Somehow, 50 years ago a pair of human beings walked on the Moon for the first time in history as part of Apollo 11. I’m pretty sure that I’ll never get to follow in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But I can use video games to emulate the experience of their monumental achievement.
This got me thinking about the idea of gaming universes.
In movies, the Marvel cinematic universe is the ideal example. It is the result of a lot of planning and central leadership. But I also love the notion of unofficial cinematic universes like the USSPCU (or the United States Space Program Cinematic Universe) as flim critic Patrick Willems coined. This is the idea that otherwise unrelated films like The Right Stuff, First Man, and Hidden Figures actually connect to one another because their subjects, stories, and characters overlap.
The same sort of accidental canons happen in gaming — although it has less to do with stories and characters than it does with overlapping gameplay ideas.
Gaming certainly has built up a canon of games that fit under the idea of space exploration, and you would probably get fewer strange looks if you referred to that as a “genre.” But I think the idea of a gaming universe can deliver a more narrow focus on a specific feeling. In the case of the Apollo 11 mission or the U.S. space program as we know it, the gaming universe would include games that try to deal with actual physical or logistical problems of launching a vessel from one planet to another. However, I would not include games that focus more on the exploration aspect. So that means No Man’s Sky, Everspace, or Elite Dangerous don’t make the list. Those all feel like they belong in another genre about the frontier be it terrestrial or not.
With that in mind, I’ve pieced together the unofficial Apollo 11 gaming universe.
Apollo 11 VR
Apollo 11 VR is an educational experience for virtual reality that puts you in the pilot seat for the historical lunar landing. Developer Immersive VR Education produced the game like a documentary. It includes video from the event before putting you at the controls of the command module and the lander. You can then get out and walk around the surface of the Moon.
Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager
Space Program Manager combines the business-management sim with NASA. This 2014 release from developer Polar Motion has players making decisions during the space race against the Soviet Union. The studio worked with Aldrin during development.
Kerbal Space Program
Kerbal Space Program is a fictionalized take on creating and launching space vessels. But despite putting you on a different world with nonhuman astronauts, it’s still extremely faithful to real rocket science. You have to respect the laws of physics — there’s no cheating the math in this game.
Developer Squad is even working with its community right now to run a tribute to Apollo 11. This features vehicles and mission quests that pay homage to the first trip to the moon’s surface.
Stationeers takes the Apollo missions and extrapolates out into the future. It is a game about building space stations on distant worlds like the Moon. Developer RocketWerkz emphasizes systems management, which means you have to ensure that your artificial atmosphere and electrical wiring are working and stable.
Astroneer is like a slightly more sci-fi and arcadey version of Stationeers. The gameplay is also closer to Minecraft with a bigger emphasis on exploration and building. But developer System Era Softworks did just add the Lunar Update to Astroneer.
This update introduces new components to build a replica of the Apollo lunar module. If you’re looking to capture the feeling of running a NASA mission to uncover space in the 25th century, then Astroneer can deliver that.