This morning, and every morning for the past couple of weeks, I went out to do fieldwork. When I’m not writing about games, I’m an ecologist, and whilst the specifics vary, lately there’s been a routine. Visit a particular site–usually in the pouring rain, of course–pick my way through rocks, mud, and brush, and search out the creatures that inhabit this area that is so little visited by humans.
It is, I realised early on, not unlike No Man’s Sky.
At work and in the game, I’m usually alone. In fact, isolation is a commonly reported feeling among No Man’s Sky players thanks to the huge universe populated with few sentient creatures. But I feel comforted by the fact that almost every planet is abundant in flora, fauna, or both. Sure, there aren’t any people around, but there’s something wheeling overhead, and grazing over there, and the lake on the horizon could be teeming with life.
It’s the same in any of the game’s many solar systems as it is at my daily job.
But more than that, finding these living things bridges the individual and the communal experiences. No Man’s Sky’s discovered creatures can be uploaded to a galaxy-wide database for a monetary reward, and in this way hundreds of thousands of players are carrying out investigatory biology on a massive scale.
In the same way, when I’m out, I’m thinking about who I need to report my findings to: colleagues, clients, maybe one of the relevant authorities. I’m alone, yes, but there’s nothing lonely about it. I’m part of an extensive network. Carrying forward this feeling changes how I perceive the similar mechanics of the game.
In this way, No Man’s Sky is a prominent example of a game that reflects whatever you bring to the table, be that a flair for combat, a sense of wonderlust, or a care for the wilds. With a sandbox this open, it can be difficult to know what kind of path to forge, and players viewing the game through different lenses can have vastly divergent experiences.
I’m more likely to be grounded, rather than hopping from planet to planet, so I spend more time stumbling across monuments and trading posts than getting involved in space combat. I’m less likely to rename these creatures–dealing with triturus cristatus and plecotus auritus on a daily basis means that hicenaus yadelin doesn’t feel much different. And I would certainly never attack one of the skewed, fat dinosaurs I’d found to use it as a carbon resource. I didn’t even know you could do that until recently–it never crossed my mind.
And it lends an interpretation to interactions that could have been bland without them. I met a Vy’Keen scientist before I spoke much of their native language, but correctly guessed that they were asking to see my biological discoveries. They were extremely excited when I showed them what I’d found, and I recognised that excitement from my own life. Because of that connection, I still think fondly upon them, wherever they are in the essentially limitless vastness of the virtual galaxy.
It feels strange to compare my job to something both entertaining and artful–though I’m lucky enough that my job can be those things: enjoyable or beautiful or thought provoking in its turn. But it makes sense - if No Man’s Sky is all about Star-Trek-style boldly going, I’ve used what I know best to narrow myself to the seek out new life part of the mission, and it’s been essential to parsing an experience as large as this.
But that’s not the only mission in No Man’s Sky (or in Starfleet, for that matter), and bringing your own brief and parameters is when the game really begins to shine.
This is not something that everyone enjoys doing, and it’s understandable that many wanted No Man’s Sky to provide them with more to do without the need to insert their own lens. But it also leads to variety in play between all of those who are finding their own interpretations reflected back among these vast star systems, lending an extra dimension of personalisation to this game that was never going to provide two players with the same experience.