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).  Continue reading

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On Firewatch, Gone Home, and the Oppressive Terror of Loneliness

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Spoilers for both.

On the first day of Firewatch, you are walking back to your tower after chasing down some irresponsible teens when a shadowy figure shines a torch in your eyes. You are in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness and no one is meant to be around, but now this man is looking right at you. Henry, your character, is startled by it, but Delilah, his workmate-cum-friend in another tower is nonplussed: it’s the wilderness, of course there are going to be some other people around. Sure, okay. But at the same time, the reason there might always be someone around is because, for the overwhelming majority of the time, there is definitely nobody around. That is why my reaction to the man was the same as Henry’s: I was startled. I was expecting, moment-to-moment, to be alone, to be that one human who happened to be in this particular bit of wilderness. Then suddenly there was movement. That was terrifying.

For most of Firewatch, you don’t see anyone. But the fact you did see someone that one time kept me constantly on edge as the game progressed. What if someone else just jumped out from behind a tree or walked down a distant path? “We can animate humans in this game,” that first reveal seemed to say to me. “We can do it again whenever we want.” That would be terrifying to see that movement. The absence of animals in this national park only amplifies that terror not of being alone but of potentially suddenly not being alone without any warning.

This is where I think Firewatch is most enticingly like Gone Home. There are easy comparisons to make between the two games: each is a walking game set in a semi-open world where you walk around and inspect objects and a story progresses. Each is a game about difficult personal relationships set in the late 20th Century. But these are easy comparisons to make. More interesting for me is how each game is about making you feel very, very alone, and then playing on your imagination to make that loneliness feel oppressive and terrifying, and then, finally, making you feel like an idiot for letting your imagination get so carried away. Continue reading

On Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture

I think it’s fair to call ‘walking sims’ a genre now. The term started as a snide quip towards those exploratory games where the player ‘does’ nothing (in lieu of any attempt to understand how the player actually does engage with said games), but it does adequately describe (mechanically, at least) a collection of works. I think this is an important point to start this post with as I think Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture was most impressive for me in the way it forwarded the walking sim genre into new territories.

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Chinese Room’s earlier game, Dear Esther, was an explicit attempt at mechanical minimalism. Dan Pinchbeck said in multiple interviews (including one with me for an Edge feature on walking games) that he wanted to remove as much gameplay as possible to see what the bare minimum requirement for an interesting engagement would be. So they threw out everything except looking, listening, and moving.

Dear Esther would find itself centre stage in the incredibly boring and reductive debates about just what counts as a videogame. This is something I found ironic as, for me, Dear Esther is an exercise in videogame formalism. It is an exploration of just how players meaningfully engage with videogames once you move beyond the marketing promises of surmountable challenges and consequential choices. It provides a space to explore and the means to explore it. It challenges narrow understandings of what counts as ‘interacting’ with a game, putting to the fore the interactions had with eyes-on-screens and ears-at-speakers.

(In one of my favourite essays of his, David Kanaga says:

We can move or play in videogames—not much more can be said definitely. I am interested in a formalism […] that builds from this premise, that regards this movement in much the same way that musical movement is regarded, which has meanings, but meanings which are unspeakable, which are living in the material itself, and which mean very little divorced from the context.

I think walking sims exemplify this. Especially Dear Esther with its strict commitment to walking, listening, and looking as the only possible engagements.)

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After and around the same time as Dear Esther you have Journey with its focus on graceful movement and companionship; Proteus with its musical and relaxing islands (a ‘sit’ button replaces the more typical ‘jump’ button); Gone Home provides a singular but intricate space to walk around, objects to handle in a more traditional style, and a clever play on horror conventions. No shortage of individual creators have created their own games that could also be classified as walking sims. Blockbuster games such as Alien: Isolation have included extended sequences where the player does nothing but walk and look and listen (and of course such sequences existed long before ‘walking sim’ was formalised as a name). The genre has come into its own to an extent that I feel comfortable calling it a genre. Continue reading