No Man’s Sky. The very title is a reminder of videogames’ greatest, repeat failure: their lack of fully-formed, human characters. I forget exactly the meaninglessly large number of planets No Man’s Sky allows you to explore – the number which, since we are still childishly impressed by hardware power and sheer quantity, lulled the gaming world into an anticipatory fever – but it doesn’t matter, because they are all equally lifeless. Flora and fauna are referred to by their basest elements, carbon, platinum, iron, and so on. Your enemies are robots. The aliens you meet are indecipherable, and are stood, ramrod still, seemingly waiting for you to arrive. Essentially crates, in exchange for highlighting the aliens and pressing square, you receive stock dialogue and an item.
Space stations, the ostensible centres of galactic life, amount to a few small rooms staffed by more robotic aliens. Trading, whereby you sell mined resources to a market comprising innumerable (implied) civilisations, across dozens of star systems, is invariably completed via a cold in-game computer terminal. Its weak and ambiguous central story, wandering soundtrack and unfathomable size suggest there is something amazing to be found in No Man’s Sky. In fact, it’s a game of base accumulation and, by any other name, card swapping – at its centre lie not splendour or magnificence, but the same number-crunching mechanics as the cheap, junk food games available on mobile phones.
“Exploration” implies unfamiliarity, and the discoveries of new ideas and cultures. No Man’s Sky is a resource gathering game wherein you collect points and, as swiftly and simply as possible, exchange them for other kinds of points. Knowledge is accrued by clicking on stones and computers. Rather than broadening your understanding of its universe, or allowing a world explored to stand simply, purely, as an experience had, No Man’s Sky plays consistently to preconceived notions of how a videogame ought to work, as a kind of feedback loop wherein every action is tangibly rewarded. And by reducing them to either functional objects or dispassionate sets of numbers, it expresses an abject disinterest in people and places. No amount of beautified imagery, hyperbolic press or affected bashfulness from its creator, Sean Murray, can disguise that this is software, designed to spark, rather than imagination or curiosity, the reptilian part of one’s brain which craves possessions – regardless of type – and constant positive reinforcement.
No Man’s Sky, outwardly, is disinterested in people or their ways. It is also the rare, disheartening example of a game which, by its internal processes, seeks to dilute the presence of human expression. Created by a procedurally generating algorithm, which randomly arranges flora, fauna and topography, the galaxies and planets in No Man’s Sky are creations not of deliberate, decisive people, whom have something to tell us, but a dispassionate computer, devoid of any intent except to continually produce. The joy of art and entertainment, surely, is the opportunity to share the thoughts and experiences of another person. To walk around the imagination of a machine, as it unthinkingly follows its programming, is as empty an experience as it sounds, one which belies No Man’s Sky’s central premise. You are here to discover worlds and new forms of life. But patently, they are all artificially created. Nature, something which are you repeatedly encouraged to admire in No Man’s Sky, has laws and consistencies – it does not create these landscapes of irregular, randomly placed plants, animals and components.
Such a total absence of consciousness – an explicit, nakedly visible lack of an author – makes No Man’s Sky, as a work of fiction, meaningless. And it feels it. With its bright colours, cutesy animals and general, nauseating tweeness (one is again reminded of Sean Murray’s underdog shtick) No Man’s Sky tries to trick you into believing it has a human heart. But like the novel-printing Versificator in 1984, its personality and wonderment are mass-produced. When you play it, you’re experiencing not the thoughts and feelings of people, but the empty output of a built-for-purpose machine. As games generally become more corporate, and of the production line, No Man’s Sky, not just lacking credible human characters, but visible human creators, borders upon insidiousness, moreso because its simple mechanics and genteel aesthetic make it seem innocent. Certainly, there is something to be found at the centre of No Man’s Sky’s universe, but it is not magnificent. It is a dismal image of videogames, wherein both creators and fans, too in awe of hardware, too cosseted to step outside the boundaries of their own experience, too timid to have convictions, are satisfied to let technology control not just production values but writing and story as well. In short, rather than an expansive universe and the people within, No Man’s Sky is fascinated by the processes of its creation. And when videogames are already woefully self-interested and refusing to engage, tactfully, with real people and real life, I cannot find that wondrous.