Moonbase Alpha

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oonbase Alpha is probably not very interesting from a game design standpoint. Developed by NASA (your tax dollars at work!), the game puts you in the shoes of a team of astronauts in the year 2032. Crisis befalls a moonbase and brave future astronauts must race against the clock to repair a damaged life support system with their space wrenches, or something like that. The game is mostly a challenge of time management, and you spend most of your time watching clocks run down and completing a single minigame over and over again. Most reactions to the game seem to be mere novel amusement.

But if the game is a pretty boring game, I still think it’s a remarkable example of games as documents – something that, as far as I know, isn’t discussed all that often. As Jason discussed before, games can be and are made for political or ideological purposes. Sometimes games hold no interest except as documents, and that doesn’t make them any less important. I’m willing to bet that the BP board game is nothing more than a bland Monopoly clone, but in the wake of the recent oil disaster, the image of that game box is both depressing and galling, and it’s a powerful symbol of BP’s arrogance and our culture’s ignorance and apathy towards our oil consumption.

Similarly, when I play Moonbase Alpha, I’m not really paying attention to much fun I’m having (basically none). I’m paying attention to what it’s trying to say and what it really says. It is, after all, government-funded, and I’m kind of fascinated by the idea that my government is releasing publicly financed science-fiction propaganda video games.

According to NASA, Moonbase Alpha is designed to be educational, and is primarily aimed at children. The game promotes science and technology, and is supposed to foster an interest in space exploration and, of course, NASA itself. This is what the game is trying to say, and to this end, I suppose it succeeds. Moonbase Alpha, as dull as it is, presents a vision of the future where astronauts are courageous heroes solving moon crises with fancy gadgets and technical know-how; where astronauts are not just mere scientists, but “furthering human expansion.” I’m sure that I would have played and enjoyed this game when I was a kid. (I certainly played worse.)

As an adult, though, with a greater understanding of NASA’s role in our government, Moonbase Alpha actually makes me a little sad. NASA currently faces budget cuts and project cancellations, and has generally seen more problems than progress in the past couple of decades. Moonbase Alpha, instead of advocating for NASA here and now, looks 22 years into the future and says, “This is what we could accomplish. This is a future you should be excited about.” NASA’s next project, an MMO set on Mars, is set even further in the “exciting future,” and one has to wonder just how realistic these games are, or whether they’re just flights of fancy from a government organization whose presence in the popular imagination has faded.

I’m not going to make any claims about whether NASA’s budget cuts are justified or not; more knowledgeable people than I can argue both sides. But when I play Moonbase Alpha, I feel almost as if it’s a swan song, a vision of 2032 that NASA might not see. As a piece of propaganda, perhaps NASA is trying to generate social capital for a project that doesn’t have actual capital yet; or perhaps Moonbase Alpha is a vision some NASA engineers might have given up on – instead relying on video games to see that vision come to life. In 22 years, I can’t guarantee that I’ll still care about Braid or Half-Life 2. But in 2032 and 2033 and into the future, we might look back on NASA’s video games and say, “This is what could have been.”

Moonbase Alpha is available as a free download on Steam.

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