At Fontainebleau State Park, located in Mandeville, Louisiana just north of Lake Pontchartrain, near the terminus of a small scenic loop, a raised walkway may be found. It extends about one hundred meters into the expanse of brackish marshland for which the park is famous among locals. Sitting at the end of this walkway, I can see snakes slithering through tall windblown reeds that extend all the way to the horizon; there is even a snake situated in a puddle beneath me, and from time to time it stretches forth to gobble up an inattentive minnow. Not far from me I spy two huge garfish loitering in shady waters. Birds flit between the cracked remains of long-dead trees, and I notice an elegant brown bird on stilt legs guiding its young through the maze of ponds and grasses. A coyote howls in the distance, and its song melds neatly with that of the frogs and crickets. It all seems so important. I can feel my grip on the world slipping away as I realize that the universe is far grander than any human concern.
Many people are struck by such a feeling of awe, reverence, and precious insignificance when, through separating themselves from their human peers, they realize that the universe functions just fine without any humans at all. It is one of the feelings for which I live, and I daresay that those who have hitherto avoided it are greatly impoverished. I would not have imagined that such persons could enrich themselves in this regard except for in the usual way; that is, for example, by observing the movement of the stars hour-by-hour, or by listening to the timeless sea-surf rhythm that greeted our very distant ancestors as they emerged from their original waters. But it just so happens that a small freeware space sim called Noctis will suffice.
(Actually, what you really want is Noctis IV CE (NICE for short), a fan-made Noctis mod that includes numerous enhancements and fixes.)
Developed by Alessandro (Alex) Ghignola, Noctis IV is reminiscent of Origin Systems' classic Privateer, at least insofar as they are both entirely open-ended. However, Noctis permits no privateering; it contains no weapons at all, in fact. The purpose of the game is to explore and document a galaxy of nearly eighty billion stars. Each star system has its own unique set of planets and moons, for a total that may exceed one trillion investigable worlds, no two of which are exactly alike. Clearly Noctis is not lacking for staying power.
You begin the game in a spacecraft called a StarDrifter, which is capable of traveling at speeds that would put c to shame. There are no missions, and there are no goals beyond those you see fit to set for yourself. You are a member of the Felisian race, but you know little of your species other than that they abandoned their homeworld long ago and were scattered among the stars in ships just like yours. Through your viewscreen you can see innumerable stars, some of which have names, indicating that somebody has explored and bestowed titles upon them. Of course, the vast majority of the 79+ billion stars in the Felisian galaxy are unexplored, and therefore, unnamed.
Noctis is not a multiplayer game, but it does have a multiplayer component of sorts. Your ship comes with a computerized guide to the stars, and you can access the guide's data files for information relating to any named systems or planets you come upon. If you find a particularly cool planet, you can edit the guide in order to give it a name, as well as to describe any of its interesting features, along with their longitude and latitude. After you've made changes to your local copy of the guide, you can then e-mail it to Alex, and he'll include your notes and changes in the next official version, which Noctis players may then download to replace their old guides. Players have made thousands of entries to the guide over the years, making it an indispensible tool for exploring the galaxy. With so many real-world explorers coordinating their efforts through the guide interface, Noctis is an interesting cross between single-player and massively multi-player.
From your viewscreen's menu you may select any non-local destination that you please. Every star, whether charted or uncharted, has a set of coordinates associated with it, and so it is very easy for Noctis players to exchange the locations of their favorite stomping grounds. After you specify a star, your ship will warp to it and enter into orbit around it. From here, you may scan the system to determine whether any of its planets or moons are of interest. If so, you may then approach it more closely, designate landing coordinates, and descend to the surface in a spherical landing pod. Once on the surface, you are free to explore for as long as you like. The NICE mod includes a jetpack feature, which makes quick exploration a breeze. Your landing pod shoots a beam of light straight up into the atmosphere, but if you get lost in spite of this helpful beacon, NICE also allows you to summon your craft to your present location by hitting the "a" key.
Eventually, as you explore system after system, your StarDrifter will run low on fuel. To refuel, you must locate a certain type of supernova remnant, known as a Class S06 star, from which to scoop the Lithium ions that power your ship's engines. However, only 50% of the galaxy's S06 stars emit the proper Lithium ion (Li+, as opposed to Li++). The galaxy contains twelve types of star, from Class S00 (yellow, Sun-like) to Class S11 (pulsar/neutron star). Planets range in size from small chunks of rock to enormous gas giants, and each planet's surface (if it has a definite surface) has its own temperature, atmospheric pressure, and gaseous composition. The features of a given planet will depend largely upon the type, number, and distance of stars in the system.
The camera perspective, whether on your ship or the surface of a planet, is always in the first person. Although movement is governed predominantly by the mouse, your ship's command interface is largely keyboard-driven, and it will take about thirty minutes of alt-tabbing out to peruse the game's manual before you become comfortable with the ship's navigation system, computer guide, and other assorted functions.
Noctis was originally developed for MS-DOS, and is therefore graphically unimpressive by today's standards. The resolution is limited to 320x200, and the fully 3D worlds contain few polygons. But in spite of its age, jaded modern gamers may find that they are surprised by how achingly beautiful Noctis looks at times. The game also has trouble running in Win9x, but apparently works just fine under XP. I know from experience that the helpful NICE community will try to address any technical problems players may encounter. There is also an excellent forum available for Noctis players to catalogue and share their finds and experiences. Using the coordinates found in each screenshot, it is possible to travel to other players' exact locations of interest.
The real joy of Noctis lies in setting eyes on alien landscapes that nobody has ever seen before. From verdant rain forests to bleak, blasted deserts, the worlds of Noctis never fail to engage the senses. In my voyages I have found icy planetoids so distant from their parent stars that it is impossible to tell where the ground ends and the darkened sky begins. I have swum upon giant worlds with liquid-rock surfaces whose temperatures extend into the thousands of degrees Kelvin. I have watched triplicate stars rise above placid green meadows, their light refracted by a high canopy of crystalline trees. From mountainous peaks extending thousands of meters above rolling oceans, I have gazed down at my distant landing pod and marveled at my own precious insignificance.
Here are some of the many screenshots that I took during my travels; click them for a larger view. If when you look upon them you feel a stirring within your heart, then you know what you must do. Download Release 9 of NICE and join me among the stars.