August 18, 2022

The singular pull of black holes in games

The singular pull of black holes in games
The singular pull of black holes in gamesThe singular pull of black holes in games

Black holes are fascinating. No human being has ever been near one, and it wasn’t until 2019 that scientists even managed to take a snapshot of one. And yet, ever since they have first been hypothesized to exist, black holes have exerted an inexorable pull on our collective imagination. Black holes are a reminder of the strangeness of our universe, spots of infinite density and at the same time impenetrable emptiness. Since even light must bend to the gravity of a black hole, we cannot know what happens inside of it. They are the points where the laws of nature as well as our limited human imagination break down.

Video games love a good puzzle, and so it’s no big surprise that black holes have a habit of popping up here and there. What may be surprising, however, is just how many forms and shapes they take. As symbols of the unknowable and the extreme, black holes are highly malleable and appear in all sorts of games, playing many parts.

Before we cross the event horizon of this article, be sure to check out our other gaming content. If you’re wanting to see the cosmos, our guide to the best space exploration games has you covered. We’ve also got our best VR space games guide for people seeking a truly immersive experience.

Warning: this article contains spoilers for the following games: Elite Dangerous, No Man’s Sky, Outer Wilds, Exo One, Genesis Noir, If Found…, Night in the Woods, Dark Souls III, The Banner Saga 2, and Fortnite.

Realistic portrayals of black holes

Space Engine_ Vladimir Romanyuk

(Image credit: Vladimir Romanyuk)

The first and most obvious place to look are space simulators. Space Engine, Universe Sandbox, and Black Hole Simulator, considered some of the best VR space experiences, are intricate and educational toys that give us a chance to gawk at black holes up close, to fiddle and prod and poke. What happens if we swap our Sun with a giant black hole? Or if we let two black holes collide? But no matter how detailed the simulation or how many objects we send into oblivion, we will always firmly remain on the outside, looking in.

Black holes and time-space travel / Black holes and space travel / Exploring black holes

Elite Dangerous_Frontier Developments plc.

(Image credit: Frontier Developments plc.)

Science-fiction games give themselves some more leeway when it comes to speculating about black holes. In Elite Dangerous, we undertake the long journey to one of the game’s black holes, with the most popular destination being Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. No Man’s Sky and Outer Wilds actually let you enter black holes, but they function merely as glorified shortcuts to other parts of the universe. It makes you wonder where do black holes lead to?

Outer Wilds_Mobius Digital

(Image credit: Mobius Digital)

While this approach arguably deprives black holes of some of their mystery, Outer Wilds does draw on the hypothesized counterparts of black holes: white holes that push instead of pull and expel everything that has fallen into a corresponding black hole. In the game’s fiction, the ancient people called the Nomai have figured out a way to travel through time and space using warp cores consisting of a black/white hole pair.

During the game, we get to visit the place where the Nomai created these cores: Black Hole Forge on the planet Brittle Hollow. One of the most memorable locations in Outer Wilds, Brittle Hollow is being devoured from the inside by the black hole at its center. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, and if you happen to fall inside the hole, the white hole will spit you out in another corner of the solar system, alongside the discarded fragments of Brittle Hollow. The Nomai’s advanced technology is connected to the time loop that lies at the heart of the game; it’s technology powered by black holes that sends you back 22 minutes into the past every time the Sun goes supernova.

Exo One_Exbleative

(Image credit: Exbleative)

In Exo One, we embark on a cosmic journey in a gravity-manipulating spacecraft. The destination, it turns out, is a black hole that allows us to travel back in time, preventing a catastrophe on Jupiter that killed the main character’s colleagues at the start of the game. Exo One’s cosmos is a fantastical, even mystical place. Its black hole isn’t simply a space-time anomaly, but is intimately tied to the fate of our pilot.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of the black hole time travel premise in Interstellar, where crossing the event horizon of a black hole allows someone to interact with the past and change events. With our current understanding of physics, it’s almost certainly impossible, but it’s a fascinating concept nonetheless.

Black holes and mental health

Genesis Noir_Feral Cat Den

(Image credit: Feral Cat Den)

A black hole as a journey’s enigmatic endpoint, promising a chance to see and act beyond time; Genesis Noir, though a very different game from Exo One, follows a similar trajectory. The game presents an allegorical and fantastical interpretation of the events leading up to the Big Bang and the creation of our universe. Presented in a jazzy film noir style, the story follows the attempts of No Man (a metaphorical representation of time) to save his love Miss Mass (a metaphorical representation of, you guessed it, mass) from a bullet shot by Golden Boy (energy). To do so, No Man seeks to create a black hole that would swallow the bullet. But, since the shooting of Miss Mass is also what causes the Big Bang, saving her would also prevent the universe from coming into existence. In the end, No Man has an epiphany that convinces him to drop his quest and make place for the universe.

Genesis Noir is full of metaphors, and its black hole can be read as a stand-in for self-destructive urges and a negation of being itself. Even in this allegorical and abstract cosmogony, the significance of the black hole is decidedly personal and tied up in psychological struggles.

If Found..._Dreamfeel

(Image credit: Dreamfeel)

Genesis Noir is just one example of black holes acting as metaphors for personal crises. If Found… presents its narrative of Kasio, a young Irish trans woman’s struggles to be accepted and find her place, through an entwined dual narrative: one is an exploration of a diary, and the other a metaphorical science-fiction story. The sci-fi story revolves around a lonely astronaut called Cassiopeia and her discovery of a black hole which threatens to swallow Earth.

It soon becomes clear that the black hole expresses Kasio’s existential fears, feelings of isolation, and sense of futility. The breakdown of space-time inside a black hole is reframed as a personal, psychological breakdown: “Time doesn’t exist in a black hole. Every moment crushed together, past and present and future in one endless scream. No way to change anything.”

Night in the Woods_Infinite Fall

(Image credit: Infinite Fall)

Now, Night in the Woods doesn’t explicitly name black holes, but its preoccupation with the night sky and metaphorical holes is very similar to If Found…. Here, too, our protagonist Mae is threatened by black emptiness expressing mental health crises, namely her feelings of emptiness, dissociation, and fragmentation. The game speaks of “the hole in the center of everything” and her diary depicts Mae being swallowed by a black hole-like maelstrom.

Black holes – symbols of cosmic crises / Black holes in myths and folklore

Dark Souls III_FromSoftware Inc.

(Image credit: FromSoftware Inc.)

If black holes can be used as shorthand for personal crises, it stands to reason that they can also be symbols of cosmic crises. In Dark Souls III, the Sun turns dark after a certain point in the game. The ominous spectacle is never explained, but recalls either an eclipse, the Darksign (symbol of the dying light and the curse of the undead), or a black hole. The Banner Saga trilogy has a similar motif. In the third game, we learn about the existence of a subterranean Dark Sun, and that it was its destruction which released a giant serpent as well as an all-consuming Darkness that spreads across the world.

The Banner Saga 2_Stoic Studio

(Image credit: Stoic Studio)

Even though these games do not, strictly speaking, show black holes, there’s more than a little family resemblance between them, and they can easily be interpreted as black holes through the lens of myth and folklore, with the likes of apocalyptic dragons or wolves swallowing the Sun. Interestingly, the symbol of the dark or black Sun is a very old idea that predates our knowledge of black holes for many centuries. It’s part of the tradition of alchemical and hermetic thought, signifying the dark, material fire as opposed to the pure and bright fire of the spiritual world.

The light side of black holes

Viridarium Chymicum (1624) by Daniel Stolcius de Stolzenberg

(Image credit: Daniel Stolcius de Stolzenberg)

All of this sounds like a very serious matter. But black holes can also be light-hearted, playful, and even silly. Just look at the End Event of Fortnite’s first chapter, when the entire game world disappeared into a black hole and made the game unplayable for a few days, or the black hole item in Ultimate Chicken Horse, which pulls on nearby objects and changes the trajectory of arrows.

For every grounded simulation, there’s a mystical and reason-defying black hole. For every black hole that throws light on a character’s deepest struggles, there’s a playful or toy-like singularity. It is precisely because of their inherent emptiness and silence, their defiance of meaning and understanding, and their definition through negation and apparent paradox, that both exerts a powerful pull on our imagination and that enables black holes to play a vast range of very different parts. 

As a cipher, the black hole can stand for the inescapable, for profound lack or distortion, for the grand and unknown mysteries of the universe, for fantastical possibilities and godlike power over space-time itself, and more. And since video games remain the only way of getting close to a black hole, they will continue being anything but a singularity in future games.