Thoughts on No Man’s Sky as an Excuse to Talk About My Dream Game

nomanssky

Imagine that we live in the future. We somehow have harnessed near-instantaneous interstellar travel, and—I don’t know—the economy has boomed so much from the expanded markets or whatever that each of us has a spaceship with which to take advantage of this miraculous technology. You—you, reader!—can at any point lift off and skip down to the nearest—or farthest—star to explore its planets and seek out intelligent life.

Imagine what that would ACTUALLY be like, the basically endless possibilities that this would present you with. From what we know of the universe, it would be incredibly boring in one sense. You would be unlikely to find anything other than rocky, dry, hostile terrain. Single-cell life would be considered a discovery of astronomical proportions. From what we know of the human psyche, however, it would be an unimaginably profound experience—one might even say a spiritual one, if one were inclined to that sort of thing. The infinity of the universe would overwhelm us, would reveal to us our incredible smallness, not even the size of minnows in the ocean of space.

This is what I went into No Man’s Sky seeking—the feeling of cutting-edge, lonely, somehow simultaneously soul-crushing and uplifting exploration on the fringes of the universe. No one would be near me, though theoretically the game was “multiplayer.” I would be the first to see new lifeforms, the first to set foot on new planets. That is what I wanted. I even boasted once to my father that this might be the last game I would ever need to buy. Happily, this sort of feeling is exactly what the head of Hello Games—Sean Murray—seemed to be pursuing. I remember distinctly that Mr. Murray told an interviewer he wasn’t interested in having players find actual alien civilizations—though, he said, the game would have some sentient beings—but, rather, he was trying to develop a game that would capture the aura of riskiness. As he put it, he was trying to make a game that had the same feel as early works of science fiction—when the genre was less about space opera and more “Western” in tone. In short, what Sean Murray wanted to make and what I wanted to play was a frontiersman’s game.

And for the first few hours of gameplay, No Man’s Sky delivered on that promise. Admittedly, I did well to shield myself from the game’s hype machine. After reading one preview article something like two years ago, I declined to read further or to watch trailers, fearing that doing so would spoil the feeling of newness that I so desired from the game. It should come as no surprise, then, that I did not experience the rank anger that many consumers (probably justly) felt after booting up the game for the first time. Let me try to discuss what I did experience, and to sift through what that means about the game itself.

Early hours of gameplay were incredible. I went around the planet I’d been randomly placed upon, steadily grinding to procure elements with which to fix my ship, exosuit, and mining tool. The planet on which I had spawned was basically devoid of life and toxic, so while I needed to hurry a bit, there weren’t any cool animals to distract me from the necessary business. Finally able to fix all the broken machines, I fled into space. The second planet I went to was terribly hot and devoid of any life. I left immediately, though I felt wrong for doing so. This game is about exploration! I told myself. You’ve got to explore stuff!  And so I tried (and failed) to do that on the next few planets. I had yet to understand fully the cataloguing/scanning system with which the player tags flora and fauna, so I just kind of wandered around a planet or two looking at weird creatures. Then I followed the path that the game had drawn for me, heading toward the galaxy’s center.

This is where things got strangely amazing and weird and kind of bad all at the same time, for me. Because what I found on the next planet were these awesome sentient organisms called the Korvax. I thought that possibly this was because I was venturing toward the galaxy’s center (as despite my restriction on hype and media reviews, I’d overheard a rumor that stuff got “more interesting” as you traveled along the designated path). I did all the things NMS players are utterly aware of—I talked to a Korvax entity, used one of the machines in their buildings to find other locations, found a wrecked Korvax ship, learned new words in the Korvax language. I was having an absolute blast. Sure, the non-sentient creatures on the planet looked a bit cartoony and flat, but this was just one planet. Sure, it was tedious to travel a long way on foot, get lost, and then have to trek back all that way to my ship while avoiding the smoldering heat of various planetary heat-storms, but that was strangely invigorating—I was, after all, hankering for a game in which I felt like I was truly on a foreign planet.

I’ll spare you any more of my own personal play-through details. It suffices to say that I have explored many more planets and encountered the other sentient species in the game. Which, that fact—that I know I’ve encountered all the sentient species—is part of what gripes me about the game itself.

Because it seems like Hello Games panicked. It seems like they wanted to make a different kind of game, got scared from the extreme hype their project was getting, and “dumbed down” the mechanics. Elsewhere on the internet you can find all the promised features that are not present in the game—and these are legion, reader. I was able to avoid disappointment in this, as I hadn’t read about many of the features or watched the trailers that showed a planet that had been pre-made and not procedurally generated (though this latter controversy doesn’t bother me all that much). What disappoints me is not that NMS is tedious, or lacks a strong narrative, or holds a universe in which many planets suck. I expected all of that—indeed, I wanted it. What disappoints me, personally, is that the game reads as a complex mishmash of ideas that—it feels to me—Hello Games was either scared to fully buy into or was told to alter by executives who should have kept their hands out of the game.

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The fact that all the planets have the same three sentient species on them, within the same exact buildings, near the same exact monoliths, and with the same exact Sentinels protecting them… well, this fact certainly undercuts the frontiersman-feel that Sean Murray said he wanted to instill in his players. Once I caught on to the game’s pattern, I realized that I in no way was the first to explore the planets. There are ruins that speak of long-dead civilizations, which would have been super cool… if it weren’t for the fact that representatives of these civilizations are still there on the planet, in their little outposts, doing their proscribed tasks. Having a living civilization or sentient species on the occasional planet would have been amazing; it would have made me feel as if I were beating the odds as an explorer, having my exploratory journey across the cosmos somehow validated. Having a long dead civilization on the occasional planet would have felt equally cool; it would have made me feel as if I had stumbled into a history of which I was no real part, that I was a cog within the universe—in short, it would have made me feel that spiritual or mystical smallness that I was talking about earlier, the cosmic reminder that I am not the center of the universe… that I am not even a big or especially important part of it. Having the ruins of civilizations coexist with living members of those species (with no clear explanation as to what that means or why the societies seem to be gone, the monuments crumbling, etc. while there are apparently tons of those species still alive), and having this be the case on literally every single planet I land on, well that seems to me to be the worst of all possible worlds. The only reason I can think for this is that Hello Games’ vision was compromised—they felt that they needed to dumb down the gameplay, stack the odds, or whatever you want to call it, in order to keep the masses happy. Usually this is the case when these kinds of odd half-measures or seeming capitulations and compromises take place.

On top of this, it seems as if we consumers (and I readily include myself in this denouncement) misunderstood what the procedural generation meant. Personally, I heard about the 18 quintillion possible planets to explore and my imagination (maybe understandably) went wild. I dreamt of finding—I don’t know—flying whales and crazy land-octopuses and humanoids and all kinds of exotic species of life. But this is not the case, and I don’t think it’s Hello Games’ fault that this is not the case. What I “knew” but failed to understand about procedural generation is that really this means there are a limited number of elements that are then combined and recombined to make unique wholes. We all knew this. I knew this. But my imagination did not really grasp that until I saw—in game—that this was the case. All the animals are clearly of the same group—after maybe four or five planets, you can guess many of the combinations before you even see them. Therefore, when you do encounter new creatures on the next planet, that feeling of awe and discovery evades you. You feel more like you’ve confirmed the inevitable, which is very different from that frontier-like experience. Instead of feeling like even microbial life is a virtual miracle, you feel like you can guess the next animal. What I had been imagining was that a sort of kernel would be randomly chosen, and then some programmed evolutionary algorithm would take over and generate wildly unique and interesting lifeforms, when applicable, that would also interact in believable ways with their world’s unique properties (gravity—which is not really a changing factor in NMS—toxicity, heat, cold, amount of moisture, etc.). Sadly, I was mistaken.

Furthermore, the constant grinding, while cool at first in its necessity (hey, I’m on a hazardous planet and so therefore I would expect to have to continually replenish my oxygen or whatever), never really leads to anything. As someone else has said online, you get a bunch of elements to upgrade your stuff so you can get a bunch of elements to upgrade your stuff so you can get a bunch of… There seems to be no real “point,” as in no truly discernible necessity there. So, like, the game gets the necessity of survival pretty well, but then the upgrades don’t actually deliver any visceral advantage (after you upgrade your ship enough to win a space battle or two).

And of course a huge issue is that your death results in… you just starting in the same system in which you died, as the next iteration, and then travelling to your death-place to get any missing items back into your inventory. This negates the feeling of survivalism or frontiersmanship by removing any real stakes. On one hand, I’m glad. Because early space battles suck, and I would have been super pissed if I’d lost my items permanently. On the other, this mechanic literally makes those space battles pointless and just increases tedium. Stakes are important to engender the right stress-and-relief cycle in the players, but this game has no stakes.

The game has received enough hate in the past few weeks, so I’ll stop pointing out its faults. Instead I will say that despite all of this, there are still insanely cool moments. I landed on a planet with gigantic goofy buffalo creatures that stood on their hind legs, and the trees were interesting in a satisfying way, and so I named that planet after my deceased grandmother. And it elicited some serious emotions within me, as if I’d actually named a real planet after her. Somewhere in the universe within the NMS servers, that planet is there and it is hers. And I remember one time I landed on a toxic planet that housed some super rare elements. I happened to turn around and almost run into a strange giraffe-like creature with—I have to say it, reader—a head that kind of resembled a dog’s penis, or maybe like a weird slug, emerging from its neck. I freaked the hell out, as you might expect. But it was cool. It was exactly what I was looking for in this game—weird stuff that I wasn’t expecting. I still get that feeling, after hours of gameplay, when I land on a planet and see a flying pig-squirrel or something. There’s a neato-factor that is certainly present, though not optimized as much as I would have liked. Though flawed, there are moments that work well and that, in my opinion, are harbingers or interesting spinoff points for future games.

So let me tell you about the game I want, deep down—the game I see coming eventually, give or take a decade more of technological advancement.

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No Man’s Sky demonstrates that we have the ability to procedurally generate a wide variety of worlds with a wide variety of creatures. Even though the diversity is not quite as deep as I would have liked, I imagine that this would not be the case in a bigger studio with more programmers (and thus the ability to handle many more variances in data). What I’m saying is that NMS is a game that promises interesting developments in the visual environment of future games.

Now, I haven’t played Dwarf Fortress, but I have been told that its game engine essentially simulates several millennia of history as backstory to the game itself. In other words, when you start a new game, the computer runs a program that fast-forwards the gameworld several thousand years—ensuring that there is a real sense of history, with meaningful ruins and cultures and power structures, etc. (Okay, maybe this isn’t as detailed as I am imagining, but I’m building toward the concept of my Dream Game, so bear with me). In my opinion, this ability to simulate a believable history for a gameworld is an important step forward in gaming.

The last piece to the puzzle of Mike’s Dream Game is not from the videogame industry at all. Instead, it deals with narrative. This is what is lacking in No Man’s Sky, when we come right down to the issue. There is lore, but no meaningful progression. Even one’s own “story”—the story a player creates by moving through the universe in his or her own unique way, finding new planets, choosing which systems to travel to, etc.—even this meta-narrative is made trivial by the absence of a change in game mechanics from planet to planet, and by the nonexistent stakes involved with dying/respawning. While I went into the NMS experience without expecting or particularly wanting a strong narrative, I’ve since realized that I did have an expectation for mini-narratives. I wanted to craft my own story as I traveled through the universe, imagining that I might stumble upon sentient species with their own cultures and problems that I might engage with. Even these little narratives are important for a game to feel dynamic and interesting.

I’ll give an example from an unlikely source, narratively speaking: sports games. I love playing the FIFA franchise. I also enjoy (though I am far less skilled at) the Madden franchise. My wife, however, does not understand how anyone could possibly have fun playing sports games, as every soccer match or football game is on some level exactly the same as the others. You kick the ball or you throw it. You make a tackle and score a goal or a touchdown. But what I’ve realized is that the joy from these kinds of games often comes from the meta-narrative that the player crafts for himself or herself. The story is the player’s managerial career: which players he or she brings into the club, trophies won or lost, whether or not the player-manager gets fired or decides to move to another club or league, etc. There is a story there, marked by progression season after season, and by the end of a career the player can look back on a unique timeline of clubs managed, players traded or developed through youth systems, yada yada yada. The “narrative” of the game is contained within individual seasons, and the individual games that make up those seasons, and the individual choices the player-as-manager makes throughout each game and season and career.

So what am I getting at? Well, I’ve noticed that there have been several recent studies done on the specific structures of narratives, similar to Kurt Vonnegut’s legendary thesis about the “shape” of stories. We have made headway in the realm of narrative analysis: we can classify and write out how narrative lines often shape up, which ones are the most resonant, reasons that humans connect with specific story types, etc. The logical leap in gaming, to me, would be to treat this information in much the same way that Hello Games treated visual information in No Man’s Sky. That is, I imagine a game in which the developers create a complex database of narrative elements, and from this vast cache of plotpoints and rising/falling actions and stakes and whatnot the game engine can generate a unique storyline. Now, combine this idea with the ability, seen in Dwarf Fortress, to simulate millennia of cultural history and architecture, etc., and with the ability of No Man’s Sky to generate a nearly infinite universe of planets.

The result of all this combining would be a game in which the player—a lone space explorer, or the captain of a spaceship—travels the universe, landing on unique planets with entirely unique cultures and lifeforms who have lived through unique histories that have resulted in unique art/architecture/political structures/religions, and discovering unique storylines with which the player can engage. Perhaps the player lands on a planet with warring tribes and must either broker a peace, join a side, or even just decide to leave the planet—and if these are spacefaring tribes, would these choices possibly factor into other encounters on other planets in the star system? Or perhaps the player lands on a planet and finds—I don’t know—division within a country’s political or religious power structures, or the outbreak of some kind of plague that needs remedying, or crop failures, or… And maybe the player’s specific choices result in interesting things like members of these species joining the player’s ship’s crew. All of these mini-narratives make up the meta-narrative—the player’s unique gaming experience as he or she chooses which star systems to travel to, which planets to land on, and which problems to solve on those planets—in the same way that individual soccer games make up FIFA seasons, which in turn make up the player’s FIFA career.

In discussing this Dream Game with friends, I have realized that what I want—and what I was hoping for in No Man’s Sky even while knowing that one of the points of NMS is to make you feel small, to make you feel as if sentient life is very rare (something at which I don’t think NMS ultimately succeeds)—what I have truly desired for a long time, is to be the captain of the starship Enterprise. What I’ve been describing is essentially a game that makes me feel as if I am living through seasons of Star Trek. Of course, I should have realized that this is what my subconscious has wanted all along. I keep talking about frontiersmanship and exploration, and that’s exactly how each episode of Star Trek starts. I want to play a game that makes me feel like space truly is the “final frontier,” that dangers and intrigue and knowledge lurk around every corner. But I don’t want to sacrifice a meaningful meta-narrative in order to feel this way—just like Star Trek didn’t have full episodes of barren planets with no story to engage the viewer.

The true disappointment of No Man’s Sky, and one that is perhaps a bit unfair to Hello Games given their stated goals, is that I will have to keep waiting.

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