Before 1788, the indigenous peoples of Australia number between 300,000 and a million individuals. Many are nomadic, some have agriculture and permanent dwellings. They alter the landscape with fire. They divide into nations. They speak hundreds of languages. They maintain (and still do maintain) thousands years of tradition and development in art, music, spirituality.
After the arrival of the British, disease sweeps across the continent. The indigenous population around the Sydney colony falls by 90 percent. Indigenous children are taken from their families and forced into Federal boarding schools. By 1933 the native population has fallen to just 74,000 persons. By 1995, after a whole century of struggle for civil rights, their numbers are finally brought back to precolonial levels.
In 2016, an Australian design studio releases a video game called No Man’s Sky. The game’s lead designer, Sean Murray, grew up on a massive ranch in Queensland. The review copies of the game include a heartfelt message from Murray, who says that his “strongest memory growing up in the outback of Australia” was “seeing the stars at night, and feeling overwhelmed.”
This is a story about how these two images, the desolated people and the wideeyed future game designer gazing into the stars, are not so far apart.
No Man’s Sky is the game that has launched a thousand thinkpieces, but it might still be worth it to look at what it’s aims are, and what was expected of it before release. Using a 64 bit algorithm, No Man’s Sky randomly generates a gameworld of 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 unique planets. A functionally infinite space is promised to the player, with seamless travel possible between each planet. And on each planet is a unique combination of also randomly generated flora and fauna. An article in the New Yorker, published almost a year and a half before release, says that the initial trailers “implied an unprecedented range of possible discovery.” And many players responded with seemingly infinite anticipation: photoshopping Murray’s face onto an icon of Jesus, sending out death threats when the game was delayed.
It’s clear that, whatever might be said of the final product, the concept of No Man’s Sky, of a massive space open to free exploration and discovery, is a potent one for a whole lot of people. The ideas behind Murray’s game, and their fervent adherents, reveal a unsatiated desire for an experience of surprise and wonder. The New Yorker article describes the game as being “shaped by an ideal form of wildness—mathematical noise”, as if wild randomness might be an antidote to the overdetermination of contemporary life.
And yet, playing No Man’s Sky, there is a sense of something hollow and black sitting in the heart of all this freedom. It is, in a sense, the shadow to the psychology of openness that the game posits as its central ethic. There is a banality, a repetitiousness to the game’s experience, a feeling that all that exuberance is ultimately reducible to something else.
No Man’s Sky rests on an ideological framework that stretches back even beyond the 15th century and the first tendrils of European colonialism. It is a framework where wonder and mystery disguise an elaborate system repression and possession. And it is this framework, far more than clunky controls and too much graphical popin, that finally compromises the game’s vision of the wide open heavens.
The Admiral writes:
“To the first island which I found, I gave the name San Salvador, in remembrance of the Divine Majesty, Who has marveslously bestowed all this; the Indians call it ‘Guanahani’. To the second, I gave the name Isla de Santa María de Concepción; to the third, Fernandina; to the fourth, Isabella; to the fifth, Isla Juanna, and so to each one I gave a new name.”
This passage is from one of the first letters Christopher Columbus wrote back to Spain after making landfall in the Caribbean. It gives stark notice of one of the most ideologically robust practices of early colonialism: the taking of possession by way of renaming.
In his book Marvelous Possessions, scholar Stephen Greenblatt discusses the rites by which the “discoverers” claimed legal title over lands that were already occupied. He writes that, in the Early Modern era, “the legal act of possession customarily involved naming.” This is associated with the moment in Genesis when God grants Adam the right and power to name each of the species of creation. But Columbus wasn’t granting new names to Caribbean islands; he was dispossessing existing names. Thus Guanahani becomes San Salvador (today part of the Bahamas, an English commonwealth). Greenblatt frames this naming, really a renaming, in terms of the rite of Christening, which was part and parcel of Christian conversion in the 15th century. Greenblatt writes that “Such a christening entails the cancellation of the native namethe erasure of the alien, perhaps demonic identityand hence a kind of making new; it is at once an exorcism, an appropriation and a gift.”
On the return from his first voyage, Columbus brought back several captives. The few that survived were baptized and rechristened. To one of them he gave his own last name.
No Man’s Sky features a universal Atlas, into which players upload the planets and species they have discovered in their journey. The Atlas is shared online between all the game’s players, and it allows players give names to their discoveries.
Or, rather, to give new names to their discoveries, for each planet, plant and creature in No Man’s Sky already has a name. With their haphazard collections of vowels and consonants it’s clear that the names are also procedurally generated. And yet, in the context provided by the gameworld, it is worth asking, who gave these names? One of the games’ three alien races?Some other power, extinct or extant?
It’s worth asking: why does a game, ostensibly about the freedom to discover the undiscovered, provide one of its primary pleasures, and the player’s only public evidence of play, in the form of a possessive act of renaming, of rechristening? So easily the planets could have been unnamed heavenly bodies, and yet the game prefers to recognize the greater excitement of claiming the already owned for oneself.
By understanding this feature of No Man’s Sky from within an early Colonial context, it is clear that there is a great deal of psychosocial power in the renaming of places and objects, a power that the game quite blithely plays with.
Near the geographical center of the continent stands a 2,000 foot tall sandstone formation, visible for miles around. The indigenous people who live in its shadow call it Uluru. In 1873, a surveyor notes the stone and names it after the Chief Secretary of his state. In 1993 a dual name policy is adopted. In 2002 the order of the names is switched, and to this day the formation is listed as “Uluru/Ayers Rock”.
In 1095 Pope Urban II issued a bull, inaugurating the doctrine of Terra nullius, which declared that lands occupied by nonChristians could be legally interpreted as unoccupied and then claimed by Christians. The doctrine became the legal underpinning for the conquest of Muslim territories during the First Crusade.
No Man’s Sky is constantly transgressing the ideological boundaries that form Terra nullius. The gameworld appears surveyed and named by some culture to which the player does not belong, and yet these names can be changed with a few keystrokes. Each planet presents as an unspoiled wilderness populated only by animals. But ruins, whose architecture seem cut and pasted from the religious sites of earthbound societies, appear everywhere. The player may use these ruins to learn words in the languages of space, and to earn credits. Whether the game is concerned that the player might be transgressing into spaces that are not hers to transgress, it is difficult to say.
Exactly what status do the player’s rites of possession (charting the planet from space, landing, renaming place and flora and fauna), which occur with the repetition and formularity of the old Columbian colonial rites, even have? Viewed from one angle, the player is just a lost pilgrim on the landscape. Viewed from another, she is a usurper.
Whatever presence of a sentient alien civilization there is in the game, it ends up being figured as ghostly, spectral. The indigenous of these planets show their presence, or the remains of their presence, when it adds color to the worlds, or when the game’s ludic logic calls for a moment of appropriation. But at the same time, when their presence might conflict with the exercise of freedom that is central to the appeal of No Man’s Sky, they are elided entirely.
Here a technological counterargument might be advanced. The player, or the designer, might claim that given the strictures of processing power and artificial intelligence, it was impossible to fully populate No Man’s Sky. So, this argument might run, it is bad faith to hold the status of computing against Sean Murray’s game.
But this is no argument at all. The designers of No Man’s Sky undertook to make the game despite the fact that they could never represent the real world complexities of exploration. Which is to say, they were more engaged with reproducing a fantasy, about the pleasures of travel, of discovery, of consumption: a fantasy that engages with ideological forms that were once used in real life, to make tolerable dispossession and genocide.
These representational questions of ownership over the world of No Man’s Sky become even thornier when one understands that the primary activity of the game is as a simulator of resource consumption.
All over the planetary landscapes are resourceobjects. Red crystals of plutonium. Monoliths of platinum. Asteroids laden with nickel. Plants and animals full of carbon. All are harvestable, and are ingredients in the fuels, upgrades and objects required to chart a path across the galaxy. And the player’s right to use these resources, which are also granted a real monetary value within the game’s trading system, is all but sovereign and unquestioned. Granted, there are some planets featuring anonymous robotic “drones” set to a high security levels that will attack in response to pillaging. But this feels more like an expression of the repressive apparatus of global capitalism than any assertion of indigenous resource rights.
Moreover, these resources don’t even appear to have an ecological status: harvesting an entire species of plant seems like it would have no impact on the trophic structure of a given planet. The plants, the animals, the stones are bent eternally toward the benefit of the player, like the God of Genesis who gives to Adam, “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” and “every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit” with the command to “Be fruitful and multiply.”
The players of No Man’s Sky become like the preLapsarian Adam and Eve: titans crossing a landscape of their own dominion where any other claim to ownership is merely a spectral trace. Moving through space without the least knowledge of good and evil.
About The Admiral’s writing on his discoveries, Greenblatt notes: “Columbus tries to draw the reader toward wonder, a sense of the marvelous that in effect fills up the emptiness at the center of the maimed rite of possession.”
With renaming and resource accumulation, the primary ways one has of interacting with the gameworld in No Man’s Sky, exposed as shallow colonial fantasies collapsing in upon a sentient alien presence that is absented from the game itself, the only thing left to fall back on is wonder. And it can be given that No Man’s Sky is a game capable of producing images of wondrous sublimity. Giraffelike monsters backlit by glittering green seas. A logarithmic curve of planets in space, growing in perspective size like matroyshkas. The rise of a violet moon over a cracked, igneous plain.
And yet, these images recapitulate the path of the millions of hides, skeletons, leaves and branches, artifacts, ceremonial objects, artistic representations and sometimes even human beings that were brought across the Atlantic throughout the 16th century to fill the wonder cabinets of European collectors, where the shock of their newness served to obscure the muddle of their provenance.
None of this is to say that No Man’s Sky is a racist game, or a colonialist game, or a bad game or a good one. But it demonstrates that the logics of the early colonial era still have a smuggled psychological currency even in the digital age; that the thrills of openness and discovery that have drawn many to the game’s altar still have the same undercurrents of violence and domination that they did 500 years ago.
In the end, it should’ve been clear from the name. Another translation of Terra nullius is “No man’s land.” Which is to say: no man’s sky.