The Origin of Imagination: On the Colonial Legacy of No Man’s Sky

Note: I originally wrote this story several months ago based on preview material that was available at the time, so what I discuss may not line up exactly with the final product. However, what I discuss still relates to concepts the game is based on and to open world games in general, so I encourage reading it anyway.

You start your journey in a cave. As you walk through it, your digital interface immerses the surrounding area in waves of light and relays information about the area back to you. Remarkable though it may be, it pales in comparison to what awaits you once you step outside the cave. Behold, the pristine landscape laid out before you. Strewn across its surface are all manner of trees and grasses, whose alluring reds, oranges, and purples are simultaneously alien and nostalgic. Were it not for the aircraft on the ground and in the air, you’d think you’d stumbled into a veritable Garden of Eden. Suddenly, an animal cry. You turn to see animals that, although familiar, clearly never existed before in human history. Like the world they stride through, these creatures are things of myth. Finally, you take to the skies, ready to discover more celestial Arcadias nestled among the stars.

This is how Hello Games first introduced No Man’s Sky to the world. Despite its ambition (the developers have boasted that players will be able to explore trillions of unique worlds), the game is still stuck in the past in some very important ways. I mean this both in the sense that it relies on what games before it have strove for (particularly games like Grand Theft Auto) and in the sense that it espouses a 19th century view of the world. So much of No Man’s Sky — from how you’re expected to play the game to the specific science fiction elements it renders its world through — forces the player into a colonialist mindset.

Perhaps no part of the game demonstrates this better than the basic premise. No Man’s Sky assumes a world in which the Outer Space Treaty was either never signed into law or repealed prior to the game’s events: there are billions upon billions of planets littering the skies for you to explore and discover. In fact, discovery is by far the most salient factor behind No Man’s Sky’s appeal. Whoever discovers a planet first gets the honor of branding their own name onto it for any future explorers to see.

As appealing as that may sound to some people, it’s hard not to see how strongly that appeal relies on European colonial history. This isn’t just because one feature parallels that history, but because the whole game parallels it. It’s manifest destiny projected onto the cosmos. By centering the game around concepts like discovery and ownership, No Man’s Sky is suggesting these spaces exist for no other reason than for players to claim them as their own. Granted, it’s hardly alone in that regard — other games like Grand Theft Auto V, The Witcher III, and Assassin’s Creed are so well known for offering players wide open spaces and unfettered freedom to explore them that they’re colloquially known as open-world/sandbox games — but No Man’s Sky is noteworthy for carrying those ideas further than any game before it has. The numbers reflect that well enough: the reason why the game offers so many planets is so that, in theory, nobody is excluded from the joy of calling a planet their own.

However, it also shows up in No Man’s Sky’s unique features. The naming aspect is obvious enough in light of locations like Columbia, Raleigh, Virginia, and the Philippines. And resource collection shares even deeper connections than that. Exploration aside, it’s perhaps the most important part of playing No Man’s Sky. If you want a better chance of discovering your own planet, then you’ll need a ship capable of penetrating deep into the cosmos. But to get such a ship, you need to explore various planets and gather the materials you need to create it. A feedback loop emerges: you explore so you can gather resources so you can explore so you can gather resources etc. We can take that even further and contextualize it through colonial history, wherein a similar loop emerges. What made Spain such a superpower in the 16th century was gaining control over much of South America after the Treaty of Tordesillas. This gave them access to valuable silver mines, not only making Spain an economic powerhouse in Europe, but also giving them the wealth they needed to explore the world further. Upon discovering new lands, they were able to extract more wealth from these areas and repeat the process anew.

Especially interesting is how Europe first wrote about the New World. To the Europeans, just about any land outside Europe was a fantasy realm. We can see precursors of this in medieval writing, like Marco Polo’s lustrous accounts of the Mongolian courts or John Mandeville’s general craziness, but things really didn’t take off until the Age of Discovery. Ferdinand Magellan wrote of giants living off the tip of South America, and Walter Raleigh searched for the city of El Dorado. Looking at No Man’s Sky, we see those same ambitions reflected in the game’s extraterrestrial worlds. While not all of the imagery the game draws on is outright mythical, most of it’s still imbued with a sense of myth. Most of the animals you encounter are either inspired by dinosaurs or simply are dinosaurs. Meanwhile, despite the fanciful hues that color the world, the environments are instantly recognizable as wide open marshes or deserts or pastoral fields. Taken together, it all suggests a world untouched by man. (In fact, that’s literally the case. Hello Games has gone on record as saying they won’t know what the worlds will look like because they’re created as they’re explored.)

The obvious effect of these decision is that they make the worlds desirable to explore. Yet there’s also a deeper logic behind those decisions. By heavily evoking the mythical when creating its worlds, No Man’s Sky instills them with an ahistoricity, like they’re frozen in time. This has two consequences. First, it justifies the player’s claim of ownership over these planets. Without any other parties to dispute your claim, there’s no moral quandary to what you’re doing, giving you a green light to do as you please. The second effect, though, is more subtle. For as impressive as these lands may be, they’re also threatening, in a way, since they lie outside our previous understanding of the world. Mapping them out and laying claim to them, then, helps to bring them into our understanding by exerting our own power over them. This is especially true in light of No Man’s Sky’s framing narrative: players travel from planet to planet so they can report their findings and upload them to a database known as the Atlas.

Which isn’t to say No Man’s Sky doesn’t try to react against colonialism in some way. Unfortunately, not only do these rebuttals fall short, but they actually support the very viewpoints they were designed to discredit. Consider the intelligent alien life you can converse and trade with. Their presence (and the activities you perform with them) is supposed to challenge the idea that you come to these planets so you can declare them your own, and instead suggest that you’re engaging in peaceful trade with them as equals. Be that as it may, I’m curious what counts as “intelligent life” in the game’s eyes. It’s important to note that you don’t enter alien settlements already knowing their language; you have to learn it. Some of that learning happens as you speak with them, but the most substantial gains come from reading Monoliths, these colossal stone slabs that display that society’s writing. They suggest a proud culture that has inhabited this planet for countless generations.

However, they also suggest that the delineating factor between civilized and uncivilized is writing. This goes beyond ignoring cultures which lack a writing system (like pre-Columbian Native Americans); it justifies seizing the land they already call their own. If, as the dichotomy suggest, they’re the same as animals, then they could never have claimed ownership of the land in the first place, so there’s no moral quandary in taking it from them. There may even be a moral benefit to doing so: coming from a civilization that has writing, you can theoretically act as a civilizing force for these people.

The Sentinels are an even thornier concept. In theory, they act as a check against the player’s actions. Should the player do too much harm to the planet they’re on (killing animals, collecting too many resources), the Sentinels will bear down on the player with all their might. Noticeably absent from that list of forbidden activities is claiming personal ownership of already populated planets. So far from questioning the game’s colonial framework, the Sentinels only reinforce it: by punishing you for what they consider to be bad colonial practices, they justify colonialism in general by suggesting that good colonial practices exist.

Unsurprisingly, this logic also shows up in the historical record. As the foremost colonial power at the time, Spain was criticized by other European nations for their inhumane treatment of Native Americans. The truth of the matter was actually a little more complex than it initially seems. While we can’t deny Spain’s cruel treatment of the Native Americans, they were also the only colonial power to pass legislation against the mistreatment of native populations. (Whether or not those laws were enforced is another matter.) Anyway, what’s more important than the facticity of this situation was what it allowed other European countries to do. They weren’t dissuaded from establishing colonies of their own. In fact, they believed themselves more empowered to do so since in their eyes, what they were doing wasn’t nearly as cruel as what the Spanish did before them.

I doubt that Hello Games intended for No Man’s Sky to represent space travel the way it does. The more likely case is that the developer is simply leaning into the same ideals that countless other video games have cultivated for years. However, that should make us question why exactly we value those ideals in the first place. Nothing exists in isolation. There’s always a history behind whatever parts of a game we’re discussing, both within video game culture and in the more general history preceding it. It pays to be aware of that history, lest we repeat mistakes from the past.