In Habitat, you haven't exactly gone to space by choice. Humans are there because the planet has become, if possible, an environment even more hostile than space. So here you are, in some kind of low-Earth orbit, searching for pieces to assemble, improve and reinforce your colony. There's a cruise ship. There's a school bus. There's the Statue of Liberty's head.
The motto on your mission patch is "Ad Astra per Fractura," which creator Charles Cox delightedly tells you is Latin for, "To space, on broken stuff." (His wife, a classics major and — no shit — a Jeopardy! champion, came up with it). You've gone to space to save all mankind with the wrong stuff.
Of all games I saw at E3, Habitat was easily the most charming. It carries a cheerful, shoulder-shrugging, make-the-best-of-it tone about assembling an orbital dwelling from space flotsam. Cox, founder of developing studio 4gency, barely apologizes for the retrofitted backstory putting the player in such bizarre circumstances. Yeah, there's some b.s. about the planet being eaten by nanomachines so quickly that humans freak out, strap booster rockets to anything of value, like the Empire State Building, and GTFO, no thanks, seeya, keep the security deposit. Really, that premise is just a means to an end.
"Habitat came about through lots of childhood construction sets," said Cox, 32, a guy who shows an enviable joy in what he's doing right now. "So for me it was, ‘If I could build a space game, what would I want to do more than anything else? Well, I'd want to build space stations.
"But then — and this is a crude thought — I want to smash them together, and see what happens," Cox said.
Habitat is designed as much for the goal of destruction as it is for construction. In his E3 demonstration in the ID@Xbox booth, Cox already had a station built with six astronaut inhabitants, including a dog, and things seemed hunky-dory, even if they were living in the equivalent of three railroad cars slapped together. But the population was draining the station's available resources, such as oxygen, food and power, and so some additions and modifications were needed.
Cox showed me how to send off one of the astronauts to collect a big-ass propane tank and strap it to our floating hulk. Then with a few button presses it converts to a power or oxygen generator. Construction and crafting are no more complicated than just finding a piece of space junk with a special characteristic and then attaching it to a node on your existing structure.
The Habitat environment may be in space but, for simplicity's sake, you're playing in a 2D plane. You may go left, right, back and forward (not too close to the Earth!) but not up or down. "We originally tried to build this game with six-degrees of freedom," Cox said. "We tried a true 3D experience; it was boring, it just didn't make sense."
Eventually, you'll clear the area of useful junk and have to move to a different space. To do this you'll need to strap some rockets to your station. Flight in Habitat seems almost deliberately tricky, as if to introduce collisions that force you to rebuild your creation when you arrive in a new junk field. You may position a rocket on any node that will accept it on the ship, usually on a wing. Activating it is a matter of turning it on and throttling up with the right thumbstick, but depending on where it's located on the superstructure, your vessel can start pinhwheeling rather quickly. There's an emergency brake option, but it dumps a lot of oxygen as a result. Bottom line, flying is really tough. One must be careful where the thrusters are placed, and make sure the path ahead of them is cleared.
Some rockets are propulsion only, but others can be fired as missiles. In all cases, they can be used to slam a giant hunk of floating crap into something else. That's where the fun really begins.
Habitat is designed as much for the goal of destruction as it is for construction.
The build we were playing didn't feature any AI threats, which Cox said would come later, but there were still "enemy stations" on the planescape that needed to be eliminated. Here's where the smashing-shit-together angle comes into play. Cox walked me through strapping a couple of missiles to a throw-away station cluster, than angling it at an enemy station and pressing the fateful "fire and forget" button. It zoomed off, shattering its target and setting off a chain reaction of collisions that sent our space puppy yelping into geosynchronous orbit (don't worry, he's immortal), and an astronaut tumbling ass-over-teakettle.
"Oh man, let's look at his camera!" Cox said, asking me to cycle through to that astronaut. His head-mounted cam came up in the display at upper-right, showing his tumbling, seasick perspective. The camera was a throwaway feature at first, just showing the user what the astronaut saw, maybe as a means of orienting him. Once Cox and the team saw the bizarre, GoPro-from-Hell video this generated when something blew up, he was adamant that the feature remain.
Habitat's creation isn't as open-ended as, say, Minecraft nor are its physics as demanding as Kerbal Space Program (I put a booster rocket on an arm of the station where its thrust would have hit the propane tank, and nothing exploded — for once.) It is absolutely a game about building and smashing stuff together, in space, and streamlines the experience toward those ends.
Habitat will include a sandbox mode where players can build and smash to their hearts' content, and also an eight-hour campaign in which the player progresses through higher orbits to more advanced debris, ultimately finding the material that builds a faster-than-light space ark that can take humans to a more viable home.
The game will go to Steam Early Access in July, and though pricing isn't yet discussed, Cox referred folks to Habitat's Kickstarter page for an inkling (where $20 bought a copy. The project was successfully funded, at $64,000, in May.) Cox hopes to have it launch sometime by the holiday for PC and Xbox One, published by Versus Evil, the publisher of The Banner Saga. Incidentally, Cox worked for Microsoft in its advanced technology division, as a developer educator. A 12-year industry veteran, he taught others how to make video games.
Cox quit his job to make Habitat with four other partners at 4gency. The idea, Cox said, came to him in 2013 during a visit to the National Air and Space Museum. Of all museums in Washington, none inspire more gee-whiz reveries in boys and girls. Cox, who actually went to Space Camp — yes, the Space Camp — toured it with his wife, walking underneath the Space Shuttle Discovery
"You could see the burned up tiles, the ablative heat tiles," Cox said. "They were scorched, when this thing came through the freakin' atmosphere. I ended up that day, sitting in a pizzeria off the Mall, and it came to me."
Like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, he started snatching up napkins and jotting down notes for what would become Habitat. He couldn't put out of his mind the image of those heat tiles, scarred, cracked and blackened. The broken stuff upon which humans went to space.