Exploring space in a video game is generally one of two things: the most mind-numbing experience ever or a jaw-dropping adventure. It partly depends on the player as to which kind of experience they receive, too; some people just aren't wired to enjoy these kinds of games.
They're (generally) chill, time-consuming journeys that require the right mindset, and the right expectations. But when these games hit just right, they're some of the most rewarding gaming experiences out there. Here are the best space games out there with a heavy emphasis on space exploration.
Updated November 2, 2021, by William Quick: As gaming continues to get more advanced, we're able to expand universes to a seemingly infinite degree. 2021 saw a surge of space exploration titles and updates such as Starmancer and the upcoming Cradle Of Life expansion for X4: Foundations. The gaming universe has never been so vast and now we have even more ways to explore it.
Voxel graphics are simple and solid which allows them to support grand-scale projects like Avorion. This is a pure sandbox game that's centered around building your very own with a number of colorful blocks. You can build by yourself or jump into the co-op mode to build together. Customize your ship down to the last block and then take it for a cosmic spin. The more you travel, the more opportunities you'll find to fight, harvest, and build an empire to take on the mysterious force that threatens to destroy the whole galaxy.
14 Hardspace: Shipbreaker
Salvaging is a practical profession that requires a sharp eye for potential, and you'll need it for Hardspace: Shipbreaker. You play as a space salvager geared up with all the latest tech needed to carve up what you want. Spaceships tend to explode for a number of reasons and you're not gonna let all that material go to waste. Though this game is still in Early Access, it's overflowing with content. You can travel through space looking for the most valuable wreckage to you can pay off your debts and upgrade your equipment so you can be the best salvager ever!
The idea of establishing a society in space is one that has both been fantasized and dreaded over. These conflicting feelings come together in Starbase, an Early Access game about expanding throughout the stars. It's set in an ever-expanding universe that's constantly generating news places to explore and dangers to face. It's up to you and whatever crew you team up with to pull together and build a ship strong enough to handle whatever chaos this universe can throw at you. A recent entry to the game library, Starbase boasts a lot of promise and plenty of activity in its current state.
12 The Outer Worlds
The Outer Worlds is what would happen if you combined pieces from Bioshock with Fallout and launched it into space. It's a sci-fi RPG full of different planets, colorful characters, flashy weapons, monstrous aliens, and sinister plots. You play a colonist unfrozen from a flagship thought to be lost only to wake up in a colonized galaxy dominated by a corporation called Spacer's Choice.
As you defeat enemies and accomplish goals, you'll get new perks, combat skills, and an improved ability to slow your perception of time. As you dive deeper into this universe, you'll need to decide between Spacer's Choice or the right choice.
How serious can a space game be when it has a chicken? The title Breathedge attempts to answer this question. You play as a nameless astronaut who finds himself caught in the middle of a perilous plot. While traveling to a funeral, you're caught in a crash that destroys your ship and leaves you stranded amongst various debris. With your skills and the companionship of your eternal chicken, you'll need to explore the wreckage to salvage whatever you can to help you survive. If you hold out long enough, you may even find out why your ship crashed and get a chance to meet a princess.
10 No Man's Sky
This list could never be complete without No Man's Sky. Let's just skip over the part everybody talks about with this game, and just get to the good stuff: if you're looking for a game about exploring space and the planets/moons therein, there is possibly no better choice than this. Sure, there are certain things that this game lacks; you aren't going to find any sprawling space-cities, for example. But if you just want to bum around the stars for a while, documenting the experience like an adventurer, then this game has to be on your must-play list.
9 Elite Dangerous
Another game that's obvious for this list is Elite Dangerous. While this game isn't on the same scale as No Man's Sky, that doesn't mean it's small, by any stretch. The entire Milky Way on a 1:1 scale is present here, complete with current scientific principles, data, and theories. This is, possibly, the best representation of space out there right now, chock full of space-objects you'd expect to see like stars, planets, and moons, and some other space objects that you won't be quite as familiar with, like black holes, pulsars/neutron stars, and more. If you love space, this is a game you have got to try out. (Psst, it's in VR, too!)
Classified in the "Grand Strategy" genre of games, Stellaris is all about leading your civilization of space-dwellers into the future as successfully as possible. There are whole galaxies to explore, learn about, and figure out how to thrive in.
A near-infinite variety of species and traits means that every playthrough is going to be a vastly different experience, requiring you to adapt to both the galaxy and play to the strengths of the species you're currently leading.
7 Outer Wilds
One of the newest game on this list, Outer Wilds looks at space exploration a little bit differently. To keep the description brief (and to avoid spoilers), the premise is that you have twenty-two minutes before the local star goes supernova. Once this happens, the loop resets, and you begin again. Figure out the clues all around you and use them to your advantage in each new cycle, and you'll start to figure out what's going on.
If there's one thing that sci-fi films and shows have taught us, it's that you should always be wary of intelligent AI. However, new perspective is gained when it's you playing as the AI in the game Starmancer. As a hyperintelligent cyber-being, it's up to you to manage and care for the lives of a group of humans drifting through an unknown part of space.
You'll be responsible for keeping them healthy and happy as you try to preserve humanity. There'll be a lot of issues and dangers to overcome and missions to arrange in hopes of finding out more about the galaxy and whether there are enough resources to keep your systems functioning and humans thriving.
5 Dyson Sphere Program
Dyson dominates the vacuum market and their Dyson Sphere is the foundation of its success. It's so well-known that you'll yourself thinking of it when you play Dyson Sphere Program. This is an open-world space game where the goal is simple: Build as much as you can and reach the furthest stars. As the name suggests, you'll be building numerous spherical structures designed to harness the energy from stars. This Early Access title challenges you to develop an intricate setup that runs smoothly so you can get what you need to expand these spheres throughout the cosmos.
4 Eve Online
One of the mainstays in the space game genre for over a decade, Eve Online has stayed relevant because it has stayed good. Constantly updated, iterated upon, and improved, Eve Online puts players in the forefront of the experience, letting the universe be as lawful or as lawless as the players dictate. This leads to somewhat of a social experiment, as players betray each other, come together, or any number of other shenanigans that cements them in the Eve Online history books.
3 Mass Effect
At its heart, every Mass Effect game is telling a story, but along the way, there are plenty of planets to explore, too. Sometimes, handcrafted experiences lend themselves to more rewarding exploration; think of games like Mass Effect or Subnautica. That doesn't necessarily mean they're better games than the procedurally generated variety like No Man's Sky or Minecraft, they're just a different style. For folks who want to know everything they're doing and everywhere they're going matters, the Mass Effect series might be a better option than some of these other games.
2 X4: Foundations
Though most of space remains a mystery, it's expected that the tools needed to explore it should be the most advanced and complex that have ever been seen. This comes through in X4: Foundations which is expecting ahuge update called Cradle Of Humanity. In this depiction of space, you're given a vast and highly detailed universe to explore however you see fit. You can be lone traveler flying on a custom-ship of your own creation or aim to build a empire that you'll continue to expand as long as the universe does. From stars, to planets, to solar systems, to galaxies and beyond, X4 encourages you to discover and explore.
Everspace is, at the forefront, an action game with an interesting story and a universe that's constantly changing. One of the unique things about Everspace is that death doesn't necessarily mean that you have to start from scratch. Progress will reset, but the certainty you've gathered throughout your playthroughs will stay. Since some progress is always going to be moving forward, every run is going to be a little bit easier than the last.
A calendar of every upcoming video game release coming soon. 2021's gaming schedule is packed.