This guest article was written by Salvatore Pane, author of the novel Last Call in the City of Bridges and Mega Man 3 from Boss Fight Books.
The hype for No Man’s Sky was even bigger than its in-game universe—an algorithm-generated 18 quintillion planets, each with its own creatures, environments, and secrets gamers were salivating to discover. Trailers and interviews with the creators were vague enough to allow players who’d come of age on Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica to imagine not just a massive universe, but one filled with endless activities and wish-fulfillment fantasies. I mainlined trailer after trailer, podcast after podcast, and could almost see myself joining a spaceship attack squadron and assaulting freighter after freighter. I could smell the caves below an alien desert and all the treasures and dangers that awaited me. I dreamt about bantering my way through a Star Wars-styled cantina and resorting to my blaster to fight my way out to freedom and the twinkling stars above.
No Man’s Sky lets you do none of these things. Instead, the most hyped game of 2016, the most technically impressive game of a generation, is a melancholy meditation on loneliness, on how small we are when compared to the infinity of our actual universe. As promised, No Man’s Sky contains 18 quintillion individual planets that are procedurally generated by an algorithm, and you really can visit each one—even though our own sun would burn out before you could actually do so. The problem is there’s not much to do once you actually visit one of these planets. The opening swath of the game—the section that most resembles a typical video game—begins with your avatar stranded on a random planet and guides you toward repairing your spaceship. The faux-tutorial teaches you how to power your constantly draining spacesuit—key to survival—and the basics behind blasting off and trading one solar system for the next.
But the moment you leave your first solar system, the game never again gives you a meaty, substantial goal, the lifeblood of most video games. The game suggests that maybe you should head to the center of the universe or perhaps follow the path of Atlas—a weird techno-cult—but your choice is essentially meaningless. The general feedback loop of No Man’s Sky after the first hour or so is fly to a new planet, mine it for resources, fuel your ship, upgrade your suit and gun, sell off rare minerals, and repeat ad nauseum. Comparisons to Minecraft and Terraria are apt, but No Man’s Sky doesn’t really let you get creative with the environment in any way. More importantly, each planet is really, really similar. There are only a few things you can find on each one—a trading station, a tiny outpost, a drop pod—and these designs repeat endlessly. Your first outpost is exactly the same as your 50th. Occasionally, you might stumble across a black hole or a mysterious alien base, but mostly, you gawk at rock formations and feel sad.
No Man’s Sky is the most massive video game I’ve ever played, but it’s also the emptiest. You rarely run across other lifeforms capable of speech, and everything—from the soundtrack to the color palette—is tinged with a bittersweet sadness, a bizarre nostalgia for the sci-fi trappings of the 1950s, a time the designers of No Man’s Sky, not to mention the majority of players, didn’t even experience firsthand.
No Man’s Sky isn’t a fun game, and it doesn’t seem particularly interested in fun at all. It has something of note to say, but I still probably won’t play it again. Like so many gamers, I salivated over No Man’s Sky for months, downloaded it on release day, and sank thirty hours into it over two weeks’ time. But because of its constantly draining life meters and lack of goals or activities, I probably won’t go back until the game has some substantial DLC that adds significantly to what’s already in the game. Last year, I wrote an essay for Haywire Magazine contrasting BioShock, Noby Noby Boy, and the 2012 Harmony Korine film Spring Breakers in an attempt to argue that video games should no longer be judged on the criterion of “fun” alone. But my conclusions were murky. If games don’t necessarily have to be fun in the traditional sense of the word, what should they strive for? Is No Man’s Sky still a successful game even though it’s at times painfully boring, especially when you’re wrestling with its unforgiving inventory system? What about games that actively attempt to be boring or confrontational? How do we address them? How do we talk about them or review them?
Before universe-generating algorithms, before video game narratives became as long as War and Peace, there was Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his seminal 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Initially, the book seemed to have little to do with video games. In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi argues that people are happiest when they’re completely and utterly absorbed by a difficult but rewarding task. If a given task is too difficult, this produces anxiety. If it’s too easy, boredom. But if the task is Goldilocks-perfect, a person will lose track of time and become happily fixated and eventually satisfied.
As the decade wore on, intrepid video game developers, and later game critics, took notice of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory and began applying it to games. According to the philosophy, a truly fun and absorbing game—say, Tetris—works because it puts players directly into a flow channel. As their skill increases, so does the challenge. The game actively avoids anxiety and boredom so completely that a player’s entire ego or sense of being slips away. Soon, perfect flow became the platonic ideal for a successful video game, but the seeds of flow theory were planted in gaming’s earliest days, dating all the way back to Pong.
Even though Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience wasn’t published until 1990, the first and second generation of video game designers and coders understood and abided by its overall principles. The more fun and challenging an arcade game like Ms. Pac Man or Space Invaders or Breakout was, the more players would dump in quarters. The more fun and challenging an early console game like Pitfall! or Super Mario Bros. or Metroid was, the more time a player would spend and the likelier they’d be to buy the company’s next game. These early video games—nearly everything from the ’70s through the ’80s—were so small in terms of file size that it’s no surprise they eschewed the shock and overwhelming sense of discovery of No Man’s Sky and the narrative ambitions of something like BioShock in favor of bite-sized bursts of flow-focused fun.
And perhaps this is why video games are still judged by this criterion. The roots of the industry are intertwined with concepts of fun and playability and flow, and gamers who are in their late twenties or older grew up on generations of games that rarely deviated from these relatively simplistic—if enjoyable—aims. It’s also important to note that many modern games, if not the overwhelming majority, still aspire to flow. Hotline Miami, Star Wars Battlefront, the Madden series; all these games and more still attempt to perfectly place consumers in Csikszentmihalyi’s flow.
But a new generation of games, including No Man’s Sky and innovative titles like Firewatch or Lim or Unmanned, with roots stretching back to the earliest days of PC gaming, seems to have little interest in flow or traditional notions of what it means to be a fun video game. Grading these games by the same standards with which we review Shovel Knight or Street Fighter would be shortsighted and reductive. But what exactly are we looking for, if not fun? What sets these games apart from their flow-focused contemporaries, and what sets them apart from each other?
When I imagined No Man’s Sky, I pictured a souped-up version of Colony Wars, an underrated 3D space shooter for the original PlayStation I’d adored as a high school nerd. But as I logged more and more hours in the empty cosmos of No Man’s Sky, the games I kept thinking about were seemingly nothing like it: the feminist indie darlings Cibele and Gone Home.
Cibele is an autobiographical game for Steam designed by Nina Freeman that began its life as a prototype in an NYU graduate seminar. It follows Freeman as a college student who meets a young man in an online RPG similar to Final Fantasy XI and chronicles their sexual misadventures, a Goodbye, Columbus for the digital age.
Freeman plays herself in the live-action cutscenes, but the actual gameplay of Cibele is split up between two distinct modes. First is a voyeuristic take on Freeman’s desktop. The player can view her photos—which become more and more sexualized as her relationship with Ichi deepens—read her college poems, or even pore over old chat logs. There’s something illicit about the freedom you possess in this section, the ability to look without being seen, to spend as much or as little time as you want digging through the personal files of an anime-obsessed, nerdy college student, and Cibele steers right into the center of this discomfort. You feel guilty for prying, but you intuitively understand from a lifetime of video games that if you don’t read and look at everything, you’ll miss out on some vague, indeterminable something. Every collect-a-thon from Banjo-Kazooie to Super Mario 64 has reinforced this impulse, and Cibele actively interrogates it before you even reach the meat of the game.
The most traditional play mode of Cibele is Valtameri, the fictional online game in which the protagonist voice chats with Ichi. Valtameri is 2D and incredibly boring. You wander around a relatively small playfield—think the original Gauntlet—and team-attack simple, roving monsters. Kill enough, and the level boss will appear then disappear once you skim away some of its health. You repeat this until the boss dies. There’s no way for the player to fail.
However, these sections are designed to be boring. Instead of focusing on the typical video game actions of killing and looting, the player is expected to be paying attention to the relatively nuanced voice chat between the protagonist and Ichi. Valtameri is intentionally repetitive and simple; otherwise, it wouldn’t be believable that the protagonist and Ichi could have a complex and frank discussion about love, sex, and relationships. The game eschews fun and flow and instead uses tedium as a delivery system for its central themes, which would feel right at home in any number of old media coming-of-age stories.
Cibele doesn’t make you want to play through its systems again and again the way something like Super Mario Bros. 3 or Twisted Metal do. Instead, Cibele possesses what I’m calling a core complexity— a deeper emotional/intellectual goal the game in question drives players toward—that transforms it into a worthwhile and memorable experience for the gamer. It’s not focused on flow or fun and instead runs gamers through complex questions about voyeurism, sex, and relationships in the digital age. Admittedly, those questions are handled in a slightly sophomoric way—which is appropriate, given the subject matter and age of the characters—and the game escapes this potential misstep through its short length. Cibele can be completed in two or three hours if you read everything, and that length, in addition to the core complexities, is enough to power you through the tedious Valtameri sections. Freeman is wise enough to know that the core complexities at the heart of Cibele combined with the lack of traditional video game “fun” aren’t enough to prop up a thirty-hour campaign, much less the simulated infinity of something like No Man’s Sky.
The key here is realizing Cibele isn’t an isolated incident in a landscape populated by Call of Duty ripoffs. With the advent of game design suites like Unity and GameMaker, not to mention video game online retailers like Steam and its console equivalents, the barrier to producing a retail video game on major platforms has never been lower. This has led directly to a flood of more intellectually challenging games like Cibele that completely forego flow and traditional notions of fun. Gone Home, a game from former BioShock 2 devs, revolves around a gay teenager coming out to her family after discovering the Riot Grrrl movement led by punk rock stalwarts Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy. The actual gameplay consists of walking very slowly around an empty house, reading letters and journal entries. Every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you stumble across a Riot Grrrl mixtape you can actually play for a few minutes. There’s nothing fun about this experience, but the player is pulled through the game by its core complexity and themes—the relatable story of a family splitting apart, a young girl striving toward adulthood—that have always powered old media like film and literature.
In my triennial review toward tenure, I described 2016 standout Firewatch as a midlife crisis simulator. You play the role of a middle-aged man estranged from his wife, who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. After a drunk driving incident gone awry, you spend the summer as a forest ranger waiting around for a fire to break out. Although the final third of the game descends into typical game narrative tomfoolery, the first two-thirds consist of you wandering around the forest and chatting with your superior over walkie-talkie. That’s basically the entire game. It’s never fun, and it’s far closer to My Dinner with Andre than it is to Contra III: The Alien Wars. The core complexity of Firewatch is concerned with whether or not it’s feasible to move on after you’ve reached a certain age, if new human connections are even possible once your hair’s started graying.
All of these games and a litany of others like Depression Quest, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, The Stanley Parable, and Life is Strange, to name a very small few, value core complexity over Csikszentmihalyi’s flow and fun. It’s also no coincidence that most of these experiences are relatively short. While a traditionally fun game like Grand Theft Auto V or Fallout 4 can support a massive campaign and modest core complexities because of flow-centric systems powering the gamer experience, the aforementioned games don’t have that luxury. The gameplay isn’t enough to suck players in, so the designers whittle the experience down—more akin to a poem or short story than to Infinite Jest.
If you take a step back and look at my list of games that strive toward core complexities and my complaints about No Man’s Sky, you might draw a false conclusion: core complexity means thoughtful narrative. I don’t think that’s the case.
This past summer, I spent five weeks traveling from my home in St. Paul to Salt Lake City, Vegas, Seattle, Philadelphia, Scranton, Manhattan, Morrisville, Boston, Cape Cod, Cape May, then finally home. It wasn’t a great plan, and I was often exhausted, longing for my normal routines, my writing, and my PlayStation 4. I brought books and a Nintendo 3DS. But something totally revolutionary and unexpected dropped on the second day of the trip. Nintendo—via Niantic and The Pokemon Company—released Pokemon Go.
I don’t want to veer into hyperbole, but Pokemon Go saved my life. Whenever I was feeling overwhelmed by friends or family or the many moving parts of a five-week trip, I buried my face in my phone and explained that there was a rare Pokemon nearby or a weak Gym that absolutely demanded my complete and total attention. In case you’ve willfully ignored the phenomenon that is Pokemon Go, the boiled-down game is simple: You walk around the real world and encounter digital Pokemon, the cuddly cartoon mascots Nintendo debuted over 20 years ago on the original GameBoy, on your phone. These encounters take place in augmented reality; i.e., your phone shows a slice of the real world in front of you with a little digital Pokemon pasted on top of it. You can catch Pokemon by swiping Pokeballs at their bodies, and the meat of the game involves searching your environment for more Pokemon, PokeStops—to replenish your constantly dwindling items, the equivalent of No Man’s Sky‘s mining—or Gyms, where you can team up with one of three identical factions and fight for local dominance.
As I traveled the country with Pokemon Go in my pocket, I forced friend after friend—and later family member after family member—to endure one Pokemon-themed trip after another. In Vegas, I was nearly kicked out of a casino for catching a Growlithe on a blackjack table. In Seattle, I joined a dozen players scanning the shores of Lake Washington for monsters, then met even more in Cal Anderson Park catching Rattata, seemingly oblivious to the real-world rats scurrying past our sneakers. In Manhattan, I posted up outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre and caught monsters while my wife marveled at Hamilton posters. In Scranton, I marched through the usually abandoned public square with dozens of players shouting out faction names. On the Jersey Shore, I bought a bootleg Team Valor shirt and feuded with the kids from Team Instinct over one single Gym for three straight days.
The narrative in Pokemon Go is a literal marketing slogan: gotta catch ’em all. And unlike games like Cibele or Gone Home, Pokemon Go has literally nothing to say about gender or sexuality or anything that might excite the literary crowd who usually favors games like the aforementioned Firewatch and Stanley Parable over Doom or Broforce. But Pokemon Go is still about something, still contains a core complexity that keeps gamers pushing through its relatively tedious gaming experience (the entire game is swiping up to catch Pokemon, then tapping furiously to beat other Pokemon at Gyms). PokeStops and Gyms in Pokemon Go aren’t randomly selected. They’re points of interest on a Google Maps-esque system, which makes sense since Niantic, the developer, splintered off from Google in 2015. Historical markers, churches, statues, anything noteworthy nearby is fair game. And if you want to catch the most Pokemon in one session, your best strategy is attaching a lure to a PokeStop, which will dramatically increase how many Pokemon spawn nearby for the next thirty minutes. The only catch is, if you use a lure, anyone else nearby can use it too.
In larger cities, especially parks, players will attach lures to PokeStops, and within minutes, these areas will flood with other players looking to not only siphon Pokemon from the existing lures but also add their own. A network of lures sometimes builds, attracting more and more players, more and more lures, and more and more Pokemon. Since catching additional Pokemon is the easiest way to strengthen your monsters and take over Gyms, Pokemon Go actively encourages players to join up and work together, not in a shared virtual space like World of Warcraft, but in reality. While traveling the country, I struck up conversations with so many other players I wouldn’t have otherwise and observed so many players making legitimate human connections because of an astoundingly simple mobile game tapping directly into the vein of ’90s kid nostalgia. Pokemon Go taught me about my environment and led me to surprising locations I wouldn’t have stumbled across otherwise: a hatching facility off a lake, a park blocks from my house I’d never seen before, a sunken ship, a really good pizza place.
The core complexities of Pokemon Go are potentially deeper and certainly more unique than the narrative-heavy emphasis of games like Cibele and Gone Home and Firewatch, which borrow liberally from old media. Pokemon Go wants you to actively consider your real-world environment and the way you interact with flesh-and-blood people. The game lacks a true endpoint and is brilliantly designed to support both players who want to catch Pidgeys for a week before deleting the app and gamers who organize weekly Gym raids and grind toward the uber-powerful Vaporeon or Dragonite or Gyrados. The length of the game is malleable, a perfectly tuned sliding scale, so that when a player quits Pokemon Go, they feel like they have received a full experience, unlike players in No Man’s Sky who intuitively understand they can never actually discover more than a microscopic shred of what the game offers, even if everything it offers is disappointingly similar. The core complexities behind Pokemon Go’s design philosophy are complex and balanced enough to power players through its slapdash gameplay. No Man’s Sky feels shallow in comparison, even if it contains 18 quintillion planets and Pokemon Go only features one: our own.
So what does this mean for No Man’s Sky? I don’t think it’s a bad game in any way, shape, or form. I grew up on the Nintendo Entertainment System. I rented or owned Back to the Future and Fester’s Quest. I know bad games and unplayable disasters. No Man’s Sky is no Silver Surfer or Taboo: The Sixth Sense. No Man’s Sky is an extremely ambitious tech demo for what algorithms and procedural generation might accomplish in video games, and, more than that, it’s a victim of its own hype, a game that couldn’t possibly deliver on fans’ expectations that it would finally make every outer space fantasy from every childhood bedroom semi-tangible and playable. The game is at times utterly astounding—when you dive into a new planet’s atmosphere, when you climb a mountain only to discover a stunning and strange landscape on the other side, when a band of light catches a dinosaur’s face just so—but these moments are buried under resource collecting systems that are slow and tedious and borderline game-breaking. And unlike Cibele or Firewatch, games that steer into boredom to reinforce their narrative points, the core complexity beneath No Man’s Sky isn’t deep enough to propel players through its endless feedback loop of mining, mining, mining, mining.
The core complexity of No Man’s Sky is unbelievably simple: the universe is large and lonely, and you are, in comparison, insignificant. Players pick up on this coded meaning almost immediately—each planet is essentially desolate, minus a few randomly generated animals and maybe a dozen NPCs—and unlike the narrative-focused games I discussed above, No Man’s Sky isn’t a short experience. Traveling to the center of the universe takes dozens of hours. Cibele doesn’t work if you extrapolate its short and pointed story over thirty hours.
If gamers and critics are going to move away from fun as the central criterion in reviewing games that actively avoid and resist Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, they must instead assess core complexity. This can be achieved via old media-styled narrative chunks like in Cibele or Gone Home, but it can also be conveyed through gameplay alone, through human computer interaction or even old-school human to human interaction in the case of Pokemon Go.
Early in No Man’s Sky, I felt a moment of true core complexity. I was still attempting to power my first spaceship’s hyperdrive and had ventured across a radioactive wasteland in search of some final holy doodad. Instead, I cleared a bluff and discovered a desert that was completely empty minus a small series of interlocking tubes—an outpost! I cautiously steered my jet pack toward it and ran inside, hopeful that I’d find another alien, somebody, anything, a way to buy the last item I needed to finally escape the solar system. Instead, the outpost was in disarray, overrun with red vines, and it became clear to me just how lonely an experience No Man’s Sky was, how isolating and borderline anxiety-inducing for an extrovert like me.
I just didn’t realize this was everything the game had to say.
Salvatore Pane is the author of the novel Last Call in the City of Bridges, and his new book, Mega Man 3, comes out from Boss Fight Books in September. His shorter work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Hobart, The Collagist, and many other venues. Pane is an assistant professor of English at the University of St. Thomas.