I found my old copy of Homeworld, Relic Entertainment’s 1999 space simulator and a dark horse candidate for Greatest Game Ever Made. Somehow, the CD still works on my computer, so I’ve been playing it off and on over the past few weeks. For a game that’s over a decade old, it still looks pretty damned good, and the actual gameplay holds up well. I love rediscovering old games — you get to approach them from a more mature perspective, which means you’ll notice themes and motifs you may have missed as a callow, acne-ridden nerd.
Not that I was ever that, mind you. I was a geek. Big difference.
Homeworld starts you off as the commander of your race’s first attempt at faster-than-light travel. Your home planet, called Kharak, is slowly dying — it’s mostly desert and there’s not much around in terms of resources — but fortunately for you, some explorers discovered the remains of an ancient starship buried beneath the desert. The starship had faster-than-light technology, and a map showing you the location of your actual homeworld, on the other side of the galaxy. Your people gathered up their remaining resources and built a big ol’ mothership, with the intent of traveling across the cosmos and discovering your mysterious origins.
The first mission is standard real-time strategy introductory fare; you learn to control your units, make your way around the map, and so on. It has this optimistic, giddy feel to it — like the Apollo program writ large. As your mothership detaches from its gargantuan scaffold for the first time, there’s a real sense of accomplishment, which is odd considering this happens before you have any input at all. Kharak is in the background of this scene, and despite the fact that it’s obviously a harsh planet, it serves as an anchor for the player. You’ve just been introduced to this planet, but you know what it represents: home.
Your hyperspace test goes well, and you jump out to a ship about a light-year away that you had sent on a long-range precursor mission. The scenery is largely the same (you can see the same constellations and nebulae in the sky as in the previous mission) save for one key difference — you can see your home star as a faint, slightly brighter-than-normal speck in the distance. Homeworld’s skyboxes are quite beautiful, but their particular genius is in how they give a certain structure to the emptiness of space. One series of missions has you winding your way farther and farther into a mysterious nebula, the center of which looms larger and larger in your viewscreen until you’re entirely enveloped in it. Another places the Mothership in the middle of a gargantuan, half-completed Dyson sphere, the scale of which produced the most intense feeling of insignificance I’ve ever felt while playing a game. It’s a very simple thing, but more than anything else, it’s responsible for Homeworld’s unique feel.
The second mission ends with the discovery that you’re not only not alone in the galaxy, but that you’re not particularly welcome. Your advance ship has been destroyed by alien raiders, and you head back to Kharak to regroup and plan your next move.
When you exit hyperspace at the start of the third mission, you’re confronted by this:
No lie: when I first saw this scene as a teenager, I teared up a bit. I’d blame misplaced hormones, but even now, when I’m older and know it’s coming, it’s incredibly affecting.
All the moving parts of this scene work together so well. The music, an adapted “Adagio for Strings”, is nothing if not the collected sense of loss and longing in audio form. Your two main characters — Fleet Command and Fleet Intelligence, who up until this point have formed a kind of nurturing mother/stern father duo — are nearly overcome by despair, even as they issue orders and assess the situation. As you scroll the screen around trying to make sense of the situation, you’re confronted with a nightmare version of the opening, optimistic skybox — Kharak is still in the background, but now it’s being eaten alive by fire. You’ve barely started the game, and already it’s punched you right in the gut and let you know just how alone you are.
There’s an additional aspect to this mission, one of those sublime and rare little moments where the developers managed to show what games are really capable of as an art form. Before you can even properly mourn Kharak, Fleet Intelligence draws your attention to a small group of ships still in-system. These ships are the rearguard of the fleet that destroyed Kharak, and they’re in the process of attacking six gigantic trays, each of which contain 100,000 of your fellows in cryogenic stasis. They were designed to sleep through your Mothership’s initial journey to your homeworld, but right now, as Fleet Command urgently notes, they’re all that’s left of your entire species.
Now, you have to do two things here: capture one of the four attacking ships in order to interrogate its crew, and save at least one of the six cryo trays, so your species can rebuild. The number of trays you save, in gameplay terms, is irrelevant; to the best of my knowledge, you don’t get any additional resources or bonuses if you go six-for-six. From my own experience, and in talking about this game around the internet, there seems to be only one approach to this mission: save every single cryo-tray. Even to this day, losing just one of them on that mission will cause me to curse and restart. Any other outcome feels like a failure.
Had Relic not done a masterful job of setting this moment up through the past few missions, it wouldn’t have held nearly the emotional weight that it does. It’s really a masterful stroke — all your affection for Kharak is immediately transferred onto these six featureless hunks of metal, under fire from those who would genocide your whole race. In a movie, you’d be rooting for the Mothership to come to the rescue, but in a game, it’s only up to you. In what other medium could you worry about letting down what you see on the screen?