Space is wild. I mean, how does it even work? And is anything really out there in the depths of the vast darkness? As super smart scientists work tirelessly to find the answers to these questions, us Average Joes can turn to video games to play out our Star Wars fantasies.
These games aren't always a casual experience; there are a few on this list that'll require some brainpower to get your ships into orbit. But once you get the hang of thinking like an astronaut, you might be able to learn something new about what it takes to get into space—and who we might run into when we get there.
Stellaris is a game that's all about strategy combined with the eerie quiet and calming backdrop of space. If you've ever played the Civilization series, you'll find this is similar. The main difference is you're conquering and claiming planets instead of nations. It focuses a lot on the bureaucratic side of space colonization, particularly the way players handle diplomacy between alien nations; manage resources, districts, and defense on your planets; and navigate unexpected events that occur as your science ships explore the aliens and dimensional horrors hidden in the mysterious beyond.
It's a challenging game that can be tricky to pick up due to its lackluster tutorial, but it absolutely grabs your attention once you get the hang of it. I recommend this game for a patient but highly curious player who is willing to sit down and dive into all the little details Stellaris has to offer.
2. No Man's Sky
Good morning, space traveler. In No Man's Sky, you play as an explorer on another planet who must figure out how to repair, craft, and survive as you traverse the planet, meet aliens, and eventually gain enough resources to go back into space and build bases on other planets. No Man's Sky focuses on exploration and checking out all the unique planets and weird-looking creatures out there in the universe.
Better yet, the game's multiplayer options mean you don't have to be a lone wanderer. You can call on friends to explore and survive together so the space trip involves slightly less social distancing.
3. Moonbase Alpha
Moonbase Alpha is an official NASA game meant to get people interested in space exploration by taking control of an astronaut trying to repair a lunar outpost that was damaged by a meteor. Players must lumber around the moon to fix the life support system, solar array, and oxygen units within 20 minutes before the situation becomes too dire. Although the game was targeted toward kids, it's complex enough that I think very young children might have trouble figuring it out within the time limit.
That said, this is probably the easiest game in this list to pick up and play. There's an infinite amount of amusement to be had when playing with friends, especially if everyone is horsing around with the irresistibly hilarious text-to-speech chat function.
4. Kerbal Space Program
Kerbal Space Program is a unique game that will make you feel like a rocket scientist—albeit, not necessarily a successful one.
Kerbal Space Program places you in a national space program trying to design a rocket that can send astronauts into space. You start from the bottom up, beginning with smaller rockets to practice going into orbit before creating a bona fide spacecraft that can land on the moon and return. It will likely involve a lot of unfortunate explosions as you figure things out—also known as sacrifices made in the name of science—but the game doesn't punish you or take it too seriously: Accidents, successes, and laughs are all part of the fun.
5. Universe Sandbox
If you enjoy articles about Einstein's theory of relativity, dark matter, and what powers the Sun, then you might be pleasantly surprised to hear that there's a game for you called Universe Sandbox. It's an educational game that specializes in giving players a chance to mess around with physics in space. Tweak the gravity of a planet to see its moons collide into its surface, for example, or throw a sun into another sun to watch a supernova. Pull the Sun away from the Earth and watch it freeze over, watch how black holes interact with each other, and create your own solar system with its own sun.
Universe Sandbox is an educational, hands-on way to understand basic physics and how it works in space. The game is still an Early Access release, which means it's not completely finished with development yet, so there could be a few bugs to work out. But, overall, it's still an interesting way for a non-scientist to see physics concepts in action.
6. Outer Wilds
Explore other planets with Outer Wilds, a game that features space travel and adventuring through peaceful means rather than violence. There are plenty of puzzles to solve, discoveries to be made, and an alien history to piece together little-by-little before the time loop you're trapped in restarts again. Despite the threat of repetition, the game skillfully avoids becoming boring, and has received heaps of praise for its unique features and gameplay.
Outer Wilds is open world, which means you decide how you travel and explore. Despite the fact that the time loop will send you back to the beginning again, your improving skills will make each expedition easier to run through, getting you closer and closer to the final puzzle piece.
7. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion
Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is another strategy-based space game that's reminiscent of the Civilization series. But this game is more pared down and focuses on aggression and combat for your empire. If we're comparing Stellaris and Sins, there's arguably less to manage in the latter because it specializes in combat features rather than a larger, grand strategy.
That said, it doesn't mean the game is easier to play. Strategy is greatly valued here as well; Sins is best suited for the player who might be dreaming of being a Space Force general and is willing to put in the time to learn how it works in the game.
8. Faster Than Light
Faster Than Light is a rogue-like, which means it has permanent death, which means you're going to die and restart and die a lot. As unappealing as that might sound, it's actually part of the charm of this space game.
In Faster Than Light, players take an internal look at managing a ship that's escaping enemies through space travel. You can hop to different sectors and planets to avoid trouble, but it's always bound to find you. Each playthrough is different, which adds to the game's entertainment, and players will gradually learn how to escape certain situations with each gaming session. Faster Than Light is less "how do I win" and more "how am I going to die this time," which is more engrossing than one might think.
9. Alien: Isolation
I'd be careless not to include the gloriously horrifying sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien. Set 15 years after the original movie, Alien: Isolation puts you in the shoes of Amanda Ripley, Ellen Ripley's daughter, who has joined a mission to a space station after hearing it contains clues about her mother's missing ship. Upon arrival to the station, she soon discovers it's in an apocalyptic state with a monster, called a xenomorph, stalking the hallways for a kill.
Alien: Isolation will make you feel puny in the face of the alien. All the technological advancements in space travel and technology can't stop it from hunting you down. The player can only hide and try to outsmart it while avoiding unhelpful humans and androids that hinder your way.
If you want to scare yourself out of ever thinking of space exploration again, playing Alien: Isolation could be one way to do it.