So, what with my next book being video game related and out in four weeks (!!!) I thought I maybe I should write a bit about what I’ve been playing. And it’s what it seems everyone has been playing since last week: No Man’s Sky.
(all screenshots are from No Man’s Sky – from our game, specifically. I took these! Sadly, it does not have a photo mode, which is why there are little icons sometimes)
For those of you not keeping track of video game news, let me explain No Man’s Sky, because it is really a whole new… thing, unto itself. It’s essentially a universe. Seriously. I’m not a math expert, but essentially the team at Hello Games taught a computer what a planet it, what rocks and plants and buildings and ruins and animals are, and said they could be shaped like this and this, or move like this, etc. They told the computer a million or more things about planets, and the life on them, and then said “now make a universe.” And the computer did. With 18 quintillion planets. Seriously. 18 quintillion unique planets.
Most video games have artists who lay out each area, placing every blade of grass, every stone, etc. That’s why sometimes environments get repetitive and why games aren’t super giant, usually. But Hello Games came up with this crazy idea and so they managed to create, essentially, a universe.
People talk about sandbox games – these wide open, do whatever you want worlds to explore and interact with, but this is taking it to a place that’s essentially inconceivable. The planets are planet sized. You could spend weeks, months just exploring one planet. But if all you wanted to do was go to every planet, touch down, and take off again, so you’d seen every one – that would still take you 500 million years. This is a game no one will ever finish. Everyone starts in a different place, too, so this is a game where what you see – what planets you explore (and name!) what creatures you find (and name!) will literally never be seen by anyone else. This is a game experience that is absolutely unique.
Now, this isn’t too say every planet is a new experience like nothing on the other planets. There’s some repetition – mineral deposits, for one, which you need to power your ship and tools and make stuff to continue on to the next planet. Flowers, though different species, are often similar looking. Lots of barren rocky planets look similar in that they are all barren and rocky. Some animals are like nothing you’ve seen before. Some look just like the angry bug-thing that tried to kill you on the last planet (the bugs are always angry, stay away from the bugs).
My husband, who loves exploring in games, has mixed feelings. On the one hand – wow, you can explore and explore and see things and explore and yeah. On the other, he wonders about things like why the planets (at least all the ones we’ve found) are all one you can land on. Where’s the gas giant? The molten planet? Even the planet of frozen liquid? (there are ocean planets and frost planets, just not “entirely ice” planet – at least none we’ve found). And I’m inclined to agree – the planets do have a… familiarity after a while. They’re not identical, but they have similar vibes. Sean Murray, the man who started all this and lead something at Hello Games, says he wanted to make a game where you could fly into a science fiction book cover (I think specifically one from the 70s). And it is absolutely that. But even with all the variety of planets, that consistency of tone can sometimes make it feel familiar unless there are extreme differences (I love when we land on a jungle planet, or an evergreen planet, for example). I think this is an amazing undertaking, but as they go forward, updating, I hope they’re willing to break away from that consistency of tone a little bit more.
The big question everyone has been asking is “what do you do in No Man’s Sky?” And the answer is a lot. Seriously. Look, there are robots to fight if you want to, but really what you’re doing is exploring and sort of stumbling over adventures and creating stories from them. For example, early on, we found an abandoned alien radio station. It was still working, but no one was around, and so they’d missed the distress signal that was being picked up. After hacking the computer (a simple number pattern game – my husband says they’re SAT questions), we brought up a map which gave us coordinates to the distress signal. We flew there, and landed. The crashed ship was abandoned, just a dead body inside, which we investigated, earning us some new blueprints to build tech, but more importantly, we took a look at the ship. It needed repairs, for sure, but it was a nice ship – lots of cargo space, fun green and purple paint job, looked a bit like a life raft (all the ships, like the animals and planets, are created by the computer based on mathematically variables – they often look similar, but every ship is unique). So we decided to repair it and make it our own. It took a while – we had to mine iron from nearby rocks (using a laser, no pick axes in space), build sheets, trade resources for other resources – but eventually, we had the ship up and running. And it was amazing. It was a great story. Later, on a planet so hot you couldn’t be outside for more than a few minutes, we met an alien trader, and ended up trading our ship in for an even bigger, cuter one (an orange snub nosed jet fighter looking thing), but that first time we found that ship, repaired it, made it ours – what a story! Since then, we’ve found a bunch more crashed ships, sure, but that first time it was so cool. All the firsts are so cool. We got a new multitool (mining laser/gun/grenade thing) by pulling a guy out of a river of lava inside a monolith. We’ve stopped numerous factory meltdowns and gotten recipes for new elements and formulas for doing so. We’ve learned 80 words of Gek – one of the alien races in the universe. We’ve catalogued (and named) countless animals, plants and minerals. We’ve explored caves, fought robots, and seen at least a dozen planets at this point. There’s a lot to do. Do the little “missions” get repetitive? Yes. Like I said, we’ve seen a good half dozen downed ships at this point. But every new thing – be it a new horrifying creature, or drowned ruins with a new story to tell – is exciting.
What really effects me about this game, though, is how vast it is, and the knowledge that maybe no one else will ever see these planets we’re seeing. No one else will play the same game as us. There’s no way we’ll experience it all. Sometimes, that makes it feel a little pointless – why track down that radio signal, after all, when it could just be another downed ship, and when you know you’ll never get all the radio signals. You’ll never get all the everything. You’ll never finish. And that has resulted in a sort of twist in the way I think about games – or at least this game. Normally, in the sort of RPGs I play, you get to do EVERYTHING. Every mission, every sidequest, everything. There’s a list, and you do them all. Sure, Skyrim and Fallout 4 brought in ambient, repeatable minor quests, but those get old pretty fast, if not Preston Garvey-level-annoying. So you ignore those. The other quests are the real ones. You do all those. You check a list online to see if you’ve missed any. When that’s all done – you’re done. The game is done.
No Man’s Sky will never be done. So, we can do whatever we want. Another distress signal? Meh, shrug it off, I want to find a factory to break into. Or screw all that. I’m just going to go take photos of planets. You… do things on whim, rather than for a sense of completion. You land at that monument because you’re in the mood for a monument, not because you need all the monuments. It’s… freeing, but that freedom also means the momentum comes entirely from you. Sure, the general goal is to get to the center of the universe, but its… not so important feeling. There’s no grand narrative leading you along. You decide what you want to do, and the stories come from that.
I often think of video games as another form of storytelling – one more experiential, like a choose your own adventure, but bigger, more involved. I know some people play to show off their skills, or socially, or to master a technique, but that’s never been how I play. I play for story. But No Man’s Sky is a different kid of story. It’s a genuine sandbox in ways sandbox games, by comparison, aren’t. Because in this world, while there are stories around you, you make your own stories. You have to literally mold them from the world handed to you. And sometimes that’s amazing, and sometimes that’s more work than you want from a game, but it’s definitely a new experience.
And for that alone, I’d recommend it. Seriously, it’s a lot of fun… but it’s not a video game in any sense you’ve experience it before. It’s a world. A universe. And like any universe, sometimes it’s amazing, and sometimes it’s a bit flat. It’s about knowing when to walk away from the flat, I think. Give yourself permission to walk away from a planet you haven’t found every animal on, every space station on. Give yourself permission to just look for something you want to do, instead of assuming the game is going to give you a thousand things to do. Just find your bliss.
I’m going to digress into something flirting with philosophy for a moment, so bear with me: there’s something about this idea, this experience of the game being mine and mine alone – despite similarities to others, despite them playing with the same sand, if in their own sandbox, or maybe building something with the same blocks, to change the metaphor. It speaks to something bigger, about life. I’m being too grand, I know, but it’s what I keep thinking: this is like life. No one is going to experience the worlds I experience, the stories I find in the universe. They’re going to have their own experiences – similar ones, to be sure, ones that sound the same, taste the same on the tongue. But their crashed ship isn’t my crashed ship, will never be my crashed ship, just like my life, no matter how close to that of my peers, will never be their life. Even if we grow up together. Even if our experiences mirror one anothers in a hazy way like the reflection in a rippling pond. It looks the same, but it’s not. It’s just mine, just my ship, just my planet, totally alone in this artificial universe. So lonely. But the stories we tell – their similarities, the universality of the crashed ships, the ruins – that’s where we’re not alone. That’s where the stories overlap. And though they’re not the same, the telling them and the way our experiences weave with others, that rippling pond reflection becoming hazy glass through which you see someone else, just barely, obscured by your own reflection – that’s the thing we all get to have, together.
Is it even a game at this point? Is it something more? A thought experiment? Art? I think all games are art (just some aren’t very good art, much like anything else), but maybe this is something more. It transcends the idea of what a game is. It’s an experience. But just like in life, you have to grab the experience and make it the one you want to have.