The Flattening of “No Man’s Sky”

One of the many projects of archaeology post-release in No Man’s Sky involves picking through the detritus of the wreckage that is a crashed freighter. Seeing them in space does not do them justice: by the cannon’s comparison alone, the size of just the barrels of these turrets are larger than a single ship, giving credence to that old original Star Wars quote about the turbo lasers. This was my first freighter, brought into life thanks to a photo mode that also came to No Man’s Sky in one of many updates that now blur and flatten the history of the game into a single continuous through-line, the end result being a game that could be viewed on the one hand as a jack-of-all-trades space exploration game, or by others as a master-of none response to fans. Here the camera highlights my poor experience as a photographer, the depth of field clashing with the foreground of the freighter bridge. Smoke billows in a typical video game way: as a spot particle effect that ripples straight up and ignores the wind pattern one would expect from a desiccated planet. The field-of-view has been maximized, ironically settling the freighter into a smaller and less imposing perspective. The planet in the background is a negative yang to the sun’s yin, but otherwise the only other remarkable aspect of this photograph is the color composition, which is a matching blue for sky and structure, and in heavy contrast to the acidic orange of the planetscape.

Much can be said about the context of this photograph. The goal of freighters is for them to be seen, and from there a player is more than welcome to pillage the contents of the hold, which amounts to little more than the basic ingredients already readily available on each and most likely every planet. More rare elements and products can be made or traded, and so there is little reason for the freighter’s existence. Such a cataclysmic nothing then, a sort of burial whereby inspecting the coffin produces nothing, a twist on the typical science fiction experience of tracking down an abandoned structure or ship to produce a great horror. Such an experience would come later, in the form of pilfering eggs near abandoned factories, and when you do horrible monsters appear with green eyes and hammerhead skulls.

Still the beauty of No Man’s Sky seems not in the journey but rather the destination: one would have little to report from this experience, and indeed as I rack my brain in the cumulative 200 hours I have spent in the game, I could not recall which freighter this was, or whether I explored beyond the cargo underneath the soil, or whether I arrived here by ship or exocraft. Instead, there is only this photograph, distilling the mundane experience of looking into the beautiful showcase of color and light.

Perhaps this is why we as odd followers of the No Man’s Sky experience will fall back into its universe when we overhear the news of an update, for what other game can claim to change its very foundation with each iteration. Before an update a planet could be said to be desert, devoid of life, and prone to the worst of heat storms, and after an update, one would see a similar topography, but instead new life would be birthed on the planet in the form of underwater crabs; bottom feeders with a tendency to attack players foolish enough to plunge down into the watery depths to steal Gravitino Orbs emanating from ruins, also newly arrived. The mathematical slot machine of the Euclid Galaxy is shifted and regenerated in the major updates, bringing with it new pains of player bases now fifty feet off the ground due to changing altitude, or the inverse, where real archaeology has uncovered communication stations deep underground, bearing old messages from players who have unplugged and wandered to other things. From the 2016 original release, the game has been iterated on so many times as to flatten the history of the galaxy into one of continuous change. The question for any bearer or analysis on such a large topic is one of evaluation: does the game produce exploration of the kind that mimics reality? Or are the changes in graphical output simply different names for the same underlying problem, which is that virtual nature has major bouts of loneliness?

By removing the updates from the Playstation 4 version of the game, one can revert to the factory release, the “original” version of the galaxy, if you believe in such a thing. This is a No Man’s Sky before conventional multiplayer, before the crowded space stations, before farming and the agricultural revolution, before base building, before ground vehicles, before freighter and fleet ownership, before an FOV slider, before the color palette changes to the universe, and, yes, before a dedicated photo mode. Here on Ernummel Livupast, one can get a Neolithic and nomadic return to No Man’s Sky, which encourages a player to stay on the move. Here procedural generation rears its ugly head. Fish swim out of the water and straight down onto shore, fins poking out of the ground in a way that gives players the feeling they are in a drug-induced Alice in Wonderland. Grass peeks out of the floor of planet facilities. Here in this photograph above, we can see a beautiful forest environment, a sort of dense tundra, and behind a series of irrational cliff faces that have trees poking straight out of the corners in ways no human being would say passes any kind of geographic Turing test. The older clouds exist only as a scale-producing backdrop, unlike the viable weather and variable shadow feature we see from the Next update.

Seeing the newer photographs I have taken in 2019, a full three years between updates, there are so many changes to dissect and discuss. The most formidable change that I noticed after going back to the older version is the film and color palette, which brings with it a sort of green sepia sheen to each planetary encounter. Here it is nowhere to be found. Another obvious change is the third-person perspective, which is a much larger and more symbolic change than simply physical. Much of the original game is dreamlike, where both conflict and prosperity are seldom found. Instead, one simply wanders. The avatar does not exist in the original game, leaving no shadow, whereas even in first-person in recent updates, even when one is swimming, one is always aware they are a physical presence.

It seems much of the gameplay updates in No Man’s Sky since launch have been about the visceral recognition that the player exists. More effort has been placed in multiplayer to build and share together. Portals allow easier travel between players, recognizing that traveling in older methods is such a hassle. Depth of fields have been judiciously added to each experience and allowed for each photograph, limiting the farther reaches and focusing closer, saying, “Yes, this moment is more important.” The plot reaches out to you in the form of communications from newly designed characters named Artemis and Apollo.

We could view all of No Man’s Sky as the work of an insane architect that now must be renovated and sold more politely. Here in these two photographs we have different ideals of trees. In the earlier rendition of the universe, the trees have green leaves which follows the player in a similar way to two dimensional sprites, and because of that the volume and density of the tree is put into question. Not so with the new trees, purple in color, but with individual branches and of a volume and texture which have a matte finish, giving them a more “realistic” look, but clashes with an aesthetic seen in earlier versions. The ground again has a smoother look when viewed at a distance, but up close with new tesselation options, the crenelations in the terrain allows for a deeper physicality. Of course farther away the tesselation is not in effect. At all times in No Man’s Sky the great magic trick is to allow the character to feel as though they are in a large universe using the power of maths, and giving us the possibility of zero loading times. With virtual reality, more effort was placed on cutting the stage around the player to create smooth framerates, and it is any wonder how they managed to do that.

The failure to create a compelling exploration narrative has given rise to an evolutionary development throughout the updates towards a more sedentary lifestyle. At first, players were encouraged to establish bases, little outposts dedicated to housing a cabinet of quest givers, thereby becoming another method of play. The power of an outpost does not become too apparent until the player makes contact with the teleportation devices between base and space station. From there, all exploration drops to a stand still. Save for the single element which typically bottlenecks the experience of creating fuel for the hyperdrive, players make the mining and exploration side of the game obsolete within the first two hours of gameplay. Here in these photographs, the player-made bases have a number of knock on effects. In the top photograph, a sentinal is stuck inside one of the growing rooms of a larger base designed to make money. The generation of the gameplay’s design clashes directly with the farming systems, as the sentinal cannot freely move about the planet, and the player, who is barred from using his weapon in his own home, cannot remove the sentinal. The solution at that moment would be to delete the growing room and allow the sentinal to escape. Another option would be to leave and return, a concept that at first the game would have said was a sure sign of insanity, as the entire goal would have been the pilgrimage to the center.

In the second photograph, the extent to which the base system can be pushed for profit continues, as a character lazily sits next to two Autonomous Mining Units, machines that do the work of mining for the player, as long as he or she is willing to return to the site to harvest the resources and power the units. The element used for power is easily purchased at a shop, and while the player sits and waits in the desert heat, the AMUs do not take resources from the physical spot, ensuring this can be repeated indefinitely. A storage unit could even be placed here, as this is the spot for a base, and the element could be stored. This player would never have to visit another copper site again.

In the third photograph, careful attention is given to place all the wealth accumulated by the player in the frame, highlighting a suburbanization of No Man’s Sky of ships, cars, and structure. The immediacy of these works, man made all, interrupts the existential and the weird of the original game. There are some who say that both types of players could exist, and that the beauty of the game is in its vastness. Truth be told, like any aspect of life, equally enjoyable are the ways in which people respond to the vast meaningless that is our galaxy. So it is with No Man’s Sky, where people have rejected the original premise of the game in lieu of the annexation of communities like the Galactic Hub, now formally recognized by Hello Games in its galactic map of the Euclid Galaxy.

The other 255 galaxies in the game, token of those explorers who pushed the concept to its limits, remain in the dark, and seemingly abandoned by the designers. The hopeful idea of “the farther a player journeys the weirder the galaxy becomes” was a lie. Instead, one must go back to weirdness. The earlier versions of the game were not ready for player interaction, and as such were prone to the very thing that makes a player investigation fun. Here on Nayoroza Glashy, the flat radioactive waste planet featured pillars of heridium, an old element now lost to newer and more realistic elements from our own periodic table. The light that shines on the pillar gives off a shadow that becomes something radically different when it interacts with the shallow water; a dark obelisk that has reverberating edges that is all at once haunting and inviting for introspection. Since the Next update, weirdness has been siloed in the form of obvious biological horrors, or repetitive creatures at the bottom of the sea. Little effort has been made to increase the delight of the nomad, which is strange, as many of the developments of gaming in the 2010s have been to address our hunter-gatherer heritage.

That is not to say that no effort has been made to entice the player on the receiving end of a kind of wanderlust. Any serious gamer before 2005 has had to contend with invisible walls and the word “level” when thinking of design. Now the renovations of this old house has produced more pleasing experiences, and with that has come features that have widened the field of play, but the feel of the experience remains largely unchanged. The erratic nature of perlin noise landscapes as the dominating factor has given itself over to smoother and more pristine curves. The hope of an ever more grotesque story to tell on our movement toward the center seems to be at a close. Will a company ever embrace the exception rather than the rule in design? Perhaps there is some perceived contract that can never be broken between designer and player. It exists for now. But there will come a time like art after photography and literature after television where the player is willing to be fucked with by a designer in a way that terrifies and inspires (please see Outer Wilds). Whether that happens sooner rather than later, or whether that exists in the tools of Playstation’s Dreams or in the convenience of the Unity engine is left to the future. The movement towards virtual reality implementation in No Man’s Sky proves that Hello Games is still interested in space, scale, and exploration. But whether the game can provide otherworldly experiences using its line up of planets remains to be seen. Hardly to the chagrin of its fanbase, as they speak on reddit of looking at the architecture of their bases. They speak of multiple stories and lighting their rooms. They dream of bridges and wood-paneled underground panels, whole streets of concrete. They are preparing rooms.

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