A thousand years ago, I once believed that Minecraft offered one
of the best and most approachable analogues to learning to program
for, well, people of all ages. It's open-ended gameplay, infinitely
large, utterly unique procedurally generated worlds, and its
fundamental focus on basic survival provided a fantastic platform to
engender deep problem-solving skills unlike any other game I had ever
played. The fact that the problems themselves were unscripted -
instead built out of base exigincies necessary for survival - struck
me as being highly reminiscent of the software development process
itself, in which the real challenge isn't first to solve a problem,
but is usually to define the boundaries of the problem - or, to put
it simply in the form of one of my oldest and favorite maxims: the
problem contains the solution. In design, one doesn't work directly
towards the solution, because that is unknown. Instead, one works
towards the boundaries of the problem. Once those are known, holy
wow: you have yourself a recipe for a solution that can be coded.
Furthermore, Minecraft's use of technology - the ways in which
new tools, materials, methods, and processes could be discovered and
used to the player's benefit - reminded me very much of the overall
learning process itself, reduced to a voxel-based, elemental, and
arcane perfection. From the smallest ideas, the tiniest of
beginnings, the most basic of thoughts and impetuses, entire,
unimaginably complex empires could arise: what started originally as
a dirt hut built into a hillside could eventually rise as a castle
connected via public transit lines to mining sites, other
settlements, points beyond the horizon, below the surface, and above
the clouds, stretching for hours on end.
This was exciting shit.
So, when I got into "Starbound" after it's official
release earlier this year, I was delighted and amused to see the 3D
universe I had known and loved so well basically reduced into a 2D
sidescrolling platformer. It was whimsical, beautiful, poetic,
procedural, fun to play, challenging, balanced, and almost just as
magical as "Minecraft" had once been (and btw, for my
money, as it shall always remain).
But then I beat the main story of the game, started my own
legitimate dedicated server, and while playing with friends for the
second or third time, found something lacking... so, my lonesome eyes
turned to the "Frackin' Universe" mod (available on the
Steam workshop), and, after reconfiguring our server for its use, my
mind exploded and I died.
Ok, so that's a lie, but FU came pretty close. Relying on the
best aspects of "Starbound" as a basis, FU takes the game
into the realm of far-flung simplified scientific processes of
discovery, analysis, exploitation, and technological innovation.
Basically, by adding hundreds of new biomes for planets (and
combinations of biomes on those planets themselves), new crafting
elements and materials, hundreds of new plant species, dozens of
incredibly powerful science-based crafting stations, hundreds of new
wearables and weapons (many of which provide special status effects
and benefits), and near-infinite variety of enemies against which to
struggle, FU provides the player with an ever-expanding,
super-exciting universe of scientific adventure and exploration that
(THROUGH MAD SCIENCE(!!!!)) empower the player to fight and explore
smarter and harder.
There's a whole big universe out there to explore in "Starbound,"
but with FU, it's easily 20x's as compelling; you'll encounter insane
locales (and will learn to mine them) ranging from Penumbra planets
to frozen volcano worlds to hyper-dense planets where falling more
than only several blocks will kill you due to the powerful gravity.
You will explore atropus worlds made of living organic tissue that
cause madness, encounter vast, crystalline planets where the felled
trees yield valuable crystal shards, you will venture forth into the
depths of proto-worlds, gelatinous worlds (made of bouncy slime),
tarball worlds, ruined civilizations across a wide spectrum of
planets ranging from volcanic to rainforest in flora and fauna... all
this, and so much, much, much more.
But the great genius of FU is how you learn to build and assemble
the various scientific apparatuses that make up you lab - a lab,
which, at first, will only comprise a small corner of your home, and
will rapidly grow to encompass many times the size of your initial
settlement, with each piece of equipment serving an essential
function as you splice genes, breed trees (want metal trees that drop
pears and metal wood? you can do that), power hydroponics tables,
manufacture, refine, harvest, and fabricate endless varieties of
I could go on and on, but just go get "Starbound" and
then download the Frackin' Universe mod from the workshop, and
experience the vicarious joy that so many young people will gleen
from its powerful portrayal of magi-science.