In Asteroids, Atari’s 1979 coin-op game, you play as a small 2D starfighter who blasts drifting space rocks while fending off the occasional flying saucer. It can feel overwhelming – the play area wraps around itself, so you constantly have to reorient yourself when an asteroid leaves the screen and reappears in front. But there is a fundamental order to this. Each rock precisely splits into a pair of smaller, faster fragments when pulled, which in turn split into two. Firing wildly fills the screen with shrapnel, so you learn to be judicious, while pivoting and firing your rear booster to manage your ship’s inertia.
Asteroids is, to me, one of the perfect games: simple props and rules, graceful execution, organic player-driven challenge factor accompanied by a cheeky variation on the Jaws theme. Zeno Rogue’s homage Relative Hell is a little less intuitive. At a glance, it looks like asteroids: a sturdy little ship in the center, exploding on a host of floating hazards. But that neatly proportioned square of rogue boulders has become a clouded fish-eye, not quite a circle, not quite a ball, with objects shrinking and stretching into strange colored cracks around the perimeter. . Activating your ship’s booster distorts the asteroids you’re trying to navigate around – are they above or below you? What does “above” or “below” mean here anyway? – as your bullets travel in weird, jagged arcs, swelling and scattering as they travel.
Is this some glitch? You check the settings menu and it just adds to the confusion. One of the options is “See the future”: this turns the entire asteroid field into a spiral of motley clay, as if every fleeting second of each rock’s existence had been time-locked and carelessly grafted to the next. Another option gives each asteroid a distinct digital time signature. Then you hit “see spacetime” and the playfield becomes a 3D vortex of silhouettes, continuing towards your ship’s barely visible smudge, a descent only interrupted when the simulation crashes.
These are not your grandfather’s asteroids – unless your grandfather was Willem de Sitter, professor of astronomy and collaborator of Einstein. He is one of the “discoverers” of de Sitter and anti-de Sitter space, on which Relative Hell is based. I haven’t a clue what those things are, really – I passed GSCE maths playing Golden Sun under my desk. But the rough approximation I’m working with is that these are mathematical models of the geometry of the universe, which treat time as a dimension alongside length, height, and width. These models present the combined “space-time” as distorted or curved, and this distortion is what we call gravity. De Sitter spacetime curves outward like a ball, while anti-de Sitter spacetime curves inward like a saddle.
Relative Hell is an attempt to convey all of this using 2D or 3D graphics and varied arcade mechanics, rather than inscrutable equations. It has two main modes. The Asteroids-esque mode is set in anti-de Sitter spacetime and features collectible resources as well as mysterious doorways to other areas, though I never survived long enough to access them. The other mode is a variation of ball hell in de Sitter’s space, where you dodge energy balls while trying to stay close to a star: let it slide off the screen and it disappears forever, leaving you to roll along/through/under/over the surface of a spherical chasm.
Zeno Rogue seems to be on a mission to pump up quirky Geometry races in every genre on offer. Their other games include Nil Rider, in which you steer a unicycle up/down stairs that fold inwards/outwards relentlessly, and HyperRogue, a tower and tile-based roguelike that seems to unfolding on the surface of an orb, but can also be rendered as a sort of evaporating crystalline cave system. The thought of trying to “beat” one of these sims fills me with horror, but I love the sheer confusion I feel as I lift and slide over the imponderable contours of Relative Hell. When was the last time you had to really think about how a given playspace behaved, beyond the flavor of this year’s wall race?
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