No Man’s Sky: An Entire Galaxy of Data Entry

View upon discover of my 7th discovered planet within No Man’s Sky

As mentioned in my previous post, the big news in triple A gaming is the release of Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky. It’s been touted as the biggest scale game ever made, comprising of an entire galaxy of planets all with unique species, plant life, and alien encounters. Boasting over 18 Quintillion (or 2 to the 64th power) planets, lead designer Sean Murray says that even if a planet was discovered every second it’d still take almost 600 Billion years for everything to be discovered. So, to say that No Man’s Sky is an impressive undertaking is a bit of an understatement. But within a week of it’s release many have already argued that bigger might not be better. And though I actually have enjoyed playing, I’m tending to agree with most of the criticism.

However, these comments are fairly one dimensional and only approach the game solely based on it’s technical achievements. Vocal apprehensions about the graphical disappointments are only overshadowed by comments about how gameplay isn’t at all what eager fans were expecting. This type of reaction should be expected, since the game’s primary intrigue was in its technical execution. I share some of these concerns, but my main reservation actually stems from a powerful subtext that permeated my entire experience of playing No Man’s Sky.

While others are obsessing about performance issues, I find myself struggling with the content of this massive space explorer. Ben Kuchera has already observed the egocentric subtexts pervasive within No Man’s Sky, and indeed a lot of time spent in the game is spent participating in downright colonial attitudes to nature and indigenous spaces/species/people. What Hello Games seems to neglect is that exploration doesn’t have to be synonymous with exploitation. Your actions are not completely unchecked since robotic sentries called sentinels patrol and occasionally regulate your activity. But sentinels feel more like nuisances than any real threat—escaping their lasers and warnings only requires quick entry into your ship or a neighboring colonial building (yes that’s what they’re called).

Scanning an undiscovered species for identification

However, Kuchera’s only discusses the material implications of how you’re supposed to play No Man’s Sky. This is to say that my biggest problem with No Man’s Sky is not that is doesn’t punish you for behaving in a colonial fashion, but that the entire game is fashioned around rewarding and elevating unskilled digital labor. Besides mining—which is done by effortlessly shooting a laser from a multi-tool pistol—the other primary activity is cataloging the flora, fauna, locations, and geography of your planetary encounters. These actions are done via a scanning visor that you permanently equip and only require you to visually focus on an object for a second or two. Once done, complete “analysis” of the species is conveniently done for you. Though you’re rewarded for making these so-called discoveries with in-game credits, you can be further compensated by uploading these documents to an inaccessible online catalog.

Though these rewards are not as financially fruitful as mining for rarer metals and isotopes, you are repeatedly encouraged to attempt to catalog an entire planet’s species pool and as many variants as possible. This activity bears an uncanny resemblance to data entry. The galactic CSV database of lifeforms needs filling and sorting, and you are the best candidate for the job. As a result, No Man’s Sky feels like the largest exercise in human-powered computing to date. The amount of microwork, the smallest and least skilled task within virtual assembling lines, that takes place in No Man’s Sky is so dominating that it’s hard not to feel individually exploited. This is particularly the case since it seems unclear or never fully communicated what all these discoveries are being assembled for.

Even if Hello Games didn’t intend for their game to feel like the largest conceptual virtual assembly line of unskilled gamer/laborers, the affect is unmistakable. Certainly other games also fall victim to similar so-called “grinding” mechanism: World of Warcraft as the most notable example. But No Man’s Sky feels different—namely the activities in other RPG and resource management simulators have some sense of purpose. This is to say that the grinding of other games at least falls in line with some form of development; whether plot or character driven. Neither seem to really be the case in No Man’s Sky.

Early achievement for accumulating knowledge of alien language

This is not to say that there is no plot of character development within this game. But data collection, discovery, and cataloging has no direct correlation—besides token achievements as seen above—with either the plot or the character (if you can even call the camera you are controlling a character). Which is really a pity, since there are moments when you are collecting “knowledge” from ancient monoliths and ruins that have genuine moments of lucid writing. The imaginative explanations of hallucinatory scenes that come from interacting with an unknown alien magic/technology are truly rich. And yet the data stockpile that you amass never changes the attitude and mindset of the central “protagonist.” From my experience there’s no indication that such a thing is possible or even relevant for Hello Games.

In a lot of ways No Man’s Sky is the epitome of where games are making progressively poor design choices. As a result, it can be viewed as an emblematic case study for one of the consistently larger problems of games as a mass communications/entertainment engine. Where narrative and character development could alter the affect of a game (and subsequently the way players/audience consider its subject material), technical achievement and performance are instead favored to asses a game based on its looks. No Man’s Sky is a game designed for a game culture that doesn’t care what a game is actually about. As a result its disappointment is only matched by its own galactic scale.

Even more troubling is how No Man’s Sky attempts to ask big questions but falls short of answering them in any interesting or consequential way. For the central premise of No Man’s Sky is what would you do with a galaxy at your fingertips? The answer appears to be “work.”