Is Anyone Out There?: Alienation in No Man’s Sky

No Man’s Sky explores the loneliness of the networked life

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No Man’s Sky is a lonely game. You wander across vast stretches of plains and forests or barren wastelands of nuclear snow with no end in sight. Often, the only voice you hear is the robotic voice of your Exosuit, informing you of your remaining resources and life support.  Sentient lifeforms are rare.  When you do meet, you don’t understand them. Many planets are barren and void by any sort of life. And, even when life is found, it often takes strange and improbable forms.

No Man’s Sky is a survival and exploration game that drops the player on on the edge of the universe and tasks them with documenting and exploring the game’s 18 quintillion (18,000,000,000,000,000,000) procedurally generated planets. Released only two weeks ago, the game has already caused a bit of a stir. Players seem to love the game for its imaginative and exotic fauna and flora you can find and its immensely open world. But, it also struck a nerve with players who felt the game didn’t live up to its hype or that there simply is nothing to do but explore.

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The game is not generous to its players. Your inventory is small and collecting resources is tedious and time consuming. You must constantly harvest elements (plutonium, carbon, platinum, etc) from the environment and use them to craft new upgrades, fuel, and, most importantly, life support. You can also scan your surroundings and catalogue new species of animals or plants or minerals. The information on the various forms of life you find can be uploaded to the Atlas, a central database that keeps track of the discoveries made by you and other players. In exchange for the data, you are rewarded with credits, the currency of the universe.

No Man’s Sky feels like Minecraft, but without the joy of having evidence of your skill or creativity in the form of an original building or sophisticated replica. What you struggle against are not Creepers, but the hostile elements of unfamiliar territory. There doesn’t seem to be a reward for playing. There is no shelter to build or looming threat to hide from. You are always moving on. Or, you don’t have to. You could explore every inch of the planet. Though, it would take a while.

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Everything about No Man’s Sky is difficult. And this has made many players unhappy, to judge from the many takes, tweets, and an incredibly detailed Reddit thread. You must constantly recharge and reload your tools, life support, and ship. Each planet is too large to explore by foot. While you can make the process easier by flying around with your ship, each takeoff burns a quarter of your fuel. While savvy players have found ways to quickly optimize their inventory and resources, the game doesn’t reward that. After all, there is always another planet to explore.

While this may be a turn off for many players, I’m not interested in reviewing No Man’s Sky for its supposed failures to live up to expectations or, in other words, what the game is not. As Ian Bogost points out, “supporting design novelty risks fetishizing innovation for its own sake over the ways that such innovation helps construct meaningful experiences.” Much like exploring every planet in No Man’s Sky, asking games to constantly redesign themselves towards an unachievable measure of perfection is a task with no end. Instead, I’m interesting in a meaningful engagement with what the game actually is.

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No Man’s Sky explores the feelings of loneliness and disconnection that seem to accompany an increasingly networked life.  While a network of players are contributing to a central encyclopedia and you can visit and see for yourself what others have catalogued, you are still doing the work alone. The game prevents you from meeting these players. But, in a universe with 18 quintillion planets, the chances of meeting them are already quite slim. The language barrier between you and other aliens does fall, albeit very slowly, as you learn a language only one word at a time. While you can sell goods on the galactic market where prices fluctuate, I’m only left questioning where the people I’m selling to are. Robot sentinels constantly scan the environments. On some planets, they attack you but you don’t know why. And, if they are sentinels, what are they guarding? Discovering an outpost or a monolith provides some clues to other forms of life. But, are you discovering the remains of a long gone intergalactic civilization or the outposts of an expanding one?

The feeling of being alone in an alien universe is, well, alienating. Games often try to create relationships between players through competition or collaboration. But, as Bogost observes, some games create relationships through feelings of disjunction and alienation. And, No Man’s Sky is incredibly disjunctive. It reminds players of the “abyss that forever separates them from another.” While players seemingly have a collaborative goal to work towards in the form of the Atlas (a sort of galactic Wikipedia), the prospect is practically insurmountable. It would take maybe 5 billion years for players to explore and catalogue every planet. Coincidentally, it’s going to take 5 billion years for the Sun in our solar system will turn into a red giant, expand, and engulf the Earth.

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No Man’s Sky makes the network visible to the player. Normally, being enmeshed in a network might be a comfort. As Wendy Chun argues, the network dissolves the postmodern discomfort with the idea that the world is too impossible to comprehend. Instead, No Man’s Sky’s network only emphasizes this discomfort. It shows you all the ways in which you’re connected (the Atlas, the galactic trade networks) only to illustrate how distant you are. Not only is the universe of the game incomprehensible, you cannot share in this sublime with others. You are the lonely node at the edge of the network trying to make your way towards its center. And, for the players who’ve reached the center, there isn’t any relief. You are just sent back and made distant once more.

Every small evidence of the social in No Man’s Sky only makes the loneliness more palpable.  The stations and outposts you find are evidence that other life exists out there in the universe. But, their emptiness is also evidence of life’s absence. You are constantly faced with the fact that exploring the universe is lonely work. Perhaps that’s why many players didn’t like No Man’s Sky. The discomfort with being alone with oneself in a universe of fleeting connection can be a bit much to bear.

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Author: Dan Rosen

"What would it mean to have that thought?"

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