Indie game plonks players in front of huge starship command center

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New Atlas tries out Objects In Space, a space trading and stealth game that can be played on a huge DIY control panel full of buttons, switches and LEDs(Credit: Michael Irving/New Atlas)

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We've played several metric tonnes of video games in our time, but Objects In Space is the first one we've had to start with a key. Said key, complete with a pair of fuzzy dice, slots in below the keyboard and brings the panels full of LEDs on either side of the monitor to life. There are more buttons and switches than we know what to do with, but that's the point; this game deliberately slows down the pace of space dogfights and tasks the player with micromanaging their ship's systems, power, stats and cargo.

The huge, almost intimidating rig is a perfect fit for the game, which is built around a series of DOS-era screens across several rooms, all bursting with information about the ship and your surroundings. Scanners will tell you the names, sizes and compositions of nearby planets, and readouts will let you keep an eye on your power levels, ammo, and condition of individual parts and systems which, by the way, are all customizable, right down to the tiniest of chips and circuits.

From the Sydney-based indie studio Flat Earth Games, Objects In Space may be a tad maths-heavy for those who prefer their space-faring in the form of pew-pew-packed action. But it calls to mind games like FTL: Faster Than Light and No Man's Sky, letting players really chew over their decisions and micromanage how they explore and interact with the universe.

"It came out of a lot of the early space games that I played," says Elissa Harris, one of the developers. "Because the hardware was a lot slower, they weren't quite so fast-paced. So something I'd always enjoyed was the feeling of a spaceship command game. What we wanted was just the experience of a space trading game that felt more like captaining a ship, that didn't require twitch reflexes to play."

That slower pace is exactly what's needed for a first-timer trying to learn their way around the controls. The panel on the left features an array of switches to turn off individual ship systems, to reduce your electronic footprint when cloaking or to conserve power for critical systems when it's running a little scarce. Above that are two dials with physical needles, telling you how much juice is left in the battery and how fast it's draining, based on current usage. Below all that are the weapon controls.

On the right-hand side is a map of the ship itself, with LEDs indicating the health of various systems, and below that sits the navigation panel. It's a lot to take in, but another developer, Leigh Harris, guides us through the scenario, where we're tasked with finding and destroying a pirate ship. This involves orienting the ship with controlled thrusts, and once pointing towards the mysterious blip on the radar, plotting a course towards it and firing up the main boosters to propel us forward. Once in range, we load a missile, spin it up, launch it, and wait for confirmation that it hits.

Every single one of those functions involves its own button or switch, and there's no way we'd have navigated the rig by ourselves. The game is playable on a vanilla keyboard and mouse setup of course, but it is extremely satisfying to play it with the tactile feedback of physical buttons and lights. And we'd imagine it's even more so if you'd built this contraption for yourself – a joy the Flat Earthers are willing to share.

"We released the blueprints for these precise ones, along with a page describing the protocol, how you actually build the interface," says Elissa. "And after we've cleaned up the code a lot, we're going to release the source code to the Arduinos (the microcontroller chip kits the panels run on), if you don't want to code that for yourself."

As big as the control panel is, this one is just a "portable" version designed to be carted around the expo circuit, and as such, it only maps about half the functionality in the game.

"In theory you could build a panel that controls the entire game," says Elissa. "There's something like 140 different inputs, in the game generally. At some point, if I ever actually get time, I want to build one of these that isn't designed to go to expos, like in my garage or something. Kind of like how you see people building flight setups or virtual racing."

But, she says, before she can commit to a project like that, the team needs to actually finish the game. At the moment, they're on track to make the game available on PC sometime next year. Keep an eye on the game's progress on the website, and check it out in action in the video below.

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