After 23 years, Starfield’s ancestor Noctis is still a vision of the future

In the decades I’ve played video games, I’ve piloted spaceships made of futuristic alloys and energy bubbles, and I’ve piloted spaceships hammered out of planks of wood, large metal bolts and flapping sailcloth. I’ve flown ships that presumably extrapolate from the design of the International Space Station, and I’ve flown ships that are basically steam trains with an attitude problem. But not before Noctis, somehow I piloted a glass spaceship. In this “dream space simulator” from Italian developer Alessandro Ghignola, released in 2000, you explore the value of a galaxy of solar systems in a Stardrifter – a piece of polarized quartz that houses a single square room, plus a verandah than a cockpit, with Centerparcs-style viewing domes protruding above and below.

Noctis players often affectionately refer to the Stardrifter as a “catbox”, as the game’s Feltyrion travelers are said to be descended from cats. But any sense of absurdity evaporates when you press the Depolarize button. This cuts off the electrical current passing through the hull, making those glass walls transparent and thus, turning your ship into a prism – a bent extravaganza of photons and facets, which draws its color from the nearest star: gold, blue, Green. The game’s crisp 320×200 display resolution only adds to the brilliance of the refraction effects. It makes them nifty and tactile in a way that I don’t think I’ve experienced in a space sim developed for more “powerful” hardware.

A screenshot of the DOS space exploration game Noctis, showing celestial objects named

A screenshot from the DOS-based space exploration game Noctis, showing the depolarized interior of the player's crystal spaceship.

noctis | Image credit: Eurogamer / Alessandro Ghignola

This, really, is a vessel for sightseeing, a lens drifting through the stars, and a suitable vehicle for a game loop of visiting planets and uploading names and short descriptions to a community database – accessible in the game, and still woefully incomplete, 23 years later. And what is it? The Stardrifter is also a screen. Text commands for scanning celestial bodies and engaging the ship’s autopilot are displayed on the forward viewing window, their square white Casio fonts suspended among the constellations.

This interface turns out to be very cumbersome, although there are a few keyboard shortcuts to ease the pain. You select options by holding the right mouse button to root your character, then looking at the text and double-clicking, and the window is too wide to read in its entirety without reducing the options to a pixelated squiggle. So you have to start at one end, move around, right-click and move again.

It’s such a beautiful concept that I was quick to forgive the awkward execution, however, and in any case, that fidelity lends itself to the idea that it’s a game about the game with the vision it -even, focusing on how the light mutates depending on the medium, rather than just seeing. You zoom and pan across fonts and experience varying degrees of readability or bewilderment, depending on the solar conditions. Over time, this becomes the basis for using your craft more deliberately – dare I say, “consciously” -, accepting the delays and ambiguities it imposes, rather than striving to optimize the process. If you find the internal splendor of the Stardrifter overwhelming, you can always take the ship’s center elevator to the upper hull and enjoy a relatively clear view in your spacesuit. But even your spacesuit fits into that soft, larger theme of playing with the mechanics of sight: it has a radiation visor that works as a post-processing filter, sharpening or blurring the stars as you please.

All that, and I’m still landing on planets. Once you’ve pointed the Stardrifter’s autopilot at a world, the front window display gives you a bit of information about its surface: creased or cratered, liquid or frozen, atmosphere or no atmosphere. After moving into orbit, you select a landing site from a pixel map on the wall to the right and are automatically transported to solid ground. In a nice show of economy, your landing craft actually consists of your Stardrifter’s observation domes, which magically fit around you.

Each descent is akin to moving the head towards a densely painted canvas to experience the brushstroke – a slow transition from skybox to moody, colorful darkness. You note all the landmarks on the horizon, choosing something to study. The ground emerges and acquires objects and textures: scattered mineral slabs, scraped earth, puddles of shiny liquid and spikes of vegetation that today recall the procgen islands of Proteus. Sometimes a thick cloud cover plunges you into total darkness, sometimes you are treated to mountains and valleys chopped and chiseled by a sun that looks like a huge mural on a temple wall. After touching down, you glide through the glass walls of the lander and head towards one of the terrain features you identified, occasionally gazing up at the beam of light rising from your landing site.

Often, you’ll only linger to take a few screenshots and choose a name. The majority of Noctis planetary charts lack structure. Many are difficult to navigate due to a dearth of landmarks – dropping yourself is a real possibility when the sky is so bright you can’t make out your lander beam – and only a handful support the shapes of visible life, such as emerald butterflies. These inhabited worlds are fascinating, but I found myself more drawn to the less rewarding and barren planets, which remind me of late 20th century space photography, before glossy, high-resolution images of other worlds became daily commerce on social networks. I’ve spent a lot of time on a peculiar, angry yellow planet that reminded me of a Venera 10 photograph of Venus from the 1980s, which I first encountered in a school textbook – a menacing strip of sulfur and compacted rock, transmitted within moments before the atmosphere reduced the lander to scrap metal.

The surface of Venus, photographed by the Soviet probe Venera 10.

The surface of Venus, captured by Venera 10. | Image credit: Venera 10 / Don P. Mitchell

The weather has been just as mean to Noctis. I don’t mean in terms of heavy handling or that no-frills loop of visiting and annotating solar systems – a simplicity of approach that reminds me of No Man’s Sky at launch, before that game managed to colonize his own quirk. I mean in terms of compatibility. Ghignola has released several versions of the MS-DOS original for free, one of which works on Windows 10, but my Thinkpad struggled with all of them. Using an emulator to run the DOS version involves fiddling with CPU cycles to ensure a viable frame rate. The version compatible with Windows 10, on the other hand, crashes every time I spend too much time on the surface of a planet.

I suspect these are perfectly fixable issues though, and Noctis is well worth the effort, especially when approaching Starfield. Writing about his failure to achieve certain development goals for Noctis, Ghignola described himself as “an honest type of unwitting liar”. I think the Stardrifter is another “honest type of liar”. It shows you the galaxy, but it’s also endlessly modified by the galaxy, taking its hue from its surroundings. Where the starships of today’s open-world space simulations are opaque, combative instruments, designed to keep the cosmos out in order to invade and conquer it, the Stardrifter lets light in and s open to change.

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