Alone In Public — a No Man’s Sky review
I love No Man’s Sky.
And I can totally understand why someone would hate it.
My purpose here isn’t to convince you that it’s a game you should buy, or a game you should enjoy playing, but to try and impart a sense of understanding, so that you can see what it is that I find appealing about No Man’s Sky.
No Man’s Sky is a very lonely game, which really isn’t all that unusual on its face. Most single player games are ultimately a little lonely, even when they try to fill in the the hole of human companionship. But unlike a game in the mould of Skyrim or Fallout 4, games where you are surrounded by computer controlled simulacra trying and generally failing to convince you of their humanity, No Man’s Sky makes no pretensions to companionship. It is lonely on purpose, aggressively so.
Indeed this, if anything, could be isolated as the core theme of the game.
The experience begins with the player waking up next to a wrecked ship, a very trope-ish video game in media res. The player inhabits a silent protagonist with no history who ventures forth to do…. Whatever they want, really. At the surface this is all very typical framing, a setup that any experienced video game enthusiast would feel quite comfortable with.
Where it diverges from the typical is that over the course of hours, as the player encounters NPCs, uncovers lost relics, and unearths ancient mysteries, it is made quite clear that the player isn’t just a convenient blank slate, they in fact are an outsider. The biggest expression of this is through one of the core goals of the game, learning the various words of the four species that inhabit the galaxy, because, you see, you don’t speak their languages, and they don’t speak yours.
Your character, referred to only vaguely as the traveller or, perhaps more generically as a traveller, not a member of a unique group, but simply an adjective, isn’t from here, wherever that happens to be.
Whenever the player encounters someone or something that does speak the same language of them, the writing calls attention to that fact, highlighting it. It is expressly made to be something unusual, something that causes notice and defies expectation.
By and large the other members of the galaxy treat you like a very confident lost child. They’re not sure you really know what you’re doing, but you seem to be able to take care of yourself well enough, so, not my problem.
The individuals you encounter will generally help you, but most of the time it’s very quid pro quo. The Korvax, a machine race of plural entities, are the most helpful, but simultaneously the most patronizing. The Gek are perhaps the most respectful, treating you as a peer, but really it’s more like a customer. Lastly the Vykreen, now, they’re the only species that treats you like you’re special, due to an ancient cultural belief that Travellers shouldn’t be burdened, but in practice this isn’t so much ‘chosen one’ as much as it is ‘refrain from killing you and taking your things.’
Your experiences with individual NPCs are all very disconnected in time. You aren’t building a history or a relationship. This isn’t the stepping stone to friendship, love, companionship, or simulated AI trust. There is no dialogue tree or gift giving to unlock the sexy cutscene. You’re not special. No matter where you go, you’re not there to stay. You are always displaced, always out of place, just a traveller passing through.
But even in that your avatar isn’t special, because it is no man’s sky. No one belongs anywhere. There are no cities, no permanent residences, just pre-fab spartan dormitories dropped from space, like confetti across the landscape. If you should happen across one of the few bars or lounges they’re empty, save maybe the single NPC stationed there. This is codified in the text of the game. Characters talk with each other, but it’s always remote, always physically distant, a phone call or an email.
The sole exception here are two key NPCs, Polo and Nada, a pair of time-displaced scientists who are unique among all the people you meet in game. First, they speak your language, and second, they’re in the same room together. These two acknowledge that there’s something off about the universe, that things are too simple, too structured, that there is something fundamentally, spiritually wrong and it’s impacting everyone. In a bit of metatextual line blurring they suggest that it’s all just a simulation, perhaps a product of the Atlas, or maybe something else.
One of the subtler ways this theme is reinforced, this idea that you don’t belong, is the Life support module.
As a game mechanic your character wears a life support suit that protects them from various hazards, including extreme temperatures, radiation, toxic atmospheres, and so on. And you can never take it off.
No matter how perfect a world, how temperate, fertile, and lush, you can never take off your life support, it’s always there ticking away. Even the most serene planet in the galaxy cannot be home. They are all killing you, it’s just a question of how slowly. So you can visit, but you can’t truly stay. The only place you are freed from the constraint of your life support module is in space. In your ship, or on a space station, the looming entropy abates, but space stations are truck stops, and besides: someone else already lives there. So that leaves you with your ship as the closest thing to home.
This combines with other mechanics to create a constant, gentle forward pressure.
An element that has been criticized by many is the lack of a local minimap when on a planet’s surface, which makes it decidedly difficult to find your way back to anything that isn’t marked by a HUD icon. You stumble across a drop pod offering a valuable, but costly, inventory upgrade, but you can’t afford it, so you jump in your ship to go sell off minerals at a nearby trade port, only to get disoriented on the way back.
Is this frustrating, yes, in the moment it can be quite frustrating, but bear with me for a second.
The game is training you. It is putting you in a position with a set of incentives that push you towards a desired response.
The game deprives you of the tools to stay in one place, to settle down, to get comfortable, because it wants you to feel restless, to feel compelled to let go and move on.
I think the most curious thing that No Man’s Sky does with its sense of loneliness stems from the online features and a subtle nods to the fact that the player is alone, but not unique. You will on occasion stumble across logs that are in your language, left behind by other doomed travellers in their final moments. These logs always veer towards horror, and reenforce the player’s reliance on their life support module with tales of infection and contamination.
Then there’s the online features. As the player comes across various things, solar systems, planets, animals, plants, minerals, they’re given the option of naming those things and uploading their names to… somewhere. Diegetically it’s unclear where, exactly, these uploads go, but the player can encounter systems that others have been through and left their thumb print on. It’s nothing monumental, nothing that will alter the flow of the universe or tip the scales of power. You’re too small to do anything like that. You can’t re-align the world of No Man’s Sky any more than you can alter the course of the earth by stomping on the ground really hard. You can, at most, scratch your name in the bark in the off chance someone else happens to drive by. Dan was here. You’re not entirely alone.
Because there’s the rub. It’s one thing to be literally entirely alone, constrained into an isolated, impermeable sandbox. You adjust. Fallout doesn’t create a sense of existential loneliness because you know that you’re alone, that’s the simple, immutable reality. You expect to be alone. It’s that tease that makes No Man’s Sky so much more potent. You’re alone in public. There is, in theory, someone else out there. Somewhere. Maybe. Possibly.
Now, stepping outside the poetics of the system, there’s a very real possibility that the game has no framework for any substantial player interaction. At least two players have managed to be in theoretically the same place at the same time, with no result, and while Hello Games have implied that there’s some dimension of player interaction we haven’t seen yet because the central servers were too overloaded by the launch, it’s not clear what that might even entail. The practical reality is that it’s not going to be a thorough, persistent, simultaneous experience. They didn’t stealthily create an MMO. So there’s a very real probability that this element boils down to little more than illusion but… I’m okay with that. So much of effective storytelling is illusion. Mass Effect doesn’t try to create authentic relationships, it simply tries to create things that feel like authentic relationships.
Every game has a phase where it’s new and shiny and unknown, where systems are still obscured and the collective minds of the playerbase have yet to unravel every interaction, document every decision, and solve every mechanical choice. Now, many games do continue to be fun beyond that point, but there’s still something special that exists in the space of uncertainty that, once dispelled, can never be recreated.
And this was the space that I had the pleasure of experiencing No Man’s Sky within: an unsolved world plagued by melancholy. It is not a difficult world, true threats are few and far between, but that in and of itself makes it unique. No Man’s Sky calls on a lot of the shared language of survival games, complete with the myriad user interface bars that all slowly tick down. But where Don’t Starve’s many bars for health, sanity, hunger, and cold all herald an almost certainly permanent demise, No Man’s Sky isn’t weighted with such dire stakes. Its sense of survival is more mundane and ensconced in a series of maintenance rituals.
Top up your life support. Top up your fuel. Hunt for iron and plutonium. Recharge your mining beam. Recharge your engines. Take a shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, face the day.
It’s no surprise, then, that No Man’s Sky appeals to me given that it calls on a lot of other themes that I already enjoy. It reminisces of early Modest Mouse albums, both in literal musical quality, and in tone and shared subject matter. No Man’s Sky could as well be re-named It’s a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About, or, perhaps, The Moon and Antarctica. 65 Days of Static’s work, collectively titled Music For an Infinite Universe, would mesh perfectly on a mix tape with Dramamine and The Stars Are Projectors.
The road trip is perhaps No Man’s Sky most obvious analog. I had already written the majority of this script before I left for PAX West in Seattle, and it was on my mind often during the twenty six hours I spent in the space between Calgary and Seattle.
There’s a lot of space in there, and much of it washes right out of the mind, but there is, interspersed, the occasional awe-inspiring vista, magnificent sunset, or dreamlike moment. There’s also people, but they’re usually distant, in their own vehicles. There’s the cashiers at truck stops and drive throughs and gas stations, but you’re not their to become companions or make friends, you’re just passing through, alone in public.