Alone in No Man’s Sky

I love video games. Ever since I started playing Super Mario Brothers on my parents’ Nintendo Entertainment System circa 1995, I’ve been enamored by the novel visual and kinesthetic experiences that video games offer. I’ve probably owned about a dozen consoles over the course of my life. As I grew up, so did video games. They exhibited new technical capabilities with each new generation. They told better stories and gave me more advanced tools to unfold those stories. As video games created a common cultural vocabulary and community, I began to see myself more and more as a “gamer”.

Video games currently occupy a strange place in our society. They certainly have advanced beyond their status as “toys”, a label that really bugged me when I was a kid. Many video games now rival movies in their budgets, visual capabilities, and cultural capital. They can captivate us in a way that surpasses movies. They can be massive and personal, individual and collective, strange and familiar. Video games speak on so many different wavelengths now. They enter our political and philosophical debates, flawed as they are, and make meaningful contributions to the conversation. Now, more than any other time, video games matter.

At the same time, video games also have a long way to go. For one, the mass of “hardcore” gamers still polices the identities and beliefs of people within the community. Nobody does this for movies. There isn’t a “moviegoer” personality; it’s accessible to all of us. But videogames are still, to some extent, sealed off. Case in point: the “Gamergate” controversy. I won’t get into the labyrinthine details of what happened with Gamergate, but suffice it to say that it involved a lot of hate and misogyny dressed up as righteous indignation. While the bounds of video gaming have increased through mobile and casual games, the belief in a “real” gamer who plays “real” games remains. The white male still runs the show and big game developers cater to him.

One thing that the video game industry has in common with other entertainment media is the careful building and developing of hype. We see it in the movie industry every summer with the next big superhero blockbuster, the next big remake, or the next Matt Damon vehicle. Movie studios carefully construct PR strategies with the help of industry press and advertising. Video games, with their dedicated fans and publications, certainly do it too. But the hype surrounding No Man’s Sky, a procedurally-generated space exploration game released earlier this month, reached unprecedented levels.

Developed by independent studio Hello Games, No Man’s Sky was heralded as the next evolutionary step in the immersive capabilities of the medium. Unlike traditional “sandbox” games like Grand Theft Auto, which promise an open world for the player to freely explore, No Man’s Sky promised an open universe populated with 18 quintillion planets. This fueled all sorts of speculation about the possibilities the game offered, and creator Sean Murray wasn’t exactly forthright when asked about some of its features.

As expected, the game failed to meet expectations. Players and reviewers alike voice about the claustrophobic inventory, the lackluster space combat, and the sometimes awkward graphics. The one general through line, however, was the notion that the game was seemingly pointless. It was boring, repetitive, and lacking meaningful objectives and progression. It was Sisyphean. Later reviewers who actually finished the sparse storyline wrote about how it felt like a complete waste of time.

One voice I do respect in the world of video games and internet culture in general is TotalBiscuit, a vlogger and podcaster who regularly reviews and plays games but also discusses important trends in the industry. In a video about No Man’s Sky, he had this to say:

“My hope is that it doesn’t happen again, I hope that this is not a sign of things to come and more a wake-up call to those that would get so engrossed in hype culture that they start to define their identities by their loose connection to this title. It’s a problem I’ve seen online in every walk of life. It is not unique to gaming by any stretch of the imagination. When teenage girls gang up on each other over Twitter because they like the wrong boy band, that is an example of people that define components of their identity via the products that they like. Gaming is obviously full of that but it is absolutely everywhere. And the problem with defining even an aspect of your personality by the things you like is that criticism of that product appears to you as criticism of you personally.”

To me, this seems to be a modern version of the dynamic encountered by Erich Fromm in his study of Protestant theology. Both involve fragmentary identities, and both involve submerging that identity into a larger entity that inspires awe and reverence. Our contemporary example, with the modern gamer forming a symbiosis with a new video game, adds a new layer of consumer capitalism and hype culture. And the game itself features a lack of purpose amid an infinitely vast void. The hype surrounding the game seemed to have a dialogue with the game itself. Gamers were tempted to place their stamp on this void, to find meaning in their lives through fandom. But what they purchased the game, they got an indifferent landscape. Peter Suderman of Vox wrote

“No Man’s Sky does not attempt to disguise its nature. Instead, by refusing to provide you with a purpose, it forces you to reconcile with the essential emptiness of its universe, with the pointlessness of a game whose only reward is the opportunity to continue playing the game. It is cold and lonely and empty and unsatisfying — and that may be the point. It is an existential crisis simulator, an infinite, interactive reflection on mortal ennui.”

In short, the deficiencies of the game mirror the deficiencies of those who bought into the hype. No Man’s Sky made you believe and then showed you a kind of truth. In noting the lack of direction of the game, Gareth Damian Martin of Kill Screen wrote in a favorable review that,

“For those unwilling to invest in its universe, it’s easy to glide by on its systems of progression and unit-grind, barely moving a hundred meters from their ship, and never looking beyond the next glittering deposit of gold. For those players to then turn and accuse the game of being without surprise or variety must feel galling for its creators. There is much to be said for wandering, for getting lost, for ignoring efficiency and purpose to spend a little time experiencing these glorious worlds and their inhabitants. Perhaps we might accuse Hello Games of not teaching its players to follow this path, or failing to incentivize such behavior, but to do so is missing the point. Wandering cannot, by its very nature, be a profitable act. And for those who can see beyond the material rewards of more units and resources, the reward of these vistas, revealed again and again at each hill and rise, is reward enough.”

Through its lack of direction, No Man’s Sky makes a critique not only of the hype surrounding it, but of the consumerist attitudes that fuel it inside and outside the game. It refuses to be a game like Grand Theft Auto, where murder and theft bring clear advancement and growth. It’s a universe to explore, not conquer and exploit. Similar to games like Undertale, No Man’s Sky interrogates these underlying presuppositions of modern video game design. It asks us, like Albert Camus’ Sisyphus, to realize the ridiculousness of the ride and find contentment in it.