The ties that bind – Intimacy and isolation in Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

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By Neil Merrett

Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime – released on Playstation 4 in 2015, Asteroid Base

Gaming, during its tumultuous youth and teenage years, was often written off as an anti-social pastime.  Sometimes this was for good reason.

Viewed, as perhaps it still is by many, as the preserve of lonely boys and girls choosing to  sit in dark confined spaces as a means to happily escape the complications of the real world and genuine human interaction for something more controllable, gaming has changed a lot in terms of scope and capability.

In an era of constant connectivity to the web, even a humble handheld console allows individuals to share and even watch countless others indulging in games online, a shared solitude with the outside world as it were.  How’s that for a compromise?

Games aren’t always intended to be enjoyed in isolation, there is the concept of couch co-op for example, where two or more friends gather around a single console.  The concept that was perhaps as vital a part of the huge success of a game such as Halo as its fabled online multiplayer modes were.

By Halo 5, there was a minor outrage – for a certain subsection of the vast and varied internet community at least – over the omission of cooperative gameplay via two controllers plugged into a single console.  Instead players were required to engage via the internet or a network, requiring separate consoles and copies of the game.

Was it really the end of two or more friends joining together for a few drinks, boiled sweets, or whatever shared obsessions they have?  Have we really consigned ourselves to be fully plugged into online services where we can interact with others for hours without having to shower or put clothes on?

As a concept, Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime is essentially a remake of the popular 1979 shoot-em-up, Asteroids.  Like the original, you pilot a spaceship that drifts and glides through space, requiring more precise use of one’s thrusters, while avoiding enemies and debris, then positioning oneself to escape or fightback against space ships or floating rocks.

With a somewhat esoteric take on the same theme, ‘Lovers’ attempts to try and capture the notion of love, both as a story device, but also as a relationship, either with a computer controlled astronaut pig or squirrel, or via three other friends that must plug into the same console.

The game though is less about love, focusing more instead on the pleasure and pratfalls of intimacy, cooperation and frustration that comes from any relationship.

That is of course, if you can get someone over to your bedroom to indulge in multiple hours of trying to navigate a cartoon space station through meteor fields, liquid planetoids surrounded by cartoon-like alien battleships, and all whilst arguing over whether to upgrade your ship’s various weapons, engine or shield.

The game’s central conceit is that you alone are unable to progress or survive – you need someone. In ‘Lovers’ no one is alone.

Voyaging with up to three players, or a computer controlled space pig or racoon that will control one of the ship’s four guns or its shield, communication is vital to avoid colliding with each other and causing chaos.

It is intimacy disguised as a bright and colourful children’s game.

Does a player opt to steer the ship through a asteroid field to rescue captive bunnies, relying on your space pet to blast away stray space rock from a cannon on the front or back of the ship, or do you trust a cat astronaut to navigate a shield needed to protect you from 360 degree threats that may appear in the form of insectoid enemy ships, stray debris or piloting yourself into a planet?

Sometimes in the game, players, either alone or together, are required to build an understanding in a confined space of the ship, which takes about 20 seconds to traverse. This relies on split second decisions and adapting to new level challenges such as frozen enemies that can only be destroyed by solar flares caused by cannon fire.

As a single player experience, the limitations of your space pet – despite their keen eye for shooting an enemy sneaking into their 90 degree aim window – makes you hark for the spontaneousness of a real world companion to handle shooting, piloting or protection.

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Yet thrown together with other human beings, their unpredictability or decision to abandon slow and steady piloting for breakneck speed in an attempt at a calamitous, if well intentioned daring escape makes you wish you just had a compliant piggy to order around instead.

There are pros and cons to having to share the game with others, the seeming benefit of having another thinking and strategizing player brings the challenge of going off script from how one is convinced the game should be played. But it can be equally challenging seeking solace in going through the game alone and without the joyously stupidity implied in a game where a group of mates get to control an understaffed space ship.

It is a game then about relationships, whether romantic, platonic, work or family, the ties that bind make or break us as an experience, whether in battling the game’s gigantic bosses that dwarf and try and ensnare your ship in tidal waves or break through your shields.

Pythagoras the space pig may be able to instinctively shift your laser shield from one side to the ship to the other in relative real-time as a tidal wave throws your vehicle towards mines and asteroids, but it can only follow orders.

The computer pet can only decide it may be preferable to mount a weapon and blow apart the remaining pieces of a metallic space snake before it can consume you.  But without actual players it can be a lonely, if rewarding slog to be your own captain.

No one person is a spaceship, and Lover’s in a Dangerous Spacetime seems to revel in the complex nature of friendships and relationships in confined spaces and stressful situations.

A simulation then for friendship under fire and the need for clear communication – all in wonderful cartoon colour.

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