After more than two years of early access, Astroneer was officially released in February on Steam and Microsoft store. The space exploration game became a small sensation for it’s cute graphics and innovative base building system. What stroke me after a few hours of play was the complete absence of HUD. After a short tutorial, you are dropped into an exotic planet with nothing but a small starting kit, with nothing on your screen giving you indications on the next step you should take. And yet, the progression in the game felt so smooth and easy. This is thanks to an in world UI system that intuitively guides the player actions through the game. I think it’s worth breaking it down to see what we can learn from it. We’ll see first how it gives orientation to the player during the exploration phase, then during the building phase, and finally how it fails to give goals to the player beyond these two phases.
Exploring without a map
There is a distinction to be made between extradiegetic and intradiegetic UI. Extradiegetic UI is information external to the game world that only the player can see (for example the health bar, the score, the map…). Intradiegetic UI is information internal to the game world, for example seeing a gun reload in an FPS game, or a light in the game world indicating where the player is supposed to go next. Having little extradiegetic UI usually favors immersion, as less elements interfere between the player and the game world. The risk of course, it to have a more confusing or unclear game, where the player doesn't know what to do. A classic example of an adventure game that manages to have close to no extradiegetic UI is Dead Space. In this horror game, the health is indicated on the player’s suit, the ammo is displayed on the gun, and if the player is lost he can make a ray appear in front of him telling him where to go next. This is especially suitable for the horror genre where having no extradiegetic UI can add to the feeling of being helplessly stuck into a dangerous world.
In Overwatch, life, ammo, and inventory can only be seen by the player. In Dead Space, they are part of the game world
In Astroneer, the character’s suit is also used to convey information. The upper blue gauge tells the player how much oxygen he has left. Once the oxygen depletes, the player suffocates and dies, starting again from the latest save point. As a result, the environment is divided between a “safe space” with oxygen that starts from the base of the player, and an unsafe space without oxygen (at least at the beginning of the game when the player has no vehicules). To survive away from the base, tethers have to be made and laid down for the character to stay connected to the oxygen flow. This system has several benefits. First it allows the player to see his progression in the world, marking the places he has visited. But more importantly, this system allows the player to map the world, as the tether line draws out the path to home. You feel secure when you are connected to it, and start panicking whenever you fall in a pit, with no line in sight. With this, Astroneer gives the player the opportunity to create his own map on the planet he is exploring. Aside form the tether line, the player can also make his own beacons and place them on the ground as interest points, that you can see from a distance thanks to the curved nature of every planet. Also whenever the character dies, the previous location of the body will be indicated on the map just like the beacon.
The red icon is a beacon made by the player. Tethers provide oxygen but are also used to map the world
It also gets interesting when you travel to other planets. Once the player’s rocket is in space, he has a view of the whole galaxy, without any selection menu. Click on a planet and you will soon be gravitating around it. From the rocket, the planet surface are rendered in pixelated polygon shapes, which can only give you a very rough idea of how the terrain will look like. Thankfully, portal engines, which serve a purpose for the story of the game, are properly rendered and can serve as beacons to guide you on where you want to land. You then click one of one the “bubbles”, for lack of a better term, that are spread across the planet to land your rocket. Having a system where the player just goes to where he can see makes it instinctive and understandable, but far from convenient. If two planets are aligned or close to each other, you can easily click on the wrong one. When gravitating around a planet, you sometimes have to do a full circle before reaching the landing spot you’re looking for. Clouds can hide landing spots, and two landing spots can also be close to each other, making the landing more difficult. You can also make your own landing spot by building a landing pad, but from space your spot will be indistinguishable from all the others.
In space, player first picks a planet in the galaxy, then a landing spot
Astroneer builds up a compelling loop where the player leaves the base towards an unexplored location that he can see from a distance, and then allows him to come back thanks to the landmarks he made along the way. Exploration from space is not as convenient, but still sticks to the no map rule.
Building without a plan
The building system in Astroneer is compelling and quick to learn. Most information about the use of each thing you build can be read directly on each of them. On a basic level, building is about finding resources into the world and putting them on printers of different sizes to build and expand your base. The smallest printer comes from your suit. With it you can build all kinds of small equipment that you will need during your exploration, such as beacons, tethers or mods for your gun. You then have 4 other printers that let you build from a tiny resource platform for the smallest printer, to a huge rocket for the biggest one. The more sophisticated thing you have to build, the hardest it will be to get the necessary resources: you will have to get them from different planets, dig down to find them, burn them or mix them together to create new ones.
With your backpack you can print small exploration items. With the biggest printer, you can build rockets or a new base
Astroneer uses a set of metaphorical languages to make building more intuitive. The three basic ways to manipulate an object in Astroneer is by moving, slotting or branching. Moving an object allows you obviously to move and rotate any kind of item from one place to another. Slots can be used to connect most buildings, resources, or items you can find in the game. Any action from connecting your buildings to a source power, storing your resources, or adding mods into your vehicules or guns involve the same action of dragging an item to another until it clicks. The third one, branching, involves connecting an object to power. Branching and slotting locations are all indicated thanks to a bright red colored surface on the buildings, which are otherwise mainly white and blue. Beside the color pattern, the interactive nature of the buildings is emphasized through sound design. The sound of pulling a branching cable is similar to the one of a seat belt, with the same clicking when the belt connects to the buckle. Placing a building on a platform makes a faint metallic sound that varies according to the weight of the object.
You can slot most small objects on holes with a red pattern Branching patterns connect the buildings to power
Another UI pattern worth noticing is the power level of your base. Many of the things you build need power to be utilized. To provide power, you can build a series of buildings, including solar arrays, wind turbines and resource fueled batteries that you can connect to the rest of the base. Two patterns indicate the input of energy taken by your base. First the amount of energy circulating between cables is shown by the yellow color going across it. The width of the yellow line on the cable shows the intensity of that power, from black meaning no energy to fully yellow when buildings are fully charged. Also, a semi circular line on top of each branching slot turns yellow when buildings are charged and red when they are not. As a result, even in broad daylight, the whole base seems to lights up when properly charged.
Cable color and branching pattern change depending on how much energy buildings receive
Overall, Astroneer manages to have a coherent base building system without any menus, thanks to clearly recognizable sets of sound, color and shape patterns that are applied and repeated to most items in the game. This is of course a really common way to deal with UI in games. But it’s amazing how far Astroneer, an exploration/building game as managed to push it to the point of having no extradiegetic UI.
Playing without a goal
Where Astroneer is at its weakest is when it’s about giving players a goal. This is not about UI proper, even though a story or ingame objectives is very often told through on screen indications, quests in a menu or an objective given prior to the player through NPC encounters... In Astroneer, once you land on your first planet, the game does nothing to tell you what to do, whereas in another exploration game like No Man’s Sky, you do have objectives and waypoints if you choose to follow the story thread. But it's a sandbox game after all, why should there be any story? Well once you have unlocked the rarest buildings and visited the 7 procedurally generated planets, there is not a whole lot to do. Contrary to other creative sandbox game, like Minecraft, the vacuum gun that you use throughout the game is quite limited in its ability to make anything very interesting beyond walls and slides. The game does include multiplayer, and you can invite a friend into your server but its very buggy. The latest update even includes the ability to make soccer goals and balls. But the fun of playing soccer with one other person in a video game may feel quite limiting to many. Some steam reviews and reddit posts also suggest how redundant the game can feel over time.
You can make goals and play soccer with another friend, but that's not very fun
There is a thin storyline though (spoiler alert). The player needs to activate the previously mentioned portals on the surface by fuelling them with power. Then, he can go to the core of the planet, use a special resource to activate the core, collect a special artifact, and do that for each planet before he can activate an ultimate portal and see a small cutscene and the credits roll. The problem is, none of those are explained to you. If I did not stumble on it on a forum, there was no way I would know how to activate the portal, get the right resources to activate the core and so on. Giving no clue to the player on how to execute the game’s main plot might enhance the feeling of discovery. But for me it felt like a missed opportunity to give the player more drive to progress in the game. Moreover, following the storyline and activating every core is only moderately fun. Even though the planets inside can be filled with wondrous structures and plants, it's easy to optimize your way down, and reach the core the same way every time. You can also see players on Youtube endlessly extending their base to store more resources, while having already built every base building. I am never against a good grind, but I wished the game gave me some more reasons to stay. It could be a very difficult but cool building to unlock, some kind of ranking system, tools to make something nice to show to your friends.
Astroneer has received mainly positive reviews on steam, bad reviews insist on the buggy multiplayer mode and lack of game goals
Overall, I think Astroneer is a genius game that manages to teach you everything through the environment UI. Its immersive and it feels great to not be taken by the hand when you are exploring or building your base. Giving the player clearer purposes could only make the game better.