The Many Worlds Interpretation
No Man’s Sky has been a game all about the word “many.”
Sean Murray, on the Late Night Show with Stephen Colbert in 2015, may have broken some sound barrier of games development not seen since the Halo 3 Super Bowl Commercial “Starry Night.” The continued pitch of the game was in just how many planets No Man’s Sky claimed to contain: over 18 quintillion.
The vastness of its expanse, and the promise of entering and exiting atmosphere without a load time, all with an initial hard drive space of 8 – 10 gigabytes, sent the gaming world into a tail spin. Many with their ears close to the ground of the gaming world, and even those farther away, knew about the heartache and betrayal felt by the poorly handled marketing campaign, as we all realized that many of the features promised around the experience of those 18 quintillion planets would not come to fruition until much later. Like other tentpole franchises on consoles, it would appear that “early access” was a phrase that would apply to some of our biggest titles.
But the core idea of the game, those planets, did make it on the disc. And most of my No Man’s Sky experience to this point had occurred in the first two years of its existence, in the era of the Foundations, Path Finder, and Atlas Rises updates. Claiming a small outpost and becoming familiar with geography, exploring and seeing the variety of colors and texture, or remarking on the amount of natural assets on display across a galaxy, one cannot help but at the very least use No Man’s Sky as a wallpaper generator.
That was one of the key inspirations for the artistic style of the game. Originally designed to highlight the old looks of science fiction book covers, No Man’s Sky often delivers its best content in static vistas and still photographs. And when the game is moving, combined with soundscapes from 65daysofstatic, it becomes even easier to imagine No Man’s Sky as less a game and more an atmospheric tour. It is less experience than feeling. It is less interactive than interpretive.
Which has proven to be a key shortcoming in the years of post-launch development. Much of the work on No Man’s Sky since has been an attempt to find a game loop that feels repeatable and enjoyable for the routine gamer. Most agree that the first hours of the game are the best: you are stranded on a planet. You must find your ship and repair it using what is available on hand. At first lift off, when you realize that your space ship covered what took you hours in a matter of seconds, an overwhelming feeling of space comes alive as you think of possibilities of playing.
And then you continue to play.
And for most people playing the game, that original feeling never comes back. Despite numerous attempts of the game to offer quest lines, lore, upgrades, the opportunity to build vast bases to make a claim in the galaxy, much of what is offered is a grab bag for playstyles, but a core loop feels lacking.
Much of the most recent annual update (the largest of their kind) has attempted to bring back a sense of discovery to those legacy explorers. It promises more dynamic planet generation, deeper weather effects, and a wider variety of plants, animals, and minerals dotting the higher mountains and cavernous depths.
If there was one aspect of the game development that split the community, it was in the way that Hello Games smoothed the contours of the planet generation in order to make for more appeasing marketable vistas, but in doing so they abandoned the sense of wildness that came with planet generation before the Atlas Rises update. It was not only the structure of the world, it was in its color palette: muted and deadened and de-saturated pigments dotted the landscape, producing bleaker and more serious planets, but ones that seemed to abandon the true calling of its science fiction covers all those years ago.
In the space between the Origins update and its next-gen launch, I have been taking screenshots of binary star systems, of huge mountain ranges and ocean beds so deep that they make my ears bleed.
But to tell you the truth, the act of exploring brought with it the old complaints I have had for years. The visual sameness of planets, the existential meaninglessness of all this geography, and the lack of promise of novelty (even with these changes), reminded me that it may be time to retire from exploring once and for all.
One question still lingered, one last project needed to happen before I packed my bags and left the galaxy.
What does No Man’s Sky look like from the perspective of a single planet?
Was it possible to become thoroughly knowledgeable of only one planet, enough to gain those same feelings that I originally had when I saw the artwork of the game case in a Gamestop in June of 2016?
And if I did not feel that feeling, could I illuminate the problems I had with the game in a different way upon exploring this one place?
To perform this survey, I decided that I would find a snow moon (as those tend to be my favorites) with a decent amount of variety in both flora and fauna.
The reason I chose a moon is due to the smallness of the project and my lacking time (or patience) with bigger bodies. I was hoping that a moon would contain the amount of varied experiences required to find once again that magical early feeling.
My goals in performing an intense survey of the moon would be as follows. First, I would build outposts on both the north and south poles, in order to establish reference markers and easy teleportation to locations once I landed. Second, I would attempt to find any sign of sentient life and non-natural structures, and I would place a beacon on major facilities for easier return trips. Third, I would tour the varied “biomes” in order to discover if such biomes even existed. Was there any change to wind pattern, geography, mineral survey results, vegetated or non-vegetated hillsides? Were there hills at all? Or perhaps mountains? Would it be possible to detect dramatic changes across the moon’s surface? Fourth, if there were profitable areas for mineral extraction, a proper settlement would be constructed.
In Search of Life
Cagonacu Gojo is a moon located in the Ryashty-Etian System, which is home to four planets and two moons. Its amount of conflict is relatively low. Inside the system is a series of intensely varied planets, from a mountainous snow planet (Chekholwso V) to a mostly underwater superheated orb (Dayt V)
Cagonacu Gojo is a hostile world. The security sentinels have a short temper, and will quickly investigate those travelers who do not abide by the prime directive.
The moon itself is even less welcome. With average temperatures below 150 degrees Fahrenheit, the irascible weather routinely also descends into blizzards, which feature extreme winds and lightning events.
For those willing to brave the moon, there are plenty of plants and other minerals to be harvested, including Sweetroot and Tubers, and Frost Crystals.
After touching down at the North Pole, I constructed a quick settlement. The wind was coming in from the Northwest. After establishing a power source via solar panel on the roof, as well as power storage indoors, the North pole outpost is a simple rectangular building with a teleporter, a save beacon, and an exocraft ready to explore Gojo’s surface.
The flat terrain contrasts nicely to the South pole outpost (pictured above with tornadoes). The weather is so extreme that various thermal protection layers are needed on my exosuit. These are powered by Dioxite, which luckily is a secondary resource easily found inside minerals that dot the landscape.
After planting a signal booster, I am able to find a signal beacon located within an easy, driveable distance with my Roamer exocraft. I set off, encountering broken machinery and leftover caches and deposits scattered across the landscape like the space junk it is. They occur so frequently as to glitch and clip into each other, as pictured below.
After several minutes (which translates into the majority of the day), I arrive at the signal beacon.
After interacting with the beacon, it gives off its usual ping across the landscape in order to pinpoint evidence of sentient life.
After several seconds, the beacon gestures me towards a possible “minor settlement” located at roughly a ten minute drive directly south, thus placing me on a longitudinal trajectory. Soon after, another blizzard arrives. The temperatures during a blizzard reach some -250 degrees Fahrenheit. But with plenty minerals containing Dioxite, the only difficulty lies in the lacking visibility, which can make it difficult to see crenulations in the terrain.
The drive is an uneventful one, save for the fact that I notice some distinct changes in the terrain. Whereas before, the geography surrounding the North pole base was relatively flat, it gave way for trees to dot the tundra. Here there are hardly trees in some of the mountainous regions approaching the minor settlement.
Day 1 of my official survey becomes day 2 as I drive overnight. Between the two days, three blizzards come and go, bringing with them the usual tornadoes and lightning. Each one lasts approximately five hours (in-game time), and feature roughly the same changes in temperature.
At last I make it to the settlement. The structure is Korvax in its architectural look, unsurprising considering the entire system has been dominated by the Korvax, according to the Galactic Map.
I contact a waypoint beacon, which labels the settlement as taking place in the Givardevush Floodplain. After recording my journey, I make my way inside.
Inside, two Korvax relax comfortably. One is Mathematician Entity Henskyv, who shakes my hand and gives me an upgrade, after testing the shielding of my exo-suit to a dangerous and uncertain level.
The other Korvax goes by the name of Survo, and he is a technology merchant who happens to be selling a quantum computer and three magnetic resonators, which happen to be the final pieces I need to install my modification to my analysis visor that allows me to survey for underground minerals.
After placing a beacon to return to this location, I take a look outside, only to see yet another blizzard. I decide to tuck in and wait for the storm to pass before venturing back out.
E Unibus Pluram
One imagines that, had this been the only sign of life on the planet, the moon would hold plenty of possibility for loneliness, adventure, exploration, and possibly profit.
But in the Northern hemisphere alone, I ran into the limit of the amount of saving beacons that I was allowed to demarcate points of interest.
Because after the first two days attempting to find the minor settlement, I found multiple examples of manufacturing facilities, trading posts, a hologram tower, and even a drop pod.
Many of these places reek with civilization. It is effectively suggesting to your parents that you are going exploring, only to walk into a Walmart. It is a marketplace for mediocrity.
After seeing so many structures on the moon, I stopped all exploring. I saw no point in conducting analyses of the plant and animal life available. I saw little point in taking in the geography, as varied as it could have possibly gotten. What was the point, I felt, in taking on something that had been, according to the narrative presented before me, tamed? It felt like I was exploring someone else’s backyard, not some mysterious tundra.
And here the magic that the promise of No Man’s Sky held all those years comes to a grinding halt.
It has never really been No Man’s Sky.
The rebuttal exists right there in the title. Compare the game to other space faring adventures like Eve: Online or Elite Dangerous. Both of these games manage to create examples of loneliness in either its economy or its expanse. If a player is interested in learning or manufacturing, they must do it themselves. And a great variety of the enjoyment in those games is from their scarcity, not their abundance.
Even on harsh planets, the game is willing to provide everything, including other signs of life. As you play, ships rocket across the landscape, turning your corner of the galaxy into, effectively, yet another interstate highway. Watching NPCs pace back and forth on the trading post, some without any proper gear, as tornadoes swirled barely one hundred meters from their person, not only requires a suspension of disbelief, but also strikes to the heart of the problem that No Man’s Sky has.
One could argue that those uninhabited planets exist, that there are systems that lack any sort of NPC life provided by the game. I think the problem I face is how these systems, and these planets, are the exceptions, rather than the rule. Had these two binaries been flipped, and life in the Euclid galaxy been rare, the pleasure of finding someone would be much more palpable than annoyance.
Almost every star system has a space station that acts as a haven for all of your needs. From there, every resource is abundantly plentiful. Shipwrecks are often not found on accident, they can be located with navigational data. Just think about that for a minute. A lost ship…can be found…by using a ticket. This makes star systems and their particulars seem like amusement rides in a carnival, rather than as possibilities.
Imagine if No Man’s Sky had gone with their original thesis. It would have been an empty galaxy, totally devoid of sentient life besides the players choosing to inhabit it. For any intense technologies, the blueprints existed to build them, and players could construct their own civilization if they chose. Nothing would come for free, and there would be no trading post to lean on. Every discovery would have to be made by players, and every structure would require human effort.
Imagine what sort of legacy the game would have created for years, possibly decades to come. Suddenly – like games like The Longing – time would have been a pillar in the enjoyment of the experience. Exploration would be rewarding because convincing players that you had been out that far would have seen a success story, rather than a tedious chore. Legends would have been created, communities would have a dire reason for existing, rather than as a negation of the game’s infamous ending. Each outpost created would help players in their journey, rather than represent a traveler’s vanity project. And in the year 2088, we would have gotten a news bulletin in the gaming world. Finally, the galaxy of No Man’s Sky would have been totally explored. It would be one of those moments in the gaming world that would have taken immense collaboration, effort, and dedication.
The magic I hoped to engender in my exploration of Cagonacu Gojo did not come to pass. Instead of No Man’s Sky, it felt like Every Man’s Sky, and with every update, the game has pushed more and more towards inclusion and enlivening an experience that needed the opposite. It needed to be, ironically, more like reality. The Milky Way galaxy offers a metaphor from its loneliness alone. The billions of stars featuring planets with no life, and barely any water, means that life is rare and must be fought for. Are we really so squeamish as to balk on the chance to make loneliness a core element of gameplay?
People keep trying to articulate what it is about No Man’s Sky that it lacks, unable to place their finger on why the beginning of the game is enticing, but ultimately suffers from diminishing returns. It is the lacking feeling of success, a feeling that once you take off on your ship, you’re effectively getting on a bus to a major city. Rather than taking a wagon west, you feel like Dorothy going to Oz. No Man’s Sky is not a game exploring the romanticism of our desire to escape, but a cosmopolitan desire to return.
The desire to join in, rather than venture out.