No Man’s Sky: Through A Screen, Dully

written to get some ideas off my head about why the game I’ve spent the most time with never truly satisfied me.

(Here’s a video I made with the game which shows the potential for unplanned, procedural and player storytelling over the hard ‘written’ aspects I talk about below.)

“Through the game our isolation is lanced and its body broken, we peep out, but what do we see really, minor reflections of our own selves. Our bloodless feeble countenances, devoted to nothing in particular, as far as I can fathom it.”

It’s weird to listen to the opening of Galactic Pot Healer, a 1969 book by Philip K. Dick that starts with a man realising his depression while playing a game via videophone, a few days after I last quit playing No Man’s Sky. It’s a game that exemplifies being ‘devoted to nothing in particular’.

In Dick’s book The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the human colonists of Mars survive their failed subsistence farming by taking a drug to interact with upgradable miniature playsets and enter the world of ‘Perky Pat’, the all American girl and her friends in their white middle-class suburban dream world. Accessories sold separately.

No Man’s Sky is arguably a similar product, but for mid-century science fiction. It’s a space exploration playset where the possibilities are endless, as long as you play with the pieces you are given, and don’t question the idea that drives it. At the time of Dick’s writing the idea of bleak desolate planets were the horror that the people in his worlds were trying to escape from, now they are the sandboxes in which we play. While built almost entirely on its connection to the sci-fi genre however, No Man’s Sky seems to give no real thought to the critiques of modern life that that fiction existed to represent, erasing that possibility in its romantic simplification of society into a series of space stations, outposts and intangible relics.

It’s a boring game. In fact, I think it’s the most boring and inconsequential piece of sci-fi media I’ve ever interacted with.

100 hours of bland resource mining later… I do like to build those bases though.

The game’s construction as a ‘near-infinite’ procedural generation required a modular approach that meant the trillions of worlds produced all have the same types of sparsely placed buildings, the same three sapient species in conflict, and the same pool being drawn from as to what could turn up on those worlds. It’s a samey game of LEGO that an algorithm builds, and while Hello Games continue to add to that modular set, expanding, adding more cool things that you may recognise from other pieces of sci-fi, the problem isn’t with that, but with the limits of the written details imposed on them, the bland, dense and heavily referential text plastered on top.

I got the achievement ‘A Scanner Darkly’ only a couple of weeks after finishing the book of the same name by Dick. The achievement in the game is for attaining ‘Naturalist’ status in scanning ‘Planet Zoology’. The book is about the damaging effects of a drug epidemic, oppressive policing and parasitic ‘care’ services in America on identity itself, dedicated to the pain and death inflicted by this combination of factors on Dick and his friends in California. All of the achievements in the game have a similarly tacked on ‘sci-fi story’ name, yet seeing that one parroted back was weird.

A Scanner Darkly‘s title appears in the novel’s text as the main character, an undercover narc, realises that his mind has been split into two hemispheres, each independently processing and reacting to the world. This is the result of a combination of drugs and the trauma of being so deep undercover that the target he was surveilling, via home installed scanning devices, was himself. While earlier in the book he was aware of the bureaucratically warped situation of becoming the target of his own scanning, the state of ‘seeing through a scanner, darkly,’ comes at the ultimate separation of awareness of the distinctly different lives he lives. In a passage that lays bare pretty clearly the modern parable, and even how the phrase is adapted from the Biblical quote ‘through a glass (mirror), darkly’, he becomes two people unaware of each other, an obsessive cop and a well-meaning addict. The disconnect of the game’s use of the title to designate an award for scanning some animals, and the book’s description of the perceptive nightmare of brain damage caused by addiction and invasive policing, is severe.

It’s as though No Man’s Sky lives in its own state of self-splitting, believing it is a continuation of the works of authors like Dick, while constantly telling on itself, providing the same types of addictive, empty, capitalist, colonialist fantasies those self-same authors warned of, with a cheeky wink to their corpses. The paranoia that Dick exported into his books manifested itself in games, avatars and split-selves that replicated the social damage, depression and trauma of American society. Playing a game that takes these aesthetics and words, and those of other authors, and negates their trauma is perhaps the hollowest possible thing to have done to those texts. It’s the understated, less aggressive, less cringe inducing closing of the loop on this type of science fiction that Ready Player X represents, but just as effective.

To have produced the most boring piece of science fiction in the world.

Imagine that.

I guess it looks pretty though.

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