Dr. Livingston in No Man’s Sky

The effect of researching interactive media

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Mark, who was classically trained to play Pitfall on a Commodore 64, is completing his PhD in Communications Rhetoric and Digital Media at North Carolina State University.  His work primarily focuses on exploring ‘unconventional’ uses of game design as an art form, and the potential effects, emotional and otherwise, associated with the act of designing games.

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Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.
– Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida.

Introduction

Since its inception, the camera has captured and confounded us. The introduction of recording devices ranging from the phonograph to the photograph marked an astounding technological achievement: we could now collect moments in time.  Relatively recently, this affordance has been extended to our gaming experiences.  Consoles have incorporated screenshot functions into their operating systems, like the PlayStation 4’s dedicated “SHARE” button for recording and sharing gameplay. More dynamic “photo mode” features are creeping into many of the most visually compelling games as of late, such as Shadow of Mordor, Grand Theft Auto IV and V, Uncharted 4, and Batman: Arkham Knight.

But I came here to talk about No Man’s Sky.

When No Man’s Sky (NMS) was originally released, it was met with mixed reviews.  Across the board, it seemed that players either loved the game or despised it. Indifference to the game, at least from my experience of the reviews and public response to the game, was not common. My experience with NMS was atypical; from my studies at North Carolina State University, I was charged with playing an open-ended game for forty hours and documenting the experience.

While most gamers were playing NMS, I was playing the role of researcher.  As a researcher, I made a point to arrange my play space optimally.  I played the game in my living room with my PC hooked up to my television and used a Steam controller. I went through the usual routine, cranking up graphics settings, adjusting the sensitivity of the controls, and other things I normally would do; however, just before I started on my space-safari, I mapped a screenshot trigger to my Steam controller, turning it into a camera. This was research after all, and forty hours is a long time.  I would hate to forget an integral part of my gaming experience due to poor documentation. I was on an expedition: discovering planets, naming strange plants and animals, collecting strange minerals, doing research!  I didn’t anticipate how deeply my “camera” would influence my space-cation-esque metanarrative.  In the following, I  describe my initial elation with the game, my gradual fatigue, and the discrepancies between my experience of NMS and that of someone not playing the game for research.

The opening screen for No Man's Sky

Figure 1. First time opening the game. Each star represents a solar system in the NMS universe.

The First 20 Hours

This wasn’t the first time that a game was the focal point of my research, but it was the first time I turned the lens on my own gaming experience.  The novelty of playing as research was so exciting that I lost track of time and sleep, and the first seven hours of my NMS experience was a single sitting from 9 in the evening till around 4 in the morning.  I took pictures of everything:  a picture of my first ship; a picture of the first planet I found – it had beaches –; one of my first ship at the first beach I found.

 

The author's first ship in No Man's Sky

Figure 2. I took pictures of my first ship the same way I took pictures of my first car and was deliberate about the framing of the photo.

The view from outer space in No Man's Sky. A planet is named Hepzind Twerk.

Figure 3. My first view from outer space, and my realization that the first planet I discovered had the word “twerk” in its name. I had the option to change it but opted to leave it as it was.

A screenshot of the author's ship in No Man's Sky, parked on a beach.

Figure 4. First “ride”, first beach. Photo-op!

 

Everywhere I went my camera went with me. I was tourist with an infinite amount of film in an infinite universe. The next day (or later that morning, depending on how you look at it), I pushed my “photos” on colleagues as if they were pictures of an overseas vacation. Here I am at the beach.  Here is the cockpit of my rental spaceship. Isn’t it cute? ISN’T IT?!  They humored me.

The next day, my little red spaceship-that-could ran out of storage space, and I was forced to find a “new ride.” I was reminded of the day I left my 1985 Oldsmobile for a “new” 1986 Chevy.  Discarding things is a core part of the game, and NMS dictates that the moment a player walks far enough away from something it disappears forever. Every object in the game is single use. Interact, move on, interact, move on.  So I flew away, never to drive my little red spaceship again. I still had my pictures.

A screenshot of the author's second ship.

Figure 5. My second ship. I didn’t like its looks, but it had more cargo space. It felt like trading a sports car for a mini-van.

Somehow, having these pictures made the inevitable transition to a new vehicle more bearable, and my emotional attachment to the objects in NMS shifted to a functional attachment. It wasn’t that the worlds of NMS weren’t fantastical. Trees were colored in intense pastels; the ground was often blue or yellow; the animals were random and bizarre. Still, it never felt like the organisms in NMS had evolved from their environment; rather, they were just a random assortment of weird arms, legs, antennae, and beaks made to move like animals. Strange became ordinary, and my ability to record images of these oddities only exacerbated a lack of interest in each individual find. “Oh look, another bizarre plant… meh.”  My photos started to highlight things that weren’t weird: trees that were decidedly deciduous, snow that looked like snow, fish that looked like fish. For hours, I wandered on a wintery planet simply because it felt like a return to something familiar. I later named this planet “Santa Land” in homage to David Sedaris; the “Land of Misfit Toys” seemed to be on every planet except “Santa Land.”

A screenshot of a very brightly coloured planet in No Man's Sky

Figure 6. Strangeness gave way to ridiculousness. I think I ended up calling this planet “McDonalds.”

A screenshot of a planet that appears to have perpetual winter.

Figure 7. I longed for something grounded in familiarity. Above is a picture of “Santa Land.”

Hours 20-40

NMS’s universe-building algorithm had limitations, and just after 20-hours, I found myself working inside a set of game mechanics rather than looking for nuance.  Buildings and other structures only came in six or seven distinct designs, and the variations in the flora and fauna started to show limitations. The buildings were always white and pod-like and connected in a predictable fashion.  The plants with the most useful materials for mining always looked the same no matter what planet I was on.  It was at this point that “quests” and “missions” became “goals” and “achievements”; a subtle shift in semantics that made the game a slog. I stopped naming planets or animals (a key feature of the game) and my attention turned to just finishing the forty-hours of gameplay required for my research. I had become apathetic to monumental technical achievement of NMS’s universe-generating algorithm, and reduced entire planets to “the place where fuel is.”  The achievements felt like a to-do list, and I only took photos to document how bored I was.

An achievement the author earned for killing 60 NPC pilots.

Figure 8. One of my many achievements. This one congratulated me for murdering 60 NPC pilots.

My arrival at the final Atlas Interface – a cryptic carrot-on-a-stick that provides a loose narrative for the game – was anti-climactic to say the least.  I arrived, read the flavor text, and took a couple photos out of academic obligation. My camera could only add so much to the NMS experience.  Had there been a souvenir shop, I most certainly would have skipped it.

A screenshot from a late part of the campaign in No Man's Sky

Figure 9. Approaching the end of the Atlas narrative.

What am I doing here?

Now that I have a photo album full of pictures, I’m left to wonder how I should  dissect this game. I certainly have a few options.

 I could draw connections here to Aubrey Anable’s representational criticism of game mechanics as narrative, and Taina Bucher’s exploration into the attentive assemblage between humans and software. Or perhaps I could discuss how Anable might conclude that the player’s engagement with NMS is less about exploration and more of a tale about capitalistic and hegemonic manifest destiny. Then I might draw connections to Bucher and add that naming things in NMS gave me a sense of ownership and power, but ultimately I was still relinquishing creative control of those names to software itself, or more specifically to Hello Games’ servers.

What if I wrote a lamentation of the fact that Steam, per their user agreement, owns the rights to all my safari pictures? Wouldn’t it be timelier to discuss how NMS is a game of capitalist entropy where the player uses their limited inventory to stay alive, fuel their ship, and buy more schtuff? Would a social commentary on how games like NMS are not unlike social media sites, collecting our data to provide value for other players and ultimately their game? “Oh neat. Someone named that swamp planet ‘Dagobah.’”

I could do these things, sure. They’re interesting scholarly projects worth investigating. But what if I focused on the things I have that no one else has? What if I focused my attention on my safari, my camera, my narrative.

Let’s refer to the quote at the opening of this essay, where Roland Barthes discusses the effect the camera has over him: “Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image” (1982, p 10). My camera has ironically skewed everything in the form of perfect pixel-for-pixel stills of my time in NMS. I found myself performing for the camera in NMS. I was lining up shots, using the rule of thirds, trying to create a sense of depth despite an inability to focus my lens.

As a researcher, I tried to perfect my gameplay experience and incidentally attuned myself to a different vision of NMS than what I otherwise would have experienced. J. McGregor Wise’s definition of attention as an assemblage of incoming stimuli and factors that is ever changing (2011, p 170) provides a lens for the relationship between myself, the software, the research, and the camera. The camera and research wasn’t part of Hello Games’ original code, but my relationship with the game was certainly driven by the assemblage of the game, my goals as a researcher, and the presence of a camera-like apparatus.  Had I played NMS “normally,” I might never have thought to add a screenshot function to my Steam controller, nor would I have added the safari metanarrative of a researcher. The simple act of researching formed my experience regardless of NMS’s design, not because of it.  I therefore turn my discussion towards the act of research itself.

Many researchers have called attention to the effect of a researcher on the subjects they are observing. Vinciane Despret recalls a study in which Thelma Rowell observed the eating habits of sheep. Before Rowell’s study, most researchers would observe sheep behavior when food was limited. Rowell posited that the removal of food had added the variable of scarcity causing more aggressive behavior in the sheep. By removing an artificial scarcity and providing the sheep with an abundance of food, Rowell observed complex social structures and behaviors never documented before (Despret 2006). Like the researchers before Rowell, I was adding features to the NMS experience that most other users didn’t have, or emphasize. Adding a camera to NMS was not dissimilar to adding a scarcity of food to the observation of sheep. It changed the conditions and shifted the experience. As a researcher with a camera, my narrative for NMS was truly unique from what it might have been otherwise.

Conclusion

It would be easy to limit this essay to note how the addition of a camera contributed to both a more positive experience and negative experience of NMS. Instead, I find my gamer persona in an existential crisis. Sure, bringing a camera into NMS completely altered my engagement with the game; but it was my researcher mindset that inspired me to bring the camera in the first place. From the start, I was doomed to have a game experience unlike anyone else’s. On the other hand, photo modes can be added to games after their release and it’s not uncommon for gamers to record their gameplay (hello, Twitch). In fact, as I’m editing this article, Hello Games added a photo mode for NMS in a large patch for the game.

I have the rare privilege of justifying my gameplay with statements like, “I’m not playing; I’m doing research.” I might be a researcher of games now, but my love for games certainly existed long before I started writing about them (thanks, Commodore 64). This distinction between games as enjoyable leisure time (Eklund, Jonson, 2012, p148) and enjoyable research time is not a concern of many players, and I worry if my perspective as a researcher is alienating my experience of games from the rest of the world or even my own readership. I certainly enjoy the cool factor of saying I study and write about video games, but if my experience of games is too far removed from that of the average gamer, then who am I writing for in the first place?

References

2016). No Man’s Sky. Hello Games.

Anable, A. (2013). Casual game, time management, and the work of affect. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology.

Barthes, R. (1980). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. (R. Howard, Trans.) New York: Hill and Wang.

Brown, P. (2016, August 12). No Man’s Sky Review. Retrieved from GameSpot.

Bucher, T. (2012). A technicity of attention: How Software ‘Makes Sense’. Culture Machine, 13, 1-13.

Despret, V. (2006). Sheep do have opinions. In Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (pp. 360-370).

Eklund, L., & Jonsson, F. (2012). Time to Play: The rationalization of leisure time. Proceedings of the 2012 iConference. ACM.

Grant, C. (2017, March 8). No Man’s Sky was built for this photo mode: Are we into No Man’s Sky again? Polygon.

Kollar, P. (2016, August 12). No Man’s Sky Review. Polygon.

Peckham, M. (2016, August 09). Review: ‘No Man’s Sky’ Isn’t What You Wanted. Thank God. TIME.

Wise, J. M. (2011). Attention and assemblage in the clickable world. Communication matters: Materials approaches to media, mobility and networks, 159-72.