Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) is an interdisciplinary centre for research/ creation in game studies and design, digital culture and interactive art


  back to blog

In space, no one can…

Posted by Bart

nmsI am also doing the No Man’s Sky thing. I’ve only been at it for a week now. I’ve been to about 14 planets in 4 star systems, and catalogued and uploaded an huge amount of flora, fauna and alien waypoints. I have pulled in over $2million mostly from mining huge deposits of gold and emeril in a space pirate infested system and have finally traded in my starter clunker of a ship for a $1.5million beauty (the increased cockpit roominess alone was worth it).  I have frolicked with weird squeaky animals, hiked canyons and caves collecting samples of everything, and gone on alien treasure hunts (the distress signals leading to crashed ships are fun). I have battled space pirates and have have escaped by the skin of my teeth 2 times and died 3 times and I have had heart pumping minutes of being miles from my ship, falling from a cliff on a radioactive planet with waning shields and life support (and no isotopes in sight) and barely making it back in time (my son was literally crying.. god damn the melodramatic computer voice over).

That is already enough for me to reckon with all the controversy this game seems to have generated. At least for now, the game is exactly “full” enough (or “empty” enough) for something that can facilitate player generated experiences that vaguely speak to a tangled mess of EE Doc Smith’s  space opera, Clark and Kubrick’s space odyssey (2001), and Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy (I await the infinite improbably drive upgrade) which works for me just fine (‘talking ’bout my generation here :). I will not lie though, I am not playing NMS as the individualized existential experience so many think it was designed to be (where we are all Matt Damon alone on a hostile planet feeling small in a vast universe talking to ghosts or whatever). Its hard to Matt Damon when I have my two wing buddies beside me – my daughter and son. We are definitely more like the crew of the Millennium Falcon as we switch off the controller, bantering and pestering each other to do this or that along with a constant stream of peanut gallery commentary.  That’s always fun for a while and when one or two of us get bored then we can have some alone time in space or on a planet to do whatever. Except when we wanted that new ship. Then is was all mining, all the time, and quick dashes to the space station trying to avoid the pirates.

It wasn’t until I read Pippin Barr’s first impressions of NMS that I started to think more about the neo-colonial and imperialist discourse embedded in the game (a discourse that runs through the history of space faring and exploration culture in general). I had been focusing my critical reflection more on the phenomenon of procedural world making and musing about the idea of algorithms as game designers and alien agencies (the alien agency that writes itself into the script so-to-speak — there are ghosts in the machine all over the place in this game). Maybe I’ll write something more on that, perhaps in conversation with Miguel Sicart’s more Proteus like experiences in NMS but for now I want to respond to Pippin’s prompt.

There can be no doubt that NMS presents us with a universe that is already “ready to hand” (cf Heidegger). Darren Wershler and I have already talked about this quite a bit in the context of Minecraft and there is this interesting Daniel Vella piece, The Wanderer in the Wilderness that looks at both Minecraft and Proteus with a Heiddeggarian lens. Minecraft worlds are more of a ‘standing reserve’ than NMS planets of course because every block is “useful” and convertible. In NMS the standing reserve is revealed to you via your scanners (I am calling this the tricorder moment because its also the mechanic that produces micro-plot points in the narrative such as it is — that’s how Star Trek plots work as well; via this double vision).

You land on a planet and your default imperative is informed by a combination of need and desire premised on your capacity for destruction and accumulation. Your body/your self (you are actually nothing more than your multi-tool and your exosuit in this game – that’s kinda cool) both destroys things so their value can be extracted (either in terms of need or desire) and it collects/accumulates things and information (both are convertible into currency). So yes, this is a unreflexive game about individualism, capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism – “where do YOU want to go today.”  The three most important mechanics in this sense are mobility-expansion (your passage though the universe), accumulation (destroying and collecting), and wealth creation as expansion multiplied by accumulation to the point of excess value (via an obscure market system that, for no apparent reason, manages to place a ATM like kiosk on every god forsaken planet and space station – capitalism colonized the universe seemingly decades or centuries before you arrive in the game).  No wonder Pippin feels like a dick. The universe is already fucked up.

It’s because of this blatant and seemingly unreflexive set of discursive mechanics in the game that might make it an interesting object for further reflection, play and ideally modding (or so that designers could consider opportunities for subversion and counter discourses in the wave of  procedural “likewise” games that are sure to follow).  So here is a counter reading of NMS as a game about neo-imperialism/Empire (or some version of that – I am mushing all the relevant terms on purpose but they can be teased out more gently if desired). There are four sub-mechanics that I think are interesting here so far.

  1. The inventory system — as with so many games the logic of accumulation hits a wall when designers give players limited inventories. Of course this generates a core set of game goals that is reminiscent of my D&D days when the most important magic item you could have was a “bag of holding.” Players get pissed off because this inventory work or sorting, classifying, stacking, etc… detracts from the game experience (others say it preps us for white collar reality) but in terms of capitalist logics there is something to think about here. The problem with capitalism-imperialism is not consumption as such (we need to eat, to have shelter, and even create culture which includes technology) but rather exploitation. Or as Marcuse would put it there is a difference between consumption based on need and consumption based on desire…  do you need a bigger ship or do you desire it? The fact is that games turn desires into material and not just representational/symbolic needs by not allowing players any meaningful action unless they act on imputed desires (in games, desires are hardwired as needs).  If you don’t get a bigger ship you really aren’t going to get very far so forget getting to the centre of the universe or experiencing any of the cool mid/late game stuff we might have for you but please enjoy feeding the bunnies. At least in the early game though I find it interesting to play to the inventory. We started by collecting everything because we didn’t really know what we needed. As a result, being rational players, we laid waste to everything surround our ship until we could hold no more…the implicit idea is that everything is useful eventually so we just need more space so we can keep laying waste. But that gets boring and useless very quickly and now we must play according to our needs and more importantly we (because I do this together with my kids) must evaluate our desires and decide what to convert into needs because the inventory only allows us to tackle one or two things at a time.  Even when our desire/need became to “make money” to buy a ship we were forced to abandon wasteful accumulation in favour of what might (I said might) be regarded as sustainable mining.
  2. the Mining system – you can find this info now in NMS hints and stuff.  As with Minecraft it pays to precision mine large veins of valuable material rather than do these giant open pit affairs which destroy everything (unless you have automation in Minecraft in which case open pit mining is the way to go – it is beyond Koyaanisqatsi scary believe me). Interestingly it is also not necessary and maybe even more efficient to abandon the scanner (which renders the world visually as standing reserve) in favour of nap-of-earth flight (which is quite fun) using plain sight to spot a mix of phallic and breast shapes of valuable gold and emeril dotting the landscape with no apparent geological rationale.  Once you spot a breast of gold, you work on your timing to land right beside the thing and mine it to oblivion with your tool (some folks are carving sculptures in these geological formations which is also cool). The thing is, it takes a good few minutes even with mining beam upgrades to pulverize that rock and I am going to venture that there is some degree of intimacy that one develops with the rock as one shapes and reshapes it (fondles it?) until there are just gravity defying fragments (another Minecraft trope) or you attempt to clean up every last drop for the sake of the view (which is actually really time consuming – even with grenades). This is like no strip mining experience in any other game I have ever played… I have written a bit about it in terms of the pleasures and rhythms of tool use in Minecraft (especially the pick) which might be similar but something about the care and attention (intended or otherwise) to value extraction in this way strikes me as interesting and its an experience that can only be produced by the accumulation logics of the game. If you don’t play the game to make millions of units then you probably won’t have the mining experience I have just described.  Of course, while we do this we are also lamenting that we can’t do it faster but this is the rich tension that the game might produce for players.
  3. the flying system – its very fun to fly in this game — inter-steller, inter-planetary and planetary travel are very dramatic in the early game. I love playing first person Asteroids and nap of earth flight across planet surfaces doing barrel rolls and loops (though I wish I could get manual control and fly dangerously low and through caves and stuff like everyone else). Anyway, its too easy to fly and this easiness contradicts the intimacy and reflexiveness of the mining mechanic and the inventory mechanic I have just discussed above. Once we learned to hop between veins of ore it changed how we walk so now we just set down next to a ore deposit, mine what we need, get ancillary resources around it and then take off again whereas before (during out laying waste phase) we would hike almost 10mins (real time) away from our ship before turning back.  Those away missions can be insanely dramatic and full of discovery, narrative and affect (especially for my kids it seems).  Of course we can make ourselves go for a hike but now I am thinking we need something like Pokemon Go inside NMS to get us to go for walks because we are getting lazy.  In fact the problem is that plutonium is too plentiful. .. it actually takes a fair bit of fuel to take off and this could, in good sci fi fashion, help to limit the use of the ship as a teleporter.  How many amazing Star Trek episodes were spurred by a search for dilithium crystals?  That fact that Plutonium (Plutonium!!!) grows on trees (well it sticks out of the ground like weeds) in this game just mucks that up… I hope its just because we are still in the newbie part of the universe that we keep tripping over the stuff but again there is something about the pace of movement – too fast/too slow/just right – that matters in terms of the reading of the neo-imperalist discourses of the game.
  4. the narrative system – other than the flora and fauna there do not seem to be indigenous “peoples” on any planet and moreover every planet and moon seems to have a trace of an alien colonial empire that has been there before (thus we are really talking about the colonization of land and space  as a metaphor for colonialization in general).  Those traces of alien others who are maybe us, are enough to generate a nature/culture divide because players come to rely on these pockets of civilization to direct navigation, establish game goals, or seek refuge (civilization is a need not a desire yo!). The alien bases are mostly safe zones while the planet around is presumed to be hostile (its Heart of Darkness stuff). We didn’t spend long enough on the first solar system to get the whole story but we did discern that there was some tension between the alien colonizers (with their bases, depots, market systems, religious monuments etc…)  and the sentinels (who are supposed to be the equivalent of Greenpeace warriors I think). So its a bit like you are intruding on some kind of colonization story rather than being complicit in it. Its a bit disheartening in the sense that these alien races are already much smarter and more organized than you. You never seem to be one of “them” because you don’t speak the language (the first word I learned from the first race I met was “interloper”) and they have already been everywhere. So what does that make you?  Neither colonizer nor colonized.  Maybe you are a tourist but even tourists are complicit in the colonial/neo-colonial project. It could be that I am “becoming colonizer” in the sense that part of play progression is learning the language and finding or “currying” favour with each encountered master race.  Maybe this is a Franz Fanon story and it relates to the fact that the player has no avatar and no biography… no skin, no stats, no nothing, except for eyes, a gun/tool and jetpack/backpack/suit. In any case, you can give up on manifest destiny. I see no point at all in naming anything that has already been named by races that are clearly far more wealthy and powerful than I will ever be and the game doesn’t really suggest that you should stick around anywhere for very long so interplanetary flaneurie it is!