On Starlink, STEM and swoopy space-shooting thrills for families

Can an action-packed console game that involves swooping across planets shooting enemies, scanning aliens and investigating ancient monuments inspire the next generation of astronauts? Can it really?

My default state is scepticism on this. Or at least questioning the assumption that there’s a strong and obvious path between swooping’n’shooting and, say, a deeper interest in science inside and outside school.

And when a games publisher is talking about the inspirational STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] potential of a game that — like Skylanders — involves buying physical toys and accessories as well as the game itself… well, my scepticism only increases.

(The last Skylanders game really got my goat, as a parent, when it had areas of the game that you couldn’t access without owning a certain type of character: it felt like a calculated pester-power generator, sowing tension in households where parents couldn’t or wouldn’t buy one of each type of character. So that may have influenced my distrust of ‘toys-to-life’ games more generally.)

Anyway: swoopy-shooting space gaming and STEM. The game in question is called Starlink: Battle for Atlas, which came out this week. Last month, its publisher Ubisoft held a press event in London, with a persuasive antidote to my scepticism: actual astronaut Chris Hadfield — whose engaging personality and social-media smarts (not to mention his David Bowie cover) made him famous in 2013, during his stint on board the International Space Station.

Hadfield was born in 1959, so he wasn’t playing video-games as a child. But he was reading books and watching TV, and at the Starlink event he talked about the role they played in his ultimate career as an astronaut.

“I was fascinated by what is right on the edge of possible; what’s still completely impossible; what exists in fantasy and science-fiction and simulations; and what might happen in my lifetime,” he said.

“When I was a kid I was reading science fiction: Jules Verne with Mysterious Island, Arthur C. Clarke, Bradbury… It allowed me to imagine, in a country [Canada] with no space programme… Then Star Trek came on and I felt wow, this is becoming more real. These are people doing these cool things and exploring these concepts. And when 2001: A Space Odyssey came out? I still don’t understand what that movie’s about! But it felt that someone was opening a door that I’d only imagined to that point.”

“An absolutely critical part to me eventually becoming an astronaut was, as a kid, being exposed to the possibilities that come with fantasy and science fiction, and imagining a world — or even other worlds — that don’t exist yet… Somehow what was fantasy as a child, through your own influence and your decision-making, alters your reality in adulthood.”

What I took from this was that a game like Starlink doesn’t have to have those outright links to learning: if it can capture children’s imaginations, that’s its role — and some of those imaginations will go on to imagine (and then to make real) the prospect of becoming an astronaut.

On this front, I do like the fact that the game is set in the Pleiades star cluster, which really exists, rather than an imaginary galaxy. You can go outside with your children and find it in the night sky, and read about how Galileo was the first astronomer to see it, and also about how it got its name from Greek mythology.

“They’re named after the seven daughters of Atlas, and the name comes from the original Greek word ‘to sail, to explore’. The whole idea of looking up at the sky and imagining exploration, and putting yourself in to that idea. To me that’s really critical, and a key part of the process of what we can do as human beings,” said Hadfield.

Ubisoft’s pitch for Starlink impressed me in another way. The company talked about how it’s pitched at children who (like my own) have a firm sense of not wanting to play ‘kiddy’ games. These are the children who are playing Fortnite in their millions, and who may even be ending up in deeper, ‘open-world’ games like Grand Theft Auto V, which certainly aren’t age-appropriate.

“We identified a lot of traditional kids’ games, but there’s a big gap between those experiences and mature-rated HD games: open-world experiences,” said Starlink’s creative director Laurent Malville, at the event.

“Young players of today crave those experiences. They’re playing games that probably they shouldn’t. We wanted to create an experience that wouldn’t talk down to those players, and [that would] give them the depth of gameplay that they can expect from a big, open-world experience.”

I also liked his comments about Starlink as “a game that links generations” in terms of parents and children being able to play together, in split-screen mode. Malville noted that a lot of parents today grew up as gamers themselves. “They can bond with their kids and play together this bigger adventure,” he said.

(The fact that the Nintendo Switch version features Fox McCloud and his Arwing spaceship from the Star Fox games of the 1990s and 2000s will also be exciting for a lot of those parents, I suspect…)

At the event, I spent about an hour with the game itself, starting with a dogfight in space before crashing down onto a planet and scooting about its surface completing missions and being introduced to the gameplay mechanics and storyline.

The toys are interesting too: modular spaceships where you can swap in and out the core ships, their wings, their weapons, and their pilots. These elements clip together and sit on top of your console controller, but they’re light enough for it not to weigh it down too much. On Switch, you’ll also be able to play ‘digitally’ (i.e. not have the toys with you) when you’re out and about with the console in handheld mode.

There’s clearly fun to be had for children in identifying the combination that suits the way they like to play best — as well as what matches their current mission.

The important thing for parents will be how many modules you get with the game itself, and how expensive the other bits are — how much will it cost to build a set of swappable bits that’s fun to mix and match with? I’m hopeful that the Starlink developers will learn from the Skylanders example, and not lock off certain bits of the game if you don’t have a certain type of module.

There’s also the question of whether children will want Starlink this Christmas, given the current mania for Fortnite among younger gamers. I’d be willing to bet if I went home now and asked if my kids would rather have a £69.99 Starlink starter pack or £69.99 of Fortnite’s V-Bucks, they’d choose the latter.

(I also wonder if a £69.99 toys-to-life game is a harder sell to parents in 2018 than in the past, given that Fortnite and many of the most popular mobile games are free to download. Starlink is going to be a big test of parents’ willingness to pay for this kind of game…)

From what I saw at the event, Starlink is fun to play, has a lot of depth, avoids being too ‘kiddy’ or talking down to young gamers, and has some very cool modular toy spaceships. If the way the latter are sold and used / promoted within the game isn’t exploitative, hopefully it can find its way onto the consoles of some future astronauts this Christmas, playing a similar role for them as sci-fi books and Star Trek did for Chris Hadfield.

Or Thunderbirds. “Thunderbirds was just puppets, but it allowed me to imagine: what if we could figure out how to do that?” he said at the event. “The interplay of imagination, fantasy, fiction — however it’s presented is almost like a challenge. How can I make the technology do this?”