‘No Man’s Sky,’ Don Draper, and Why My Optimism Has Fists

I accidentally liked a game that many hate. Then I started thinking.

“For those who enjoy wandering and wondering equally, or consider them the same.”— an employee at my local bookstore recommending a book by Italo Calvino. I think his name was Bennett.
No Man’s Sky cover art

For those of you who don’t tend to consume a media diet rich in the goings-on of gamerdom: No Man’s Sky is a massive new open-world video game announced 5 years ago by a small dev team called Hello Games, marketed with a few fibs and a lot of hype to what eventually bloomed into fever-pitched expectations…and is currently undergoing a refund-fueled ‘expectation recalibration’ among jilted fanboys and disappointed buyers. In the game you explore the vast reaches of space and can seamlessly visit any one of its ~18 quintillion (18,446,744,073,709,551,616) unique planets, each procedurally generated and ready to be surveyed, claimed, and rennamed by you with the possibility of later being experienced by other gamers (however extraordinarily unlikely that is to happen) who are playing in the same world. You mine planets for resources, trade them on an open space market, upgrade your ship and tools, refuel, learn alien words from abandoned glyphs, discover and name new species of creatures, and either wander aimlessly or pursue the loose overarching narrative thread that is leading you to the center of the game’s galaxy. It’s hugely ambitious, unimaginably huge, and… a huge disappointment for many.

But this post is not about video games.

Unlike most people, apparently, I’m actually liking ‘No Man’s Sky.’ Oops. I suspect it’s because the main gripes against it — the lack of true multiplayer as promised, and the tedium of just mining for ore constantly — don’t bother me. I like the scale, the openness, the sense of wonder and discovery, and the thrill of flying through space and visiting alien worlds. My expectations also weren’t sky high. I didn’t follow development too closely, and felt that the basic concept, even if it fell short, would be well worth it. Well, it did. And it is.

Screenshot via ibtimes.co.uk

There are a two main reasons I’m still rocketing between planets in this sprawling sidereal universe and seeking out new life forms to permanently name ‘Kimmy Gibler’ or ‘Jerkhead McDorpenstein.’ For one, the game does a great job of keeping your relation to the planets in space at more-realistic-than-not scales. Planets can be incredibly far apart, and your sense of tiny solitude against the massive and dark backdrop of space can feel a bit…complicated. Even boosting through the fiery igniting atmosphere of a new planet and landing your craft somewhere colorful but desolate feels exactly as unsettling as it sounds. The game conjures up real feelings of excitement and discovery and loneliness and, yes, monotony that any real-world traveler can relate to. In this way, this emotional sense, it’s more of a simulation than an action adventure game. I like spending time in No Man’s Sky’s universe. Playing the game is less about combat or cooperation and more about spending time alone with your curiosity thinking about whether or not all this time spent putting effort into an uncertain outcome is even worth it. What propels you is that thought that maybe — maybe — there’s something new to discover out there.

Anyway, I’m not bored yet. Many others are.

The second reason I’ve committed to the game is the most important: It’s not done yet.

The current generation of consoles is the first to fully embrace the idea that the game you buy is not going to be the game you have in 6 months time. Which won’t be the same game you have a year from then. Updates are now commonplace and frequent, with bugs getting squashed and features getting added along the way now that these consoles are permanently connected to the internet. Games are now mutable, mercurial things. Their code is fluid and changing, not locked into a cartridge with their glitches and levels trapped in a microchip like amber. And for a game whose ambition was so lofty to begin with, I’m willing to bet its creators will eventually, and gradually, deliver on various promises over time. I’m excited to see what they add or remove. I’ve chosen to be long on this vision. I’ve become an investor, not a consumer.

In my favorite scene of Mad Men, head honcho Don Draper gets into an argument with junior copywriter Peggy Olson in his office after hours. She delivered work the client loved, and while she got paid she never received acknowledgement of her role in the win. With tears in her eyes she finally breaks down and reminds Don she didn’t even get a ‘thank you,’ to which he quickly shouts, “That’s what the money’s for!” You see, Don uses money as a reward, not as encouragement. He’s not an investor in good creative, he’s a consumer of it. He pays for results, not future potential. I think the disappointment we’re seeing among many buyers of No Man’s Sky comes from the fact that what they received is not what they thought they paid for. And perhaps many of those who are content with their purchase see their money more as support for what No Man’s Sky pursued and is possibly becoming, and are enjoying their purchase for what it is and not what they thought it would be.

As I said earlier, this post is not about video games. The point is that over the years I’ve come to view most of my discretionary spending not as “purchasing power” just to own or experience things, but as a vote for what I want to see more of in the world. I try to financially support what I want to encourage. I view my online clicks and views the same way — if I don’t want to see more of something popping into my newsfeed I make an effort not to click it, no matter how deliciously clickbaity it may be. And while this mantra has served me well in the real world, where the future is not yet known and latent potential makes optimistic encouragement the rational strategy, this is the first time I can apply this outlook to games.

The physicist David Deutsch holds one of my favorite ways of thinking about optimism, which he outlines in his book The Beginning of Infinity. He says that “if progress is ever to be made, some opportunities and discoveries will be inconceivable in advance.” The optimist knows that progress cannot take place at all “unless someone is open to, and prepares for, those inconceivable possibilities.” It’s the “prepares for” part that I love most. His is not only a scientifically rational brand of optimism, but a pugilist’s brand as well. One that crunched the numbers and is ready to fight for the future it wants. One with fists and grit and a solid shoulder-width stance. It’s ready to throw a punch.

The way I’m seeing it right now: if people request a refund because people expected a 10 and got a 6, then the game will never have a chance to get to 10. But if they leave their money where it is, it gives the developers the resources (and, therefore, time) they need to improve it. Only one of those options has a guaranteed negative outcome. The fact that patches and updates for the game have been unrolling at a mighty clip shouldn’t be dismissed outright as mere maintenance. It could be a sign that your investment is still hard at work, working for you.

Who knows what will become of No Man’s Sky. Maybe nothing. And if you want take-backsies on your money because you expected x and aren’t enjoying y, you have that right and I suppose that’s what refunds are for…though my preferred approach is always to wait for reviews to hit first, just in case. Which is what I did with No Man’s Sky. I wasn’t duped. The polish is mostly there but it’s missing some depth and complexity, and that’s mostly it. It’s undoubtedly disappointing in many ways, but Hello Games took on a massive challenge and delivered most of it, and they did so at a time when internet-connected machines can let them continue to evolve and grow their vision. I hope they do. They strike me as optimists, in the Deutschian sense: ones who pursue challenges without guarantee of success because they know future opportunities, by definition, cannot possibly be known in advance. Those are the creators I invest in. I’m choosing to view this release as a dev milestone and I hope Hello Games does the same, if only among themselves.

I envision the various programmers and art directors in their offices right now feeling the dissonance of watching players around the world delighting in exploration while hearing news of others clamoring for their money back at the same time, wondering whether or not all the time they spent putting effort into an uncertain outcome was even worth it. But then maybe their thoughts turn to the promise of another patch, another feature, another game mechanic, and they start to think of maybe — maybe — giving us something new to discover out there.

Screenshot courtesy of ibtimes.co.uk