Premortem: ‘No Man’s Sky’

Photo credit: Hello Games                                            What is Premortem?

No Man’s Sky releases tomorrow, August 9th, on the Playstation 4; its PC version releases three days later on the 12th. For several months I have debated whether or not to stamp the word “premortem” in front of this game, and with the launch blazingly imminent now, that ambivalence persists even as I write this. In my post announcing this series, for which No Man’s Sky now makes the maiden voyage, I expressed that Premortem is less a predictive gesture than a nebulous disquiet moved by an unwanted and climbing worry. No Man’s Sky is a strange first assignment because, despite the many trailers and stage demonstrations which have by now explored the game’s collective systems in detail—for example, combat and crafting—the exact nature of the experience that creator Sean Murray and developer Hello Games are aiming to provide players with remains nebulous.

What pushed me to write this finally, with few hours left before the game’s release and fewer still before its review embargo lifts for the press, was, by turns, Murray’s explanation for the embargo’s close proximity to the big launch and his response to the news that a physical copy had been leaked online while others were firing their way into the wild via hair-trigger retailers. I believe him when he claims he doesn’t want the game spoiled, and delayed the embargo for that reason, but there lies the problem. Remember, No Man’s Sky was presented from day one as a randomly, spontaneously generated universe; one whose arithmetic guarantees with all but the rarest exception that no two players will have the same experience. Separate from the odds of players encountering one another in the game—effectively non-existent—there are in principle enough planets to discover (Murray estimates a possible 18,446,744,073,709,551,616) that the notion of having the game “spoiled” for oneself seems absurd. So why is Murray worried?

At least as far back as December, 2014, we’ve known that No Man’s Sky, unlike our own universe, has a center and an end; you can reach it, if you’re surpassingly efficient, after “40 to 100 hours” of playtime. The claim made by the game’s original leaker that it instead takes only “30-40” hours is a non sequitur given that the player admits to having found an exploit to farm in-game currency—currency which directly effects the transportational capabilities, speed included, of one’s spacecraft—in pre-release code. Thirty hours or one hundred, the number itself does not concern me; rather, I find it disappointing that a game 18 quintillion planets large—functionally infinite—has a center.

As a species, the only substitute for solipsism we have learned to accept is strangeness. Strangeness which, if not for being true, would be impossible to accept. I call 18 quintillion planets “functionally infinite” because it is, no less than an infinite number would have been, literally more than we can comprehend. The number itself isn’t strange; it’s a number, a fact—the truth, if we suppose Murray is honest (I do). No, what is strange is the effort: the effort to visualize all of those worlds, to process the cosmic sheathe they collectively not only imply, but necessitate. A quintillion, or an infinity: our imaginations are no match for these, which is precisely why we’re drawn to try. They bring us, in a New York minute, to a precipice. They pull our better faculties every which way.

A center pulls us its way, even if we aren’t certain which way that is. Because the fact alone that we know there is a center does two things: it depreciates for us on a fundamental, psychological level everything that isn’t the center, and it creates an initiative for the player where the moment-by-moment initiative of the player, neutral and unprejudiced, was meant to create the experience for them. Mining an underwater cave teeming with tentacled-sharks, followed by dogfighting alien airships against the corona of twin fuchsia suns, then warping to a far removed arm of the galaxy where neither sharks nor fuchsia anything exists: this was No Man’s Sky’s pitch. With a defined center, however, it’s closer to thatgamecompany’s Journey with the mountain covered up.

Rather than being a simple conceptual contradiction, perhaps Hello Games included this stairway to heaven, conscious of the contradiction or not, concerned over it or not, because they had another, disparate reason to provide a linearity within the labyrinth—a stabilizer for the strangeness. What if the ‘how’ of the game, by which I mean how you play it, makes the ‘what’ less appealing? What if it isn’t engaging enough to fuel the crusade of a hundred planets, nevermind any suffixed commas and zeroes beyond that? This question was nascent for the game, and it has persisted despite the fact that the games press has, for months now, had opportunities to play it.

All available glimpses of the systems with which the player navigates, survives, and thrives in No Man’s Sky suggest a mechanically crude game by design. Hello Games’s ambitions may be toward a Minecraftian model, by which I mean creative ambition spent in all areas but mechanics—which is a respectable and often befitting strategy. Yet however much No Man’s Sky makes good on the imagination it has stimulated since its announcement over two years ago, I worry that it will be a victim of its own success here. Minecraft’s pastel retro block-iverse implies neither mechanical depth nor its appropriateness, but No Man’s Sky invites the mind to frolic and muse. If by placing the initial stress on ‘what’ and not ‘how’ Murray and co. were attempting to speak with silence, the curiosity which resulted over the latter are proof that it didn’t work. Prepare for liftoff, all the same, fellow travelers. We’re about to find out what does.

3 Comments

  1. “Rather than being a simple conceptual contradiction, perhaps Hello Games included this stairway to heaven, conscious of the contradiction or not, concerned over it or not, because they had another, disparate reason to provide a linearity within the labyrinth—a stabilizer for the strangeness”

    I spent three hours watching my friend relieve several moons of their gold ore veins yesterday via PS SharePlay, and the reason for the deliberate linearity I think stems from the game lacking diversity. Bit strange that in a game of a ‘quintillion planets’, but the repetition of harvesting materials and hawking wares became quickly apparent even after such a small time with the game. You’re circling the drain in gradually edging closer to the core of the galaxy, but it seems like reaching it would serve as something of a trophy for all the hours spent honing technologies and analysing fauna. It’s the lure of “just a little more mining, just a little more bartering” that seems to propel your journey, not necessarily a yearning of discovery. It’s a beautiful idea built atop a shoddy mechanic I think. Still, in the coming months I’ll buy it for myself, and I don’t doubt that I’ll enjoy the shifting colours and quest for meaning. It looks like it has just enough there to survive.

    Great article, Ky. Looking forward to your take on the game if you pick it up in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “[…] and the reason for the deliberate linearity I think stems from the game lacking diversity.”
      That was actually what I was awkwardly trying to get at in the sentences which immediately followed the section you quoted. As I said, Hello Games included the linear path within the otherwise open-ended gameworld either because they were self-destructively unwise (it runs conceptually and directly counter to all of the game’s purported/advertised appeal) or because they knew the ‘how’, as I called it—how you actually play the game—was not of a quality or sophistication that could keep players engaged for countless hours of free-form deep space dives. I include in ‘how’ the micromanagement systems related to crafting, bartering, and the rest.

      Suffice it to say, it appears the reason was this latter one, which almost makes the disappointment worse. If they had simply made an unnecessary inclusion, that’s one thing, but they appear to have known from the word Go that the ‘how’ couldn’t sustain such a large ‘what’, and so, instead of presenting No Man’s Sky in modest, clear fashion, they opted to place all their promotional chips on the Scale aspect of the game and remain as quiet as possible for as long as possible about the Play aspect (while giving the player a streamlined option that would potentially make the impoverished ‘how’ less garish). As I alluded to in closing, this clearly backfired on them as it only nurtured intrigue and anticipation about the mechanics and systems. They should have known that players, presented with 18 quintillion planets consisting of (supposedly) completely idiosyncratic lifeforms and environments, would not settle for being mere tourists in these worlds. They wanted to be inhabitants in some meaningful or at least interesting way, if only for as long as they could resist inhabiting 18 quintillion elsewhere’s.

      Thanks for reading as always Ash. No Man’s Sky is, failure or not, one of the most significant releases of this generation for many reasons, and I will eventually buy and review the game, but given the reception so far and the insulting price (full), I can’t say when exactly that will be. I look forward to your own review of the game, whenever or if ever you choose to write one. Cheers.

      Liked by 1 person

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