For the last week, I’ve been shooting potatoes into space, trying to solve the mysteries of the universe. Not in real life, of course — I’ve been playing Spaceplan, a simple but strangely engrossing new sci-fi game that has a curious obsession with spuds.
Spaceplan is what’s known as an idle game, or a clicker. They’re the video game equivalent of background noise. You put them on, let them run, and check in whenever you get bored. For the most part they play themselves — you just need to click on something every so often to keep things moving. Spaceplan doesn’t stray too far from this formula. It’s a game where you find yourself in a ship orbiting a mysterious red planet. In order to figure out just what’s going on, you need to generate lots of power and build technology. All of which is, for some reason, made of potatoes.
In the beginning you do little more than click to produce energy. But as you start to accumulate power, you can use it to build useful new things, like solar panels, satellites, and other devices that will gather energy for you automatically, so you can rest your clicking finger. This process keeps expanding: the more power you produce, the more technology you can create, which in turn will produce even more power. Eventually you won’t have to do much on your own. The watts counter will keep ticking up, and your only real job is to decide what to build next.
It may sound boring, but what makes Spaceplan compelling is its sense of humor and storytelling. This is definitely not hard sci-fi: you choose new tech to build from the “thing maker,” and can research new devices with the “idea lister.” You’ll build everything from spudnik satellites to tater towers. All the while, your onboard computer will provide a steady stream of updates as you learn more about the planet and exactly where you are. I won’t spoil anything, but things get surprisingly dark — and at times nonsensical — as the tale unfolds.
What’s nice about Spaceplan, and other games in this genre, is how little they require from you. This isn’t a 100-hour-long role-playing game that demands you alter your life to fit it in. It’s just a nice, pleasant diversion. For the last week I’ve had the game running on my iPad, checking in a few times a day to build some new tech and learn a bit more of the story. It’s something you do when you need a break for a few minutes. With its charming sense of humor, surprisingly fascinating sci-fi story, and minimal retrofuturistic visuals, Spaceplan is among the best idle games around. Even if you don’t like potatoes.