Notes on No Man’s Sky

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1. No Man’s Sky is a small videogame made by a tiny, indie studio that, like most small indie videogames, is clearly trying to achieve a very specific experience for a very specific audience. No Man’s Sky is a massive, triple-a videogame being released by Sony on a disc for a full sixty bucks that, like all triple-a games, has to please everyone who plays triple-a videogames. Both these statements are true, which, if nothing else, mostly highlights how categories like ‘indie’ are constructed more from a perceived sense of performed ‘indie-ness’ rather than any quantifiable factors. How you perceive No Man’s Sky is intricately tied up in whether you think it succeeds at being that particular thing for a particular audience, or whether you think it fails to be the next big triple-a open-world game for all gamers that it was set up to be (in part by marketing and in part by those gamers). 

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2. I fit squarely into that subset of players for whom No Man’s Sky is a particularly crafted niche experience. I like walking in videogames. I like exploring. My experience with Minecraft is primarily one of playing the single-player survival mode, becoming familiar with a land and its caverns and mountains, and then moving on to feel that sense of disorientating newness all over again. ‘Disorientating newness’ is what I primarily get out of open-world games such as Skyrim or Fallout 3. I love that sense of not knowing where I am or where I am going or where anything is and then slowly, over time, becoming familiar with the world. Stripping it of newness, essentially. Making it home. When I know an open-world videogame’s spaces, that is usually when I am done with that videogame. That is when I need to be disorientated by somewhere else.

No Man’s Sky is that moment of disorientating newness repeated over and over again. I fly a spaceship from planet to planet to planet, just seeing what is there. I am always disorientated. I am always facing a new, unexplored landscape. I will never strip this world of places to go because there are simply too many places to go. If most open-world videogames are buckets full of content, then No Man’s Sky is a bucket with the base missing. It is not possible for me to see it all. I will never grasp how it all fits together. I will never map it. It will be that moment I step out of the vault in Fallout 3, overwhelmed by The Capital Wasteland stretching on before me, forever and ever.

That is an incredibly exciting thing. At any time I can fly off the surface of a planet and seamlessly down onto another (never not a spectacular transition) and, once again, be lost. It’s a carnal, corporeal feeling of disorientation and each time I get out of my spaceship I am given another hit of it.

There is a downside to this, though. The sheer size of this universe can make it feel small. Each new Minecraft world I open feels, perceptually, small. All I know of my world is what I see around me. It is through exploration and orientation that world takes on a size and a scale. The water to the east stops being the edge of my existence and becomes the start of an ocean of which the other side exists a vast desert. In No Man’s Sky your ship is your umbilical. It is where you save your game and your only ticket off this rock. Every No Man’s Sky world is huge, but it consequentially only ever a small 2-minute walking radius around my ship.

But for the most part, that constant hit of disorientation and newness is a wonderful, wonderful feeling.

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3. No Man’s Sky begins in media res. My character’s spaceship has crash landed on a planet, and it needs to be repaired before they can continue on their journey. ‘Continue’ because if one crashes a spaceship in the first place, one must have already been on the way from somewhere to somewhere else. Once I repair my ship and blast into space in that loading-screen-less spectacle that first mesmerised people back at E3 2014, the chance of me finding my way back to anywhere I have previously been is highly unlikely. How do you find a single plateau on an entire planet without being able to mark it in any way? Likewise, when I leave the solar system to blast effortlessly into the next, the chances of finding the previous star I visited amongst all the other grains of light is very unlikely.

There is a transience at the heart of No Man’s Sky. A sense of vagrancy. There’s no hub. No centre (except the ‘centre of the universe’ which remains an abstract, uncontextualised idea most of the time and serves to be more an ‘end’ than a ‘centre’). You build no bases. You make no real home. You have no chest that you can access on different planets into which you can put your life’s belongings, building up a priceless reservoir of valuable materials and trophies of your travels. All you have is what fits on your back and what fits in your ship. That’s it. That’s always it. You will never put down your roots. You will always be moving on to somewhere else. In some ways, No Man’s Sky is the roadtrip game I’ve always wanted.

Many videogame titles give you a sense of the core thing you can do in that game (‘mine-craft’ for example). “No man’s sky” is more a warning that tells you what you can’t do in this game: you can’t own these places. This is no one’s sky. You can visit them and check them out and gather the tiniest fraction of the resources they provide, but you don’t plant any flags or build any homes. You always move on and you rarely come back. All you leave behind you is the digital footprints that note that you ‘discovered’ that planet before any other player. The sheer vastness of No Man’s Sky’s procedurally generated universe exists to instil a sense of loneliness and smallness in the face of a much larger (too large) universe. The game’s transience, meanwhile, ensures you confront that loneliness and smallness by forever moving on to somewhere else that will still never be your home.

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4. Before long, people are going to start writing essays about how colonialist No Man’s Sky is due to the fact you head around the universe ‘discovering’ and ‘naming’ places and species like some European trotting into the Southern Hemisphere. They won’t necessarily be wrong, but I find No Man’s Sky refreshingly uncolonial when contrasted against open-world videogame conventions. Most open-world videogames provide you with a new (foreign) locale and ask you to make it familiar. To map it and figure out how to traverse it. Most open-world videogames ask you to strip these worlds of interestingness and exoticness, to mine them of resources and ‘newness’. In Minecraft, you are confronted with an entirely ‘natural’ world which you must make safe for yourself by bringing ‘culture’ to it. You chop down trees and mine mountains and build structures and commodify the natural resources. After a while in a Minecraft world, what felt ‘wild’ at the start has become ‘home’—has become ‘mine’. Meanwhile, gathering natural resources requires you to venture further and further from home to find more untapped Nature to strip clean.

But through No Man’s Sky’s transience and refusal to let you ever dig your roots in, the mechanics and overtones that make most open-world games feel overtly colonialist are mostly nonexistent here. You don’t strip the world of resources; you take that tiny tiny fraction of the world’s resources you can fit in your inventory. You might try to just sabotage the world by killing every animal you see, but the omnipresent and aggressively peacekeeping robot cops will soon put an end to that. You never ‘complete’ a world, and you never make it your home. The No Man’s Sky player is more akin to a tourist than an explorer, if only because an explore tends to have some maps or other data to show for their exploration when they return home. The No Man’s Sky player never returns home.

To me, even the naming and ‘discovering’ does not feel particular colonial, as these worlds have no indigenous populations. The only sentient aliens you meet are interlopers sat in their own little colonial outposts. By ‘discovering’ a world and naming it for other players, I do not feel like I am stepping on the culture of this one Gek trader sitting in his little shelter. (That said, the fact that the only sentient cultures that exist in the game are expansionist and that indigenous populations simply don’t exist is perhaps itself the most colonialist thing about the game).

I think the downplayed colonialism is intimately connected to why many feel bored or perplexed by No Man’s Sky. The conventions of open-world games are colonialist, and No Man’s Sky bucks many of those conventions in favour of its sense of transience. This isn’t a power fantasy game where you ‘claim’ a world and build your giant base and form allegiances to take over different parts of the galaxy. Just as the colonialist says that Australia was “empty” before white settlers came here and filled it with familiar ‘things’, most players of conventional open-world games look at No Man’s Sky and see an empty experience. “But what do you do in No Man’s Sky?” the refrain goes. You go for a walk. You go for a flight. You look at the pretty sights that you know no one, not even a Developer-God has seen before, and then you move on and look at something else. Like a sign in a national park: you take only photos (and what relatively few resources you need to survive) and you leave only footprints.

(Another counter-point: Sean Murray’s regular referral to growing up in the Australian outback as an inspiration on the game could itself be constructed as a colonial underpinning of the game in the implied terra nullius of the Australian outback.)

No Man’s Sky has confused an audience by being an open-world game that does not follow most open-world game conventions. No  Man’s Sky has confused an audience by not being overtly colonialist.

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5. Ed Key, designer of Proteus, made an interesting observation on Twitter that the key verb of ‘destroy’ that appears every time you find a resource sets a strange and jarring tone. You don’t ‘mine’ or ‘extract’ carbon from this flow or iron from that stone structure; you destroy and thus receive the carbon or iron. It’s a compelling point about how the verbs a game uses to describe player actions alters the tone of what you do in that game. It makes No Man’s Sky’s resource gathering feel more extractive and destructive than a relaxed game about exploring the universe might desire. It is jarring.

Yet, there’s something I like about that jarringness. Extracting natural resources is destructive. You do destroy that plant to receive that carbon. You do, in some way, scar these beautiful habitats you enter, even if you are taking too few resources to do any lasting ecological damage. You are still destroying that flower. I think I am glad the game uses such harsh, negative verbs to describe these actions.

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6. When I play Grand Theft Auto IV and I see five copies of the same pedestrian walking down the road in a row, this doesn’t affect my experience of Grand Theft Auto IV. The game doesn’t suddenly stop being plausible. The game is a videogame and videogames function through copied, repeated assets and patterns being repeated. I allow myself to see past this repeated asset to instead allow myself to perceive Liberty City as being populated with lots of people. I, as a player, want to experience a sense of immersion in this world so I do what I need to do to make that world make sense.

I am fascinated at how procedural generation poses a challenge to this very normal activity of videogame play to people. The fact that No Man’s Sky’s gazillion planets are not truly unique seems to greatly detract from the experience of some players. The fact that plutonium crystals look the same on every planet, or that every animal is clearly a Frankensteinian assemblage of existing animal bits. The procedurality of this universe is very, very visible.

I suspect this only matters because of how procedural generation is marketed as a tool that promises to produce endless newness and utterly personalised experiences. Which it does, in some senses, but not in the sense that most people expect (or indeed that marketers mean). Procedural generation is not random generation. It’s procedural. Variations are possible within a very specific spectrum.

When I played Minecraft for months on end, I was excited by every new mountain and landscape I saw. All these mountains were produced by the same basic blocks, but those blocks produced wildly different shapes that were very exciting to discover. It’s a matter of focus. I could focus on the mountain in one way and think “That is just that same grass block I’ve seen everywhere else already” or I could focus in another way and think “I’ve never seen a mountain in that shape before!”. I always choose the latter because, simply, it makes the game more satisfying.

People have taken great, smug pride in being right that, shock horror, No Man’s Sky procedurality is visible. It is not endlessly new. There are clear ‘types’ of trees and mountains and animals and bases, and you can very clearly see the bits from the ecology. Why does it matter here when it didn’t for Minecraft?

I think, in part, it is because the ‘bits’ are such a focus of Minecraft. The individual blocks that make up its world are its base resources. The world is explicitly abstract, so there is sort of a sincerity to its procedurality—one that the introduction of biomes detracted from (instead of another variation of an amazing mountain, now all I see is ‘oh, another swamp/forest/desert/snowfield’).  In No Man’s Sky, however, the base building blocks of the world are not so explicitly there. In both how the game was talked about and how it presents itself, the procedurality feels as though it should be more invisible than in a game like Minecraft. We should be able to not see it. But of course we can. We can see the diamond suture where one sort of terrain turns into the next. We can see how this building is those two parts of those other two buildings stitched together. So the repetition that is inherent in all videogames now feels like a betrayal because the game has assured us that everything will be new.

For me, newness is not what I look for in procedurality. I look for variations on a core theme. I’m not looking for an animal that I have never seen on any other planet; I am curious to see in what other, spectacular ways these animal bits might be stuck together by a computer program so as to be interesting. Procedural generation is perfect for creation worlds that are meant to feel ‘natural’ and ‘untamed’, because they are worlds that have not even been cultivated for the user-experience of the player. They are just blobs that sit there, ambivalent to the player, boring far more often than they are fascinating, which is itself what makes procedural worlds so powerful.

Procedural generation is not a ‘solution’ to handcrafted experiences. It is not ‘better’ simply because it is ‘more content’, and it is not ‘worse’ simply because its algorithmic intent is so disconnected to what the player experiences. It creates pattens and variations and, sometimes, like a Darius Kazemi Twitter bot saying something hilarious by directed happenstance, it produces something marvellous for you to stumble upon—all the more marvellous because you know its existence was never assured and never ordained.

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7. An emerging theme in these notes: people are playing No Man’s Sky wrong. That you can play a game ‘wrong’ at all is something many people would contest, as it puts the onus on the player to engage with the game in a right way, rather than the game adequately restraining the player through rules to ensure that happens. But you can play a game the wrong way, just as you can approach any creative work the wrong way. Go to a horror movie expecting a summer rom-com and you are going to be disappointed. Go to an art gallery and look, intently, at a painting’s frame and not the canvas, and you are probably not going to appreciate the full painting. Try to speedrun Gone Home and you are probably going to be left wanting by the experience, same if you try to get a rich narrative experience out of Just Cause 2. All of these ways of engaging art are valid and worthy, but they also negate criticisms of what the artwork is ‘doing’. There is a difference between watching Alien ‘like’ a rom-com, and complaining that Alien is a bad rom-com.

Lots of people are trying to play No Man’s Sky in wrong ways, in ways that simply aren’t satisfying within the systems the game possesses. There’s two main reasons I suspect this is happening. The first is the doubled existence of No Man’s Sky as both niche indie title and popular triple-a title. The second is that the game itself does a very poor job of presenting to its player how it should be played.

There’s not much to be said on the first point that hasn’t already been said. Triple-a titles have to be everything to every gamer. I hear my students and people on the internet talking about No Man’s Sky and why it is bad, and you would think there is some core, mandatory essence that every game must posses, some core tenets to obey, or otherwise the game is banished from existence. A certain amount of gameplay ($60 worth, to be exact). A certain amount of stuff to ‘do’. Less grinding, more unique variations. It is accepted as fact that these, clearly, are faults with the game. This is a position that makes sense if you are expecting a triple-a title that is going to be everything to everyone (as No Man’s Sky was both marketed and imagined before its release) rather than a niche experience for a very specific audience.

The second point is a concern, largely, of user-interface and user-experience design. The game does a poor job of explaining how it wants to be played. Kirk Hamilton identifies this in his review at Kotaku, where he did not enjoy the game until he figured out an ideal way to play, and started again. The problem, here, was that the game struggled to suggest what that ideal way to play would be.

No Man’s Sky is best experienced at a relaxed pace, just exploring and chilling out and seeing what is over the next hill. Oh cool, a lake. Now I know. Let’s go look somewhere else now. But at the same time your life support is going down and your heat protection is going down and your ship needs enough fuel to take off and oh god what if there’s no plutonium on this planet and you burn to death. Meanwhile, for the first few hours of the game, tutorial text boxes endlessly pop up on the screen demanding you do specific things. Open the galaxy map and head to the next system already, damn it. Meanwhile, markers pointing to abandoned buildings and trading posts, once detected, won’t go away and let you just look at things until you relent and go visit these places you don’t want to go. The game is best experienced as a relaxed game of chilling and looking, but it constantly gets in its own road and forces more effort from the player than it should to position themselves for this experience.

There is a wrong way and a right way to play No Man’s Sky, and the game does an inadequate job of directing the player towards the right way.

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8. The survival/resource gathering is what seems to stress people out the most. This, I believe, is not a problem with mechanics but a problem with presentation and conventions. When a game makes you gather resources to survive, it assumes that there is a scarcity of those resources, that you need to be really careful to not run out. When you play DayZ you want to make sure you have enough food and water to get to the next town. When you play Minecraft you want to make sure you have enough coal to not get trapped in the darkness underground. They require preparation and foresight and planning.

So it makes sense for people to feel that No Man’s Sky requires the same: you need plutonium for your landing thrusters and zinc for your environment protection and more plutonium for your mining laser and so it goes on. Except, there is always going to be more materials around. Even on a ‘barren’ planet, there will be enough plutonium nearby to launch your spaceship and head to another planet. If you are freezing to death, you only need to find some zinc or a cave or, if you have some grenades, make your own cave to recharge your protection. If your cold protection does run out, you still have your entire shield, too, before you begin to die. As far as survival games go, mechanically No Man’s Sky is a very relaxed survival game.

But the issue is with presentation. “Life support low,” you are warned when your life support is still at 75%. The game regularly works to make its player worried that they are about to be stranded and about to die when, generally, they’re not. The mechanics are not stressful, but their presentation both within the game and in relation to existing conventions around those mechanics, make them feel stressful.

One dynamic of this is people feeling they must hoard resources, thus filling up their small inventory with base items and then being annoyed at the game for not giving them a big enough inventory. The actual problem here is that the game has made the player feel like they need to carry all that stuff in the first place.

My colleague Adrian Forest called No Man’s Sky a ‘post-scarcity survival game’, which I think is an excellent descriptor. It is a survival game where you can always find that resource you need, where you rarely have to worry about becoming stuck or dying. ‘Survival’ here should be this small concern that gives flavour to the relaxed exploration, not a central concern and challenge in its own right. Mechanically, the game achieves this. In presenting these mechanics so as to encourage the player to feel a particular way, the game fails.

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9. No Man’s Sky is a very particular game for a very particular audience. A ‘very particular audience’ that does not align with the core niche of power-fantasy-assuming, customer-is-always-right gamers. It takes conventions from those gamers’ core open-world and survival genres and subverts them not unlike walking simulators subvert the first-person shooter. It takes a familiar toolkit and says “What else can we do with this?”. In doing this, it has produced a magical and unprecedented experience. It is one of those few first-person videogames that I believe people other than gamers will bother learning first-person controls for, alongside Firewatch and Gone Home. It is a game that you can play more-or-less non-violently, easily just running away from the few ground-based hostilities (the space-based hostilities are a bit more annoying but are still very minimal in their impact. You just die then recollect your stuff).Where it struggles is in people seeing that re-arranged toolkit and (not unjustifiably) thinking it is a game that it is not.

Videogames are audiovisual. We look at them and we listen to them. There is a lot of untapped potential in this basic statement. When we stop thinking about videogames purely in terms of what the player can ‘do’ and start thinking about them in terms of how the player’s ‘looking’ and ‘listening’ is configured, all sorts of experiential encounters become possible that, from a perspective that favours ‘gameplay’, can only ever be considered boring. No Man’s Sky does not have some deep thematic message. It is a game of immanence. Of feeling lonely and small when confronted with an existentially large world that dwarfs any sense of ‘progress’ you might achieve. Nothing you do in this game matters. Nothing at all. You stripped as much aluminium as you could from that planet. Congratulations, you hardly made a dent. You’ve seen 100 planets. So what? There is no significant progression here, only futility. I bought a ship that can carry more stuff and now I can get more money quicker. But I already have a bigger ship so what’s the point? I can now travel this many more thousands of light years thanks to my upgraded hyperdrive, but I’m not really getting closer to anywhere, just going to this system instead of that system. Playing No Man’s Sky is one long existential crisis.

Those who enter No Man’s Sky looking for a sense of progress or empowerment or excitement or even ‘meaning’ are doomed to be disappointed. That is not the niche experience the game is going for (but which it has so much trouble positioning against). But for those who want to feel very small and insignificant and overwhelmed but who also just want to just stand still as they crest that mountain and see the neighbouring planet looming over a crystal clear lake in a red sky and just look at it for a minute, marvelling at the beauty of an algorithmic and godless Nature, for those players No Man’s Sky is everything it was always going to be.

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