What is the point of a game – any game? They can all be reduced to a repeated set of actions, and there might be a goal involved (whether that goal is achieved is another matter). Maybe it’s to do something faster or more often than the opponents (whether real or virtual). Maybe it’s to negotiate one’s way through a branching story. Maybe it’s just to do things better than the last time you tried.
In sports, fans can build narratives of an athlete or team’s successes and failures. In computer games, players can build narratives out of their battles, or the civilisations they construct. Other games are all about getting through a narrative. All of them will involve number-crunching somehow: battles or matches won or lost; things built; milestones achieved. Personally – as I’ve written before – I quite like exploring whatever world the game creators have built.
This brings me to the recently-released game No Man’s Sky (2016; Playstation, PC). At time of writing I’ve been playing through it for a week. I can see myself playing a lot more. For the uninitiated, players start the game stranded on an alien world and must gather resources to stay alive, fix their spacecraft, and explore. There’s a vague goal of reaching the centre of the galaxy, somewhere in the eighteen quintillion other worlds out there. Every star system, planet, landscape, plant, animal, animal call, rock formation, spaceship, alien, space base, monolith, ruin, and sequence of background music is apparently randomly generated, based on a mathematical superformula applied to certain templates. Each moment of the game cannot be repeated.
Like many players, I’ve been following the game’s development since its announcement in 2013. More than anything, I was struck by Hello Games’ MD Sean Murray‘s description of what inspired him to make the game: growing up and exploring in rural Australia, and old science fiction book covers. I connected with this. I used to love looking at the gorgeous illustrations and concept art of Peter Elson or the late Ralph McQuarrie; a particular favourite was Tim White‘s sequence of covers for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels.
So I knew that whatever else I was going to get out of No Man’s Sky, it was an aesthetic experience. It was for science fiction readers – people like me – whose imaginations are sparked by just the right vista on a foreign world. The game provides these in abundance.
Some players have found the game to be repetitive, and boring. Or that it didn’t match their expectations, and that they were entitled to whatever game they imagined it would be (something for another blog post). Others see it as a chimera of gaming conventions. I suspect the best way to enjoy it is to regard it as something to experience, rather than ‘play’.
I fall firmly into the latter group. Like any game, I can make my own narrative, based on the outcome of crunched numbers. It’s a game that can make me feel: lonely, when wandering across a deserted landscape; desperate as I try to blast a shelter cave in the landscape to survive a storm; amused and bemused by some of the more bizarre lifeforms that cross my path; and most of all, curious.
What’s behind that hill? What’s in that cave? Can I fix up that crashed spaceship and make it my own? What can this alien trader give me? What are the behaviour patterns of these creatures? The game mechanics are simplicity itself – because it’s all about the journey rather than the achievements or the destination. Aesthetically, it’s weird and mellow and haunting, but it’s also beguiling and addictive.
I began on a colourful world of giant corncobs. (Now there’s a start to a science fiction story!)
There was a cave nearby, so when the temperature plummetted from 26C to -45C I wouldn’t freeze. On the downside, a flying sentinel was taking an unhealthy interest in my mining activities.
My explorations took me to ancient ruins where I started learning the language of the locals (the militaristic Vy’Keen – presumably space vikings; I’ve since encountered the expansionist gekko-like Gek and an aloof android race).
Feeding the local wildlife allowed me to befriend the creatures, who led me to some of the resources I needed to fix my ship.
On my second planet, I got stuck without fuel to take off again, leading to a long trek through toxic swamps until I found an oasis. At first, I thought I’d be trapped for good, but the long walk through the wilderness was just what I needed to ‘get into’ the game.
It was all about discovery. You weren’t being shot at or chased (unless you tried shooting open a closed door, or annoyed the wildlife), there was no urgency, you could set your own pace and goals. I suspect people’s reaction to the game might say something about their personality (or not). The record of my ‘journey’ shows I’ve been racking up encounters with aliens, learning their language, exploring on foot and scanning new life forms more than anything else. Space piracy and combat barely feature.
Instead, I’m just enjoying the ambience. Just as the game creators intended, I’m presented with one scene after another that could come from a classic science fiction book cover.
So, yes – the gameplay is repetitive. But this is true of every game. The question is, what kind of experience are you after? There are plenty of games out there for the twitchy-fingered and people seeking the instant thrills of combat. But something slower, where the rewards are whatever you make of it? That’s a rare thing, and makes my experience of No Man’s Sky very welcome.