Matthew Wysocki is an Associate Professor of Media Studies and area Co-Chair for Game Studies with the Popular Culture Association. His research focuses on cultural uses of technology, including professional wrestling, and pornography. His research in the area of video games studies looks at issues of control and agency in games. He is also one of the leading XenoBiologists in the known universe.
I just need to find one more species. The constant background radiation is frustrating but not impossible to deal with, though it is starting to make the search a little tedious. I got lucky spotting species 5, finding two Upicenae Elgarten after cresting a small ridge and sighting them in a depression below me. I was doubly lucky that the massive carnivores didn’t spot me so I was not forced to elude their pursuit. Now I just need to find species 6 and something tells me it is also a carnivore. I’m not sure what it is, just a sense that I have based on extensive personal experience that is right often enough that I’ve learned to listen to it when it is insisting on something. But carnivores are trickier. The best technique is frequently just wandering around and hoping one decides to try to make a meal of me.
I decide to take a short trip in my ship, the Belafonte II, touching down at a trading outpost. I tell myself this will be the last stop here and then I’m off. There are so many other worlds and other life forms out there, calling to me. And then seconds after stepping out of my ship and walking over to a save beacon it leaps out at me. Species number 6! It’s a carnivore! And it’s trying to eat me! As quickly as I can I scan it into the data collection and then run for nearby cover. I’ve done it again. And this time I decide to even rename it, and since it looks like a canine with antlers I call it the Horned Doggo. Another planet down with all species identified, time to head back to the stars, and the other planets, and other species. For such is the calling of a XenoBiologist.
Independent studio Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky has become something of a lightning rod for controversy since its release in 2016. While initially showing tremendous sales numbers for any title, let alone an independent release, it has seen a precipitous drop off in users. Critics and consumers have, amongst other complaints, demanded DLCs and patches, requested refunds, lambasted it in reviews, and even gone so far as to file lawsuits claiming false advertising of their promotional trailers. Hello Games was cleared of all charges in the false advertising case, by the way. In many ways while it continues to have a dedicated core fan base, it also seems likely that it will also serve as a cautionary tale for the games industry.
What makes NMS most notable for analysis is that the (literal) game universe is arguably designed primarily to facilitate a unique type of game experience. NMS was built to have as few constraints as is technically possible on the play experience and is most intended for an audience that wants to take agency to inject ideas, goals, and identifications. The controversy mainly seems to concern players who felt the game did not provide what was “promised” with regard to potential alien interactions, subquests, and storylines. But for players who embraced the lack of constrictions, it was not a vast simulacrum, it was a vast realm of possibility. NMS is game as inherent self-directed play. It is a game where arguably enjoyment comes from basically ignoring playing the game as intended.
At its core, the game does contain what amounts to two missions/structuring narratives. They are essentially optional. One requires the player to travel to the “center of the universe” and discover what is revealed there. [In the interest of full disclosure I have honestly never bothered to find out. I suspect the answer to be something akin to “there is nothing here but the revelation that there is nothing here”]. Alternately the player can “walk the path of Atlas” and receive a number of revelations from this ancient alien race. For example, at one stop in one of the surviving structures the player sees a construct the Atlas have left behind. The text discloses that:
It is alien, unlike anything I have ever seen before. I should be afraid, but an inexorable pull draws me toward the heart of the construct. A need to know. This is a remnant of the Atlas. It welcomes me, it knows what I am. It offers the promise of true understanding. The intent burns in me. I will peer into the structure of causality and know this existence. If it is real, or some incalculably vast simulacrum authored by other intelligences.
Whether or not we can trust these ancient aliens to be reliable in their explanations of the nature of existence, however, remains open to interpretation.
Since the original release Hello Games has added the November 2016 “Foundation” update, the March 2017 “Path Finder” update, and the August 2017 “Atlas Rises” update. These three update patches added additional game play modes, two that are more difficult than the traditional mode and one that removes most difficulty. They have also added the opportunity to set up bases either on a designated home planet or on a travelling space freighter. Lastly, they have revamped the central “storyline” and portals for warping across larger areas of space. While this does add some potential additional structure to the game, the continuing optional nature of said content does not alter my fundamental arguments or claims that NMS is self-directed play. The player remains free to ignore the storyline while also adding more “extraneous” activities such as in the area of base building. In fact, it can be seen as Hello Games responding to certain user complaints without significantly altering the core experience they have created.
But any complaints regarding the “thinness” of the base “mission story” of reaching the center of the universe and finding out “what is really happening” in this vast simulacrum overlook what could and will be done by a player willing to direct themselves. In fact, as Rothchild, Oschsner & Gray (2013) argue “diverse forms of play, even when operating outside of the constraints put in place by writers and designers, are legitimate forms of participation, and, more importantly, are regularly a key and constitutive site of meaning for any given game…. No amount of designer induced constraints, however, can completely limit a player’s agency to inject their own ideas, goals, and identifications into this space (p 84).” Players create their own meanings unique to their play experience that go well beyond what is intended by the creators of their games. Control of the narrative and the game passes out of the hands of those who designed the game and into the hands of the players involved with it. For example, a player could forgo saving citizens of the wasteland for collecting teddy bears in Fallout. Sure, Super Mutants may overrun civilization, but on the other hand, teddy bears.
Obviously, player reaction is individual and it is impossible to dictate that someone play a game the way you feel they should. But it is my contention that much of the criticism and disgruntled fan reaction fails to recognize what can be seen as arguably No Man’s Sky’s most intriguing feature. Much can be made of the technological innovation of its procedural generation system that has tremendous potential to become a standard feature for future game releases. But perhaps more intriguing is the actual play space that has been created here by Hello Games. By crafting a universe that is only tangentially, at best, constrained by any sort of controlling narrative structure, they have created one of more possibility than is realized by those critics complaining about the lack of story or missions. NMS exists as the ultimate sandbox game.
Squire (2008) states that sandbox games are “open ended simulation games … games that have open-ended worlds, through which there is no one single, correct pathway. Sandbox games are known for their status as contexts for creative player expression, with multiple solution paths… as opposed to their ability to create a more-or-less common experience.” Similarly, Tavinor claims “World exploring or world building [sandbox] games are those games that portray a fictional world…. Though these games often do involve rules and objectives, they need not.” Still, both cite numerous examples where there is much more structure than in this example. For in NMS it is ultimately up to the player to climb into this game’s sandbox and determine just what they want to do in this incalculably vast simulacrum.
I recognize that my own individual experiences fall well short of any statistically significant game experience (and also that they can be read as I liked this game, why didn’t you?). But I feel they further illustrate how a self-directed narrative can emerge within NMS’s framework. I am, in my usual humble opinion, one of the leading “XenoBiologists” in the entire Universe. Any planet with life forms on it allows you to attempt to scan and identify all species. Doing so also gains you a financial bonus. If you scan in all species on one planet you obtain Naturalist status and unlock an achievement. On 7 planets you obtain Archivist status and unlock another achievement. Finding all life on 10 planets attains Encyclopedia status and unlocks the gold level Galapagos Achievement. On my first playthrough I found all life on 51 planets and on my restart that came shortly after the release of Path Finder I am up to 34 and counting. This is the emergent narrative that I have built for myself. The universe’s divergent life forms must be catalogued and preserved for future generations. Some of my more unique or difficult discoveries are shared on Twitter on #XenoBiologist. For I am the scientist who will do this.
And I am far from the only player looking to play in the sandbox. Within the framework NMS provides players are indeed getting creative with their efforts. Redbull.com, of all places, has collected a number of instances of more elaborate player activity. A player with the gamertag bikelegs has taken advantage of the Path Finder update that has added growing crops as an activity. But they have also assembled an elaborate spreadsheet that allows others to calculate growing time, yield, and even average payout of crops per hour. NiNip, by the way, gives the highest return per hour. A group has started the Galactic Hub Project seeking to map out the Rentocniijik Expanse of the Euclid region of the Universe. NMS’s new photo tools should be the new standard for future games and players are using them for photo contests. And of course, any game that starts including an economy that has variable trading will result in speculators trying to manipulate it for profit. Beyond all of that I am aware of at least one Twitter account that actually functions as a travelogue for a player and they post to it as if their in-game experiences are part of a large-scale narrative of voyage and discovery from the perspective of an in-game avatar, not the player.
For a XenoBiologist, the work is a solitary one. Honestly I felt I would never finish a single planet in the early days even without the original difficulties in scanning flying species (original players would often shoot birds out of the air and scan the corpse out of macabre necessity). Then after getting the first I felt I would never repeat the accomplishment. Now other game play is just to allow me to return to my pursuits. Much time is spent wandering the surface of various planets and moons looking for the red dot on my scanner that indicates a species I have yet to scan in. I find myself both absorbed in the pursuit and yet free to think about so much outside of the hunt at the same time. Some planets are easy, the specimens practically racing to be discovered. Improvements to the scanner are a blessing. But some planets remain battles of patience and endurance; can I read the terrain, manage the environment, deduce likely remaining xenotypes, and discover the missing ones before frustration sets in and the planet gets abandoned for more fruitful hunts? And always there is the lure of the next planet yet unexplored. But while No Man’s Sky provides a game space for me to pursue my scientific endeavors, it is my desire to play it this way that causes me to return, over and over, to undiscovered territory.
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