A space game from my childhood just came back—I celebrated with another that never will

We’re having a bit of a space game renaissance. But as Homeworld, one of my all-time favorites, was resurrected for a sequel, it only made me want to return to another game that will never get one. I hope the feeling of wonder is still as strong as it was all those years ago.

There was something special about being a kid jumping into the low-resolution darkness of mid-90s space games, and I hope players checking out Homeworld 3 get to experience at least a fraction of that joy. The technical limitations at the time dovetailed neatly into the setting’s fundamental appeal; space is dark, empty, and unknowable. As a developer, you had to imply rather than show and make things seem much greater than they really were. So, players discovered the world rather than exploring it. 

FreeSpace 2 Blue Planet War in Heaven Delenda Est
23 years of modding later. Image via Volition/FreeSpace Open Project

This was the high point of the space sim genre, its apotheosis followed by its swift death. Veterans like myself will no doubt also remember the X-Wing series or Freelancer, but, in my mind, Homeworld and FreeSpace were the ones that truly made the most of the setting, leaning into the scale and horror of the unknown, boasting some of the best writing the industry had to offer at the time.

Do I have a good justification for this? Sure: The deep, unshakeable conviction of a one-time child. Then again, space games must keep popping up in “greatest games of all time” lists for a reason. Homeworld is a unique 3D real-time strategy game, and FreeSpace, the last great space sim of its time, has a special sci-fi world that is still worth exploring.

The original Homeworld tells the story of an exiled race embarking on their maiden space voyage, forced into a journey to reclaim their long-lost home. In FreeSpace, humanity has to put aside its differences with an alien race from a 14-year war when a devastating species of unknowable destroyers, the Shivans, arrive. It all lends itself neatly to something Lovecraftian, and it’s easy to lean into for its emotional impact.

Be it the choral arrangements of the original Homeworld soundtrack, played at the saddest or the most uplifting parts of the story, or the moments when FreeSpace’s booming electronica shifts to a higher pitch in the middle of a dogfight, the feeling was always the same. A sudden lash of yearning, grasping, the feeling that you’re trying to survive in the face of something unknowable.

Perhaps that’s part of why the setting is making a comeback. Much like The X-Files and Twin Peaks of the same period, the zeitgeist is back to fear and confusion, and once again, defiant survival and a search for answers never to be found rings true again. After all, there’s nothing quite like moving small ships around a devastated planet with nothing but darkness surrounding you.

But the shock and fear of a pilot chased by unknown destroyers—a cutscene that genuinely made me feel afraid for so many years—surely comes close.

Homeworld and FreeSpace both got much-improved sequels soon after they launched, each ending on a tantalizing cliffhanger with the promise of more to come—a promise that was never fulfilled. Now, two and a half decades later, Homeworld 3 is finally here, courtesy of Gearbox. Meanwhile, there is no FreeSpace 3, and there never will be one. 

Robert Loggia, who voiced Admiral Petrarch in the FreeSpace sequel, passed away in 2015, and Volition, the company that developed the FreeSpace series, became defunct last August. Instead, an ever-dwindling modding community, armed with the source code and oozing with loyalty, remains its collective custodian now, doomed to nurture an unfinished tale of infinite possibilities. We will never have a definitive, fleshed-out answer for the many mysteries of the Shivans, the red-hued monsters hellbent on ripping apart all spacefarers. But, in some ways, doesn’t this fit the wonders of a space game better than getting a sequel decades later?

I remember finishing the original FreeSpace and yearning for more, frustrated by the campaign selection menu with its single entry. Imagine my eventual joy when I found dozens of high-quality mods and a community that kept churning out more content for multiple decades. Ultimately, that was the well I returned to when Homeworld 3 finally dropped, perhaps because of FreeSpace’s lack of closure.

I haven’t touched Homeworld 3 yet, and I have no illusions about whether it could capture a fraction of the wonder I experienced as a child. But I hope its world remains as ethereal and unknowable as it once was back in the age of strict hardware limitations and an adolescent gaming industry. I hope a new generation of young players get to feel the same sense of joy and discovery I felt as a child as they hurl themselves into the void of space with no fear.

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