No Man’s Sky is a game about the future. Yes, this obviously includes Carl Sagan’s vision of mankind as interstellar explorers, but I’m also talking about the future of video games as a whole. In my dozen hours with Hello Games’ much-awaited debut title, I often felt like I was experiencing a blueprint for things to come. Just as No Man’s Sky is Minecraft‘s child, so will the game have a brood of its own, and this gives me hope that we might be heading someplace better as gamers. On a purely thematic and narrative level, No Man’s Sky is about hope — the hope that curiosity and wonder could trump greed and bloodthirst. That isn’t to say that the game or its developers are naïve. Hello Games knows what will attract a large player base: mining, trading, laser beams and guns, spaceships… No Man’s Sky plays on our desires for wealth accumulation, status, and violent domination, but these only serve as fuel to propel us further into the limitless, unknowable universe.
Several times now I have felt moments of joy and child-like wonder playing No Man’s Sky, and none of them were related to the machinations of my consumerist mind. Watching the colors of the sky shift, meeting a new and strange-looking creature, falling into a bio-luminescent cave, coming across a plant made of shifting textures, running from an incoming storm, listening to the acid rain plick plock against the hull of my ship, lifting off the surface of a planet and launching into the great vastness of space: these are the true pleasures of No Man’s Sky. It is not the best shooter out there, nor the best space sim, nor the best survival title, nor even the best mining & crafting game. It chooses instead to hang its hat on our need for something deeper, richer, and more creative.
“… curiosity and wonder could trump greed and bloodthirst.”
A drone considers murdering me.
If No Man’s Sky is a promise of light at the end of the tunnel for a species going through an existential crisis, then it could not have arrived at a better time. We need hope right now. With global warming becoming a reality and overpopulation looming, never has it felt more urgent that we use technology as a tool for spiritual progress. Despite this, it often seems like humanity is heading in the opposite direction entirely. Donald Trump is riding a wave of anti-intellectual, violent individualism towards the U.S. presidency, opposed only by a candidate known for her reckless servitude to the financial sector. Governments are openly spying on their citizens as they service giant corporations that promote globalization in the form of neo-slavery, environmental crime, and relentless waste. The rich grow richer as the poor grow poorer. People are left to starve as governments divert funds into banks, outmoded and oftentimes counter-productive industries, and the manufacture of weaponry with no purpose but the obliteration of human life. At times, mankind can make the velociraptor look downright honest in its modus operandi.
Requisite phallus. Exquisite phallus.
The magic of No Man’s Sky, then, is that it uses the weight of our weaknesses as human beings — our greed, our pride, our envy, our wrath — like a judoka, to gently flip our adult minds into a state of childish wonder and receptiveness. But where other games will then engage your receptiveness to feed you a crafted narrative, No Man’s Sky abstains from doing so. This results in the sort of open-ended exploration that can feel alternately meditative and suspenseful. Ben Kuchera over at Polygon calls it “addictive boredom”, but I would argue that neither term properly describes playing No Man’s Sky. We do not return to it because it is ‘addictive’ — we return to it because beneath the usual ‘numbers going up’ mechanic, there is water in the well, spiritually speaking: possibility, solitude, silence. Nor do we find it ‘boring’– we just find the aforementioned things profoundly uncomfortable. No Man’s Sky asks us to use our imaginations in an era where we expect all the creativity to come from the developers. Many of us just want to blast through their games with our heads down and our blinders up. But creativity is a two-way street, and we as gamers should learn to bring our own fantasies to the table. No Man’s Sky provides fascinating color, mood, texture, shape, ambiguity: all things that are prized in art. But we are not raised on art, we are raised on entertainment, and entertainment traffics in immediate gratification. When one eats a steady diet of fast food — rich in sugar, salt, and fat — it’s hard to taste the subtleties of an amazing fruit or vegetable. But we can learn: to take our time, to enjoy ambiguity, to appreciate open-ended exploration.
“Creativity is a two-way street, and we as gamers should learn to bring our own fantasies to the table.”
Another star traveller’s ship. I openly lusted after it.
The scariest part of the downtime in No Man’s Sky is the prospect of being alone with ourselves: in this way the game inevitably holds a mirror up to our collective impatience and greed. Our frustrations with No Man’s Sky reveal more about us as a species than about the game itself. On release day, Polygon published an article entitled “How to get lots of units fast,” thereby voicing our collective obsession with rapid wealth accumulation and consumerist ‘productivity’. When confronted with infinite possibility, we just want to be put to work so we can get rich quick. If that’s not a lack of imagination, then I don’t know what is. Gaming journalists often talk about whether a game ‘respects your time’, but that’s another concept riddled with capitalist ideology: time is money, money is valuable, ergo people should respect your time. It can oftentimes be difficult to ‘get into’ meditation if one has never practiced it. Not because it’s ‘boring’ or ‘not-addictive’ but because it’s incredibly uncomfortable to ‘waste’ time feeling one’s feelings and hearing one’s thoughts. Don’t take it from me, take it from comedian Louis C.K. who identified the relationship between distraction and avoiding one’s feelings very clearly (and in a hilarious way) on Conan O’Brien’s couch. Over at Vice Gaming, Austin Walked described No Man’s Sky as “the stress reliever [he] didn’t know he needed”, and justly so. The spiritual malady of consumerism (which in its broader sense is a form of addiction) takes its toll over time — if we would only stop and allow ourselves to feel it. Yes, No Man’s Sky definitely gives you what you didn’t know you wanted, and that can feel very strange at first. My advice: just relax into it. Open your eyes and ears, listen to your heart as you play. Make Carl Sagan proud.
“When confronted with infinite possibility, we just want to be put to work so we can get rich quick.”