CW Smith takes a look at Universe Sandbox
Have you ever found a game that’s way out in the middle of nowhere and then, upon taking a gamble; discovered that you loved it? This is the story of my experience with a humble, unassuming and yet, completely engrossing game known as Universe Sandbox. In reality, it is perhaps somewhat disingenuous to actually call it a game. There is no end goal, no point system and nothing to indicate any sort of story beyond what you might imagine is occurring within the simulation were it made real. It’s more akin to Flight Simulator than any sort of conventional video game.
In the middle of last year, I was chatting with a friend on Skype as we were wont to do. He mentioned that there was a game on Steam that he had picked up and sent it my way via email, expecting that I might derive some measure of amusement from it. I thanked him and we continued discussing our usual topics with me forgetting about the game for several weeks until I found myself one October morning in need of some diversion. Seeing the icon on my Steam listing, I shrugged and booted it up. What did I have to lose? Who knows, I might even have fun.
I began the game floating in the void of space, presented with several simulations or the option to start from scratch. Being something of an amateur astronomer, this already had my attention and I decided to test my (decidedly old school) computer’s limits by beginning a simulation of the Milky Way Galaxy colliding with Andromeda – an event that is predicted to happen some time between the 3 and 5 billion years from now. Once the framerate had adjusted, I was completely engrossed to see a highly time compressed version of two galaxies colliding and coalescing, the two celestial objects flinging stars and matter off into the infinite void of space in pure chaotic fury as they merged into a single disc.
Quite amused by this, I took a step back, brewed some coffee and returned. The game had me – normally a fan of Grand Theft Autos and Left 4 Deads more than any sort of simulation – completely in its thrall. Selecting another simulation at random, I was confronted with surprising speed by an incredibly detailed version of our own solar system. With amazement, I explored each of the major moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn and finally, Earth and its Moon. I was astounded at the level of detail with which this program had presented me. It was while inspecting Mars and its moons, Phobos and Deimos, that I made another discovery. One that completely changed the game for me.
While sipping my coffee, a drop spilled on my keyboard. While wiping away the spilled beverage – taking care not to let it stain my new keyboard – I was confronted by the planet Mercury being launched from my camera and hurtling at Mars, exploding and fusing with the planet and nearly doubling its mass, forcing the orbit of its moons to decay and bring them crashing into the planet as well! Upon consulting the various menus and screens, I discovered – quite by accident – that the game allows players to add items to their simulations. This changed everything. My inner mad scientist had been awoken.
With a strange sort of interest, I set upon Saturn, injecting a facsimile Earth into its rings and watched as it made its orbit of the gas giant, all the while swallowing up and scattering the various comets and asteroids of the ring system and on occasion, disturbing the orbits of pre-existing moons. Soon the rings had been replaced by a shattered cloud of rubble and debris with a rather swollen Earth at its center. After leaving Saturn and adding a Halo-esque ringworld between the orbit of Earth and the Moon (among the several miscellaneous objects one might add at their leisure), I set my attentions to the Sun.
I approached the Sun with confidence, eager to try out various techniques of solar system construction upon the fiery orb. Upon double clicking it, I discovered item editing and – on a whim – decided to recolor it in a strange green hue that bathed the entirety of the rendered solar system in an almost radioactive looking green light. Unsatisfied with such a superficial change, I began ramping up the Sun’s mass, increasing it to nearly 300 times its actual density and increasing its circumference out to the orbit of Mercury. This is when the solar system began its inevitable slide into decay – decay here represented by a fiery orb of superheated plasma.
Over the course of several minutes, all the planets, moons and matter in the system funneled directly into the Sun. Somewhere between Jupiter and Neptune’s impact (Saturn and Earth 2 having merged long beforehand during my exploration of Earth and the Sun), I decided that it would be all the more appropriate to change the Sun’s properties and alter its coloration and mass again. Now it was black and superdense. The sun had become a black hole. I thought a quote from Edgar Allan Poe to be appropriate; “darkness and decay… held illimitable dominion over all.” Not since Evil Genius had a game gotten me feeling so wonderfully and amusingly villainous.
At length, I found myself in search of something less dark, I decided to seek some more uplifting fare. I started a blank simulation and began to place various planets, planetoids and stars about the vast nothingness of the simulation. Several of these objects – predictably – crashed or merged but soon a sort of order began to arise from the chaos. At the center of the cloud emerged a large planetoid – now glowing due to the game accounting for its mass and changing its properties on the fly. Smaller planets assumed roughly circular orbits around the largest member of the system.
It had occurred to me then that I had created an entire solar system in a complete, blundering accident. Reflecting upon this and sipping a newly poured mug of coffee, I reclined into my chair with a sense of awe at the state of modern computing – that what years ago would have taken an array of specialized astronomical supercomputers to achieve, I was doing with a ratty old laptop. The kicker is that I didn’t even buy this. A friend had given it to me when it was free during a promotional period to celebrate its Steam launch. This whole time, this amazing program had been sitting dormant on my computer.