Perhaps it’s something specific to writers, but I have always found it fascinating to observe the way that words change and evolve. Take for example the popular suffix ‘-punk’. As in Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Dieselpunk or as in the case of Objects In Space: Modempunk. Popularised by William Gibson, Cyberpunk was a combining of the various technological fascinations of the early eighties with a gritty, anti-establishment tone featuring a morally grey cast of criminals fighting against incomprehensible yet powerful systems. Hence the -punk suffix, that tone was as much a key to the genre as the technology was. Yet as time has gone on, the meaning has been warped. Steampunk was a cyberpunk story set within the age of steam, which seems logical enough. But following this, the suffix has become more associated with the anachronistical sci-fi technology of steampunk than the anti-authoritarian stance of the original cyberpunks.
All of which brings us back to Objects In Space, a space simulator deliberately designed to mimic the look of late 90s PC games from the era when a connection to the internet would be accompanied by the buzzing, beeping screeching of a dial-up modem. This is both an advantage and a detriment to the game ultimately. As someone who played more than a few of the titles Object In Space is so nostalgic for, the novelty of a lot of these interfaces quickly wears off. You’ll quickly be reminded why clicking through each of the screens for each space station, all waiting for a future encounter that may never happen, as you hunt for the one person you need to speak to in order to complete a side quest or the one screen you need to deliver your cargo was perhaps more of a pain in the arse than you remember.
The graphics are particularly unhelpful when it comes to the characters who, despite wearing a wide variety of clothing styles and appearances, somehow manage to look like identical masses of brown polygons. Multiple characters on the same screen will look distinct and visibly different, but good luck with remembering what anyone looks like.
It’s also worth pointing out that the game is still in early access and it shows. There simply isn’t a great deal of content present yet. You’ll shuffle cargo back and forth a few systems and gradually a larger story will begin to reveal itself. Now to be fair, that was also the case in those older retro games, but again, certain features were left in the past for a reason. I’m reminded of erstwhile Ready Up contributor Mark Brown’s video on Shovel Knight in which he discusses how a game seeking to tap into nostalgia can do better to focus on the things we remember positively, rather than trying to render the whole experience accurately.
Because there is one place in Objects In Space where all of my complaints fall away and that is the ship itself. Here is where the advantage of the Modempunk interface reveals itself. That graphical style lends the oddly submarine-esque gameplay a sense of verisimilitude that would otherwise be missing. Your ship feels like an old, cobbled together machine. It is not a racer, or a flyer; it’s a broken tugboat with a thousand bits and pieces you need to push and pull. Some of my favourite parts include the way you have to type in MAIL or NEWS to your comms device to check your mail and the incredibly tense slowness with which a torpedo tracks in on your ship.
Now, I will admit, while I do think it’s an absolutely fantastic achievement, it’s destined for me personally to never be more than a novelty. Seriously, this game makes the learning curve in EVE online look loving and gentle. But if you want to dive into a space sim that feels more like piloting a rustbucket bundle of bolts through a cobbled-together interfaces; if you want to manually repair your engine by hand; if you want to race that torpedo to the jump gate to try and get away with your cargo intact then Objects in Space might just be your jam.