building now.
  8. ADDENDUM: Stairs! I never get to use stairs, I can never find enough space to use them.
  9. ADDENDUM ADDENDUM: Oh crap, we haven’t left enough room for the main reactor.
  10. ADDENDUM ADDENDUM ADDENDUM: Oh man, I forgot about gyros, where the bloody hell are those going to go? I bet we’ll need about twenty.
  11. [Scrawled on bottom, underlined repeatedly] Red alert lights and sirens. VERY IMPORTANT.

I COULD have crawled in there and done it myself, but I really wanted to use the drone...

We planned so badly that I had to use a tiny remote-control construction drone I’d built previously to build most of the interior fittings. Sometimes we’d have to cut away bits of the ship we’d built in order to get to the bits we hadn’t. I was delighted. I’d been looking for a use for that construction drone for ages!

Our aforementioned salvage corvette (i.e. stolen salvaged retrofitted mining hauler) was our size target.

I still haven't got around to adding the Homeworld-style colour stripes.

The yellow and black one is the salvage corvette. Yes, it’s half the size. It weighs 300,000 kg. The new ship weighs 3.7 million kg. I bet the professionals don’t get carried away and accidentally build frigates instead of corvettes.

With REAL FLASHING ALERT LIGHT action!

I designed the bridge! It’s at least two times bigger than it should be! It’s a heavy-cruiser-size bridge on a frigate. But uh… the ship has drones, so the drone operators need consoles. Yes. And the visibility is excellent.

As for internal volume, well.

The main engineering compartment is my favourite space. I'm glad we didn't fill it with armour.

And STAIRS! I have so many goddamn stairs I don’t know what to do with them all.

I don’t so much care about realism as I do believability. Crewed ships should have crew quarters. There should be access to all the key components for engineers. Flashing red alert lights should be placed in such a way that they cast an atmospheric glow on consoles during battle conditions!

It’s the same story whenever we build something. It almost invariably ends up looking stupid and being unnecessarily complicated. In Minecraft, we’ll usually have an area for research and development, a workshop, living quarters, fortifications. You don’t NEED any of them. A hut with a workbench, a couple of beds, some chests and a hole in the floor will do just as well.

But maaaan, I’ve always liked building bases. I’m inclined to say that this is partly thanks to Command & Conquer, one of the earliest ‘proper’ games I played. Probably X-COM, too. The first action you take in that game is placing and naming your first base! Going back even further, there was Lego. Don’t even get me STARTED on Lego.

You don’t need a coffee machine in Space Engineers, but this ship has one. It doesn’t do anything, but if I lived on an assault frigate, I’d want a coffee machine aboard. You don’t need beds, or a small but well equipped medical bay, but what sort of warship lacks either of those?

The machine genuinely says "Space Coffee" on it.

Are starships bases? They move about and do things, but people also live aboard them. This one has crew quarters and a hangar bay for smaller craft. And, of course, a coffee machine. There are consoles with specific functions. Alarm panels are strategically positioned on the walls, in case it should be necessary to SOUND BATTLESTATIONS while I’m off the bridge. You should always have those on a starship. Starships can be homes, bases of operation – that’s a recurring theme in science fiction, after all.

And does it matter? In the (not inconsiderable) time it’s taken me to finish this damn article, I’ve been wondering whether this whole obsession with building things is actually a misplaced homemaking instinct. Is it the same thing that drives people to build and decorate and whatnot in physical space? That might explain the bases (space and otherwise) and perhaps starships, and all of the unnecessary internal detail work, but not the fighters or utility ships. You couldn’t live for very long in a tiny construction ship, or at least not very comfortably. I’ve spent 170 hours in this game, and this is the first ship I’ve built from scratch that you could reasonably live on.

So what is it about building things that’s so compelling, that keeps me playing an unfinished game with no explicit objectives for longer even than an epic RPG? Some people build things to show them off to others. I get that. I love looking around things that other people have built!

(I also hate it because it makes me feel utterly struck down by a sense of my own ineptness. I mean, have you SEEN some of the stuff that’s on the Steam Workshop?)

While I do like to show people things that I’ve built, however, I don’t think that’s really what it’s all about for me. I build things for myself and largely, I suspect, because I want to inhabit that world. I like to immerse myself in game worlds, because I’ll never get to be a spaceshipwright, I won’t get to own a space yacht or assault frigate. Games give me the ability to experience things that I don’t get to do (not necessarily realistically but I think that’s irrelevant) and to think about things I wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to. Building things makes me think, and plan, and exercise my limited aesthetic sense and creativity, mental muscles that would otherwise probably atrophy completely, only ever being flexed when I have to think of a character name for some new MMO or RPG. It might not be a trip to the brain gym, but it is perhaps a jog around the thought park.

It looks a bit silly, the interior doesn’t make as much sense as I’d like and it is, perhaps, not a particularly well thought-out warship. It doesn’t matter. I love that stupid ship. I love it, I think, because we built it. Nobody else has set foot on the deck of this vessel, or crashed it into an asteroid, or flown it backwards into their space station because they forgot to switch the direction of the gravity drive. These experiences are unique to us. Flying a ship that somebody else built just isn’t the same.

Huh. Maybe this is what it’s all about after all.

-DK.

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