The moment I almost gave up on Astroneer was also the moment that its genius struck me. There I was, bombing around this mysterious planet with my new buggy; I felt like a badass for assembling the required components and doing enough research to learn the schematic. Now this was my buggy; there were many like it, but this one was mine. A triumph that would allow me to explore farther than ever from my landing site and not be bound by how far I could tether my oxygen line to it. Now I could tether from my buggy of badassery, anywhere on this uncharted world.
Then I fell into a hole because I wasn’t looking where I was going.
That led to a deeper hole because of gravity.
When all was said and done, I was stuck in a Byzantine warren with no hope of escape and only the barest trace of sunlight to remind me of how far I had fallen, my buggy upside down on some impossible geometric rockface.
At this point I was already staggeringly annoyed because I didn’t realize that the marker pointing out my base disappeared beneath the horizon, so I was already quite lost when the hole claimed me. This was the final straw; I quit the game in disgust and figured I’d set it aside until enough time had passed that restarting wouldn’t feel like a great loss.
But a fact nagged at me. My little astroneer has a tool in her spacesuit that allows her to terraform. Couldn’t I just patiently dig my way out while building a ramp? The next day, after work, I restarted the game and did just that. Painstakingly at first, smoothly as soon as the sky appeared, I paved my way out. I was still lost, but the buggy of badassery was, at least, on the surface. A quick check of the Wiki confirmed something I suspected: the base is always at the planet’s equator. Armed with that fact, I actually navigated my way back home by the stars; I returned in glory to my Lego set of a base.
Astroneer excels at managing the critical balance between stress and triumph. As irritated and lost as I felt, there was always a solution waiting to be discovered. The game rewards patience in a way that is entirely of a piece with its serene pace. Unless you’re running of out oxygen, you’re free from urgency here. With all the neverending discourse around “challenge” in games, it’s worth dwelling on Astroneer’s unpretentious success at balancing calmness with difficulty and reward.
These sorts of sandbox adventures are, as a matter of course, self-directed. Many of them share these features, to one degree or another. But Astroneer feels special in part because of its minimalism. Comparisons to No Man’s Sky are inevitable, of course, and if I wanted to be cheeky I could say that Astroneer was a lightweight and cartoony version of Hello Games’ offering. But it manages to be a good deal more than that (though its cartoony aesthetic gives it a stronger sense of identity).
This is, fundamentally, a game about peaceful problem solving. You will occasionally chance across hostile plant life or fungus, but there are no marauding aliens; of all the things to be researched and built from your catalogue, there are no guns to be found. Even the more devilish of flora doesn’t go out of its way to hurt you. It only does so if you’re tromping around carelessly.
There’s something relaxing and reassuring about this. A gentle vibe that pervades the whole game, and thus puts the joy of exploration front and center. What lies over that next ridge or at the bottom of that canyon is the thing that powers you through this game.
As with most games of its type, Astroneer sees you fashion crude items from basic materials which then allow you to harvest better materials to build bigger and better items and so on. Your base slowly expands as you work your way up to building things like a launch pad to help you mine materials you can only get on a nearby moon. But it’s the joy that comes precisely from going higher and farther that feels like the game’s greatest reward, seeing so much more over the next horizon.
Astroneer’s focus on exploration gives it that perfect balance between those competing forces that so often tear games apart, and its minimalism aids it by reducing the number of things that can go wrong. While future patches may add new buildings and functionality, the game allows you to do a lot with a relatively small number of inputs. Mining, gathering, and terraforming are all the same function. And, while it can be irksome to manage, the oxygen tether gives you a clear sense of physical limitation that can only be overcome through more building (i.e. using soil compound to build more tether poles and extend your range). With that, you know any solution to getting lost or finding more resources must involve one of a small range of functions.
Far from limiting you, this minimalism elegantly guides you through the world.
But, as thrilling as it can be to discover the wreckage of a crashed spaceship, say, there’s something weirdly chilling about discovering another spacesuit pack like yours and looting it for spare parts. Who were those other astroneers who clearly died here? The game doesn’t really say. Like most sandbox adventure games, Astroneer’s world is one without meaning. Of course, so many games, particularly RPGs, are built on the skeleton of acquisitiveness (kill ten rats to upgrade your leather jerkin and basic shortsword; use your silver shortsword to kill ten dire rats, et cetera). But there is, at least, a gloss of narrative overlaying it all that tells you why you’re killing ten rats.
You have to make up your own story--and I certainly tried for several hours--but it’s challenging when there’s so little help from the world itself. There are suggestions of a story, chiefly in the form of titanic alien gates that loom large over the landscape. But it’d be a stretch to say there’s even a vague narrative at work here. In time you’re just confronted with the fact that you’re on that resource-gear treadmill and nothing more.
All that really waits over the next horizon is more ore. But if you can fall into a deep hole, tell yourself a good enough story about your astroneer and what they’re doing, then the sky’s the limit.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.