Hazy Cosmic Jive

I am deeply enjoying No Man’s Sky, and I think it is a memorable videogame in a year of memorable videogames (like Pokémon Go). So this is a post about No Man’s Sky, the divisive videogame that has puzzled, infuriated and inspired half of the internet. Some great people have written about it: Pippin Barr, Bart Simon, Brendan Keogh, Evan Narcisse, or Rob Remakes: some great people have been interviewed about it, like Kate Compton; and Twitter has witnessed great conversations about it from the likes of, for example, Ed Key. These are my scattershot reflections about the game, far less coherent than many of the texts I’ve just linked to.

First, I think NMS is a failure of game design, or at least of a very particular way of thinking about game design. NMS presents players with the possibility of flying around in a potentially infinite universe. Yet it drags players down to earth by forcing them to engage in mining for resources while limiting their inventory space, which can be upgraded by paying money that can be earned by mining resources. It is a classic game design trick: squaring resource demands with limited storage space scaffolds player progression.

Which would be great if this was a game with a sense of progression. But NMS has no progression: it is a videogame of wandering in space, towards a mythical meaningless centre. So why use classic game design techniques? Maybe because NMS is so aesthetically bold that as a commercial product it needed some kind of hat tip towards its “core audience”? [1] For whatever reason, I think the dissonance between the aesthetic experience and the dull “gameplay” is a cautionary tale about conventions in game design, plus it opens up for a convincing critique of what we mean by “game design”, or more specifically, what is the “design” in game design [2].

Especially if we consider the colonialist undertones of the game mechanics: we explores plunder plants for resources while we name the flora and fauna (that already had a name!). There is always a political and ethical tradeoff when designing game mechanics, and in NMS the tradeoff is very paradoxical: the game has strange ideas about what space exploration is or should be about, and the model promoted by the mechanics is arguably that of colonial thinking (even a very old fashioned form of anthropocentric colonialism, where the wild nature is at the service of the explorer). Players become Humboldt again, naming the edges of the world because nobody was there – despite the fact that others were there! We are erasing the names that these things, these plants, these planets were given, just because we landed in them, and just because that is what “the game is about” [3].

What I find fascinating, though, is how NMS manages to be a great videogame despite the failures of game design. NMS is a videogame about  our embodied, kinaesthetic experience of (being in a simulated) space. The feel of the spaceship when flying is astonishly satisfying: there is no absolute manual control, but thrusting though space, entering warp speed, or just jumping from planet to planet feels just so good. It is a pleasure to exit the atmosphere of a planet and feel the carefully tuned rumble of the controller. Or enter a planet at full speed to automatically glide over its surface, with sufficient heft to feel the spaceship around you. The jetpack is also fundamentally pleasant to operate, making you not weightless, but impossibly athletic. It is aesthetically, and kinaesthetically pleasant to be in these worlds, to travel to and from these planets, to be in space, and that physical reward is what makes it great videogame design.

This embodied experience is heightened by truly excellent sound design and a rich, varied soundtrack. Again, the multimedia aspects of game design are more important than the systemic ones. NMS is an example of how videogame design can be about creating a rich embodied experience without the structures of games. NMS is not a game, it is a playground for the senses.

That’s why I think NMS is a failure of classic game design: because it does not need a game to be playful, to bring us the pleasures of play without the limits of games. Perhaps we are too obsessed with game design being about scaffolding player experiences via what they have to do. Game design is also about this feel, about the kinaesthetic engagement of the player, and NMS excels at putting our own physicality as players at the center of the experience, an absolute success of design.

The other aspect I would like to think in public about is NMS and procedural content generation. NMS uses algorithms to create infinite variations of worlds, plants and creatures, and so it promises the infinite variety of the universe, at our fingertips. And of course this variation is limited: algorithms can only create variations with their limited parameters. The universe is large, with great variation, but this is variation in degrees. And apparently that is seen as a failure of what the game promised. If you want to know more, read Michael Cook’s take on NMS.

Yet I find the procedural content generation a success. See, the worst thing about procedural content generation is the word “content”. We have cornered the meaning of that word, and now it is all about the “stuff”, the “things” that are made by algorithms. We should actually listen to the people that have really thought procedurality through, from Janet Murray and Ian Bogost to especially Michael Mateas and Noah Wadrip-Fruin, and stop thinking that procedural content generation is about making the computer make “stuff”. Procedural content generation is an expressive technique. It not about making stuff but about harnessing the qualities of computational media for expressive purposes.

In that sense, NMS is a success: it creates a universe of properly alien words, worlds that were not created by humans but by processes. In my opinion, the fundamental aesthetic success of NMS is making us experience what Bradbury or Lem wrote about: we are aliens in the universe, that there are forms of being out there that go beyond our humanity, that we are just another set of beings, another result of a combinatorial algorithm. Our (cartesian?) rationality, our being at the centre of the universe [4], is challenged, or better, humbled by the infinite variety of worlds we face, worlds that are indifferent to us.

I think that is the result of the application of procedurally generated content as expression in NMS [5], and it is also another lesson this videogame makes: there are computational forms of expression that are worth exploring, but they cannot be seen just as technical prowess, they need to be framed within an experience that gives them aesthetic, cultural meaning. Creating endless words without human interference [6] results in a space game about an alien traversing the universe, astonished at is variety, in search for an ever elusive meaning.

To me, NMS evokes what David Bowie, ever the starman, sings about: we are beings floating in space, drifting in a hostile universe, creatures of the starts that look up and dream. We are aliens that listen to a hazy cosmic jive in the infinite variations of our worlds, and look out for more. Maybe that’s the meaning of it all: to travel the universe looking for brief moments of cosmic beauty.



[1] I am ignoring here the whole discussion about how many people are angry because NMS is not the game they were promised by marketing. It is a fascinating discussion, but I want to focus on what NMS is, rather than what it could have been, or what corporate companies thought would be profitable to market.


[2] I think the best way to approach NMS is to follow Doug Wilson’s idea of a distinction between game and videogame. NMS is a great videogame that has a less interesting game in it.


[3] For those interested in Humboldt, Daniel Kehlmann’s excellent novel Measuring the World is a fascinating read. I intuitively know there is a connection to be made between it and NMS, somewhere.


[4] And all games are about us being at the center of the universe, because that’s what games are about: the creation of bounded, formally consistent universes that react to our actions (actions that are often the result of mastery). NMS is a refusal of that logic in almost all accounts: the worlds are not there for us.


[5] And I don’t care if that was the goal of the developers or not – I sure hope so, but it is also irrelevant.


[6] Yes, the algorithms were written by humans, but the worlds are not the result of level design. So of course the algorithms are the result of human hand, but what they generate is beyond what a human could decide. That is procedural content generation as expressive form: a collaboration between human and computational ingenuity, for aesthetic purposes.

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