Hello! Welcome to Captain’s Log, a mini-series on the things we love about space – and how video games so brilliantly engage with it. You can read all of our pieces in the series in one place as they go live, here at the Captain’s Log archive. Enjoy!
One of the things I’m most looking forward to with Starfield is the details, I think. I’m here for the main adventure, sure, but I tend to love the small stuff in big games – the components on a rocket or a space suit, the callbacks to the tiniest pieces of real-world inspiration. I got very excited when I saw the Starfield logo in a video earlier this year, the logo against what looked like – my eyes aren’t great – a white background of space with dark stars and nebulae scattered over it. Could this be a winking reference to the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey, whose photographic plates of the heavens are always seen as negatives, the same white space, the same black stars?
Jury’s out on that one. It’s entirely possible I just need new glasses. But part of the joy of space games in particular to me is that, as a bit of a space nerd, I can look at the little stuff and wonder.
I think it would be impossible to be born in 1978, like I was, and not be a bit of a space nerd, to be honest. When I think back to the year of my birth, I always see it as being nestled between the launch of the Voyagers in ’77, and the flaming return of Skylab in, I think, ’79. What goes up eventually comes down and all that. Space was everywhere back then, just as everywhere again now, with daily updates from the James Webb telescope and all those rovers knocking about on Mars.
Games, like Starfield, have always been so good at capturing this stuff. And actually, without being able to play Starfield for myself yet, I’d say that’s never been truer than in the case of Outer Wilds. This is a game all about the glory and urgency of space and exploration – a game that doesn’t hold back the moment when you climb into your own ship and pick a destination to head to in its bottle universe. Within minutes of loading up you can land on a comet! But I love details in these games more than anything, remember, and one of the details in Outer Wilds, well… Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m just seeing things, but every time I encounter this moment, it makes my skin tingle. It activates the same part of my brain that saw traces of POSS in Starfield’s choice of logo background.
And I can tell you exactly where this detail is found. You get into your spaceship. You get your bearings in this wonderfully elbowy piece of real estate. Then, if you’re a pro, you immediately put your spacesuit on. On goes the helmet, and for a second, maybe less than a second, a series of little pluses, little Xes are imprinted across the screen.
The first time I saw those I gasped. Because I thought: hey, I know what those are! Outer Wilds may take place in some other solar system – I sure hope it does, because in that solar system the sun explodes every 20 minutes or so and I just put some coffee on – but those pluses or Xes take me back to a moment in our own space race.
I THINK they’re the same marks you see on old Nasa photography from the moon, which means – Googled it, might not be correct – they’re marks from the Réseau plates of the Hasselblad cameras the astronauts used on moon missions.
These plates are glass panels covered with little crosses, called fiducial markers, that create permanent shadows on the negative. These shadows in turn allow people to spot whether a photograph has been distorted in development, and – we’re getting way over my head now – they can also be used when combining photographs to get a sense of the distance between objects in the images themselves. Don’t ask me anything more about this because my head hurts.
I have an old friend who was a bit of a moon landings conspiracist and I gather these markings are something conspiracy theorists are quite fond of and have built a lot of their cases around. But for a lot of people like me, they just summon up the thrill of that age – science, exploration, photography, measurement! We’re off to a new world!
Reading up on it now, I gather Réseau plates were used for lots of scientific photography over the years, but for me, right or wrong, they belong to the Apollo missions, which is why similar marks turning up in Outer Wilds fills me with such warmth: a shared sensibility, a shared sense of enthusiasm for all this cool history.
It’s unsurprising that the only other time I can remember Réseau plates turning up in a game is in Quadrilateral Cowboy, Brendon Chung’s beautiful hacking/programming game. Chung’s a super fan of 1960s and ’70s tech, I suspect – suitcase computers and the like are scattered all across his games. In Quadrilateral Cowboy when you open up the ‘deck and go into the virtual world of the game itself you always get that little distorted plane of crosses that appears on the screen in all its analogue beauty.
Chung gets it. Outer Wilds gets it. And I am excited to see whether Starfield gets it too.