The Science of Videogame Spaceships – Part Three

The Science of Videogame Spaceships – Part Three

The epoch of high-definition consoles has opened a floodgate of opportunity for story-tellers to show us their visions in the gaming world. Now that HDMI and high-power processors are commonplace in the living room, developers have begun an all-out victory lap in imagining settings for us to explore. Where has their creative genius taken us? To strange new worlds; to seek out (and usually fight) new life, and new civilizations. We have been blessed with the ability to boldly go aboard vessels which will live with us in our memories forever. In the final installment of this series, we take a celebratory tour of the videogame spaceships we serve aboard today.

Game: Halo
Release: 2001

At the dawn of the naughties’, Microsoft blasted their way rifle-first onto the console gaming scene with the Xbox. Their flagship product, Halo, immediately broke new ground on the playing-field of sci-fi videogames. It created an experience which would grow and evolve over a decade to come, and it opened for us the next chapter in the saga of videogame spaceships.

The flagship of the Halo series is the Pillar of Autumn, an imposing cruiser capable of carrying thousands of troops through space. This gargantuan hulk is over a kilometer long, and is powered by three nuclear fusion reactors. Despite its immense size and mass, the Pillar of Autumn was able to travel faster than light thanks to a “Shaw-Fujikawa Translight Engine”. FTL drives are ubiquitous in science fiction, and Halo’s take on this much-coveted technology is frankly an unimaginative effort when observed in the context of the sci-fi genre as a whole.

The idea is that a particle accelerator creates mini-black holes, which are subsequently stabilized to form a hole in the universe which is big enough for a ship to enter. Double entendre aside, the vessel enters the hole and travels through something known as ‘slipspace’- a realm where the laws of physics allow the ship to move faster than light. The vessel reenters our universe when it reaches its destination. Sounds logical, right? Wrong.

This fictional device perpetuates one of the most common misunderstandings of physics out there – that black holes are ‘holes’ in the universe, and that there could be something unknown ‘on the other side’. This is a frequent and mind-blowingly idiotic misconception about black holes. The truth is that they are not holes. A black hole is simply an object for which its escape velocity is higher than the speed of light. In other words, it is a piece of matter so dense that not even light can escape it. Therefore it looks like a “black hole” in space, but in reality, it is not a hole – it is just a ball or point of super-dense matter. Granted, physicists are still unsure of what that ball looks like and how it behaves at the quantum level, but it is not a ‘hole’, and there is nothing ‘on the other side’. In sci-fi, not every hole’s a goal.

Game: Dead Space
Release: 2008

Horror and sci-fi have happily fornicated together as long as either genre has existed; HG Wells’ War of the Worlds saw tentacle-monsters feasting on human stew long before television even existed. Dead Space’s protagonist, Isaac Clarke, has a name derived from two of the greatest sci-fi writers in history – Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke respectively. The game earns the right to such a boast easily; it is a top-tier example of sci-fi horror for our generation, and the ship aboard which the story is set gives its own emphatic contribution to the games’ overall greatness.

A common pitfall of visual science fiction is the creation of a setting which focuses on futurism to such a great extent that practicality falls by the wayside. In other words, the world you’re experiencing looks like a giant Apple store which would in reality be completely impractical to live in. Dead Space deftly avoids this trap, instead creating a setting that feels like a real working environment, like any oil rig or quarry. It’s the delicately placed subtle touches that engender a plausible feeling of futurism. The USG Ishimura is more than just a generic futuristic spaceship; it is rich environment in which an electrifying atmosphere is expertly crafted by developers Visceral Games. Every corridor and room feels real and functional, with a story to tell of its own.

In its fictional universe, the USG Ishimura is almost identical in size to the aforementioned Pillar of Autumn from the Halo series, coming in at 1.6 kilometers. However, the FTL engines in the Dead Space universe are far less scientifically offensive than their Halo counterparts. Dubbed a ‘Shockpoint Drive’, it has been inferred from cut scenes in the game that the engines work by expanding and contracting space around the ship, causing it to ride a ‘wave’ of space-time, much like a surfer. This is a theoretically plausible way of circumventing the cosmic speed limit, and is known in scientific circles as Alcubierre theory. It is the same basic principle as the ‘Warp Drive’ seen in Star Trek.

Game: Mass Effect
Release: 2007

Words cannot describe the unparalleled genius that is Mass Effect. Let me describe it. As a piece of science fiction, everything about this game is perfect. Quite simply, it is the Star Wars of videogames. It is a ground-breaking trilogy with space-battles, alien babes, giant robots and a story of courage and friendship.

Mass Effect has gifted us with the Enterprise of video-gaming – the Normandy. I compare it to the Enterprise, because more than a mere ship the Normandy was a home. It effortlessly delivered a welcoming and familiar experience across 3 games. It had a character of its own- an unmistakably militaristic vessel which despite its clinical, submarine-like appearance maintained an emotional connection with the gamer. At no point was this more apparent than in the devastating attack in the opening of the second game- seeing the vessel being torn apart set an appropriate tone for the events to follow.

We’ve covered the science of Mass Effect in previous articles, but there is one thing about the Normandy that deserves an honorable mention- the stealth system. One of the more unique boasts the Normandy makes is the ability to remain virtually undetectable by containing all of its radiation aboard- heat included. A quip is made in the game about the fact that the only way to spot it would be to actually see it out of a window, but that this is an unlikely event in space. This is, from a scientific point of view, one of the most plausible approaches to ‘cloaking’ in all of sci-fi. Real scientists today are able to track anything – even space dust billions of miles away – using nothing but radiation measurements. In fact, the single biggest mystery in Astrophysics today, “Dark Matter”, is attributed to matter which does not give off any discernible radiation. The stealth system described in Mass Effect is indeed a plausible method of interstellar furtiveness.

What will the future hold for video-game spaceships? With new consoles offering greater power and new ways of interacting with games, the future is bright. Maybe in 10 years time we’ll be celebrating grand vessels which we cannot even imagine now, ships with which we’ll become familiar with every bolt and weld. To quote Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the last ever episode of Star Trek TNG, “The sky’s the limit!”

Avatar of Anthony Richardson
Anthony Richardson


I'm Anthony, but you can call me Anthony. I once fit 20 grapes in my mouth, and 40 pencils in my hair. I haven't written a book, but if I did I would give it a confusing title, and I'd make every effort to ensure you hadn't a clue what relevance it had to gaming. Oh, and also I write about games.

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2 Comments

  1. common sense
    December 18, 2012, 12:47 am

    “mind-blowingly idiotic misconception about black holes” The utter arrogance behind this statement, ok egghead if you know everything there is to know about black holes why are you an online article writer going no where in life?

    • Avatar of Anthony Richardson
      Anthony Richardson
      December 18, 2012, 3:07 pm

      I’m sorry you felt offended by this sentence. Perhaps we can assume this was a misconception which you yourself had. In terms of my career, I don’t have to work at CERN to point out basic misconceptions. They’re fun to write about, and fun to read about. The idea of ‘The Science Of’ is not to preach about science, but to get people excited and thinking about how games tie into reality in ways that they never expected.

      Again, sorry if you were offended, my delicate little flower.

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