The universe of No Man's Sky may be calm, but it’s certainly no utopia.
No Man's SkyPublisher: Hello Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Hello Games
Release Date: 2016-08-09
“There is an eerie calm to this game. A utopian serenity.”
-- Chuck Wendig, "No Man's Sky Is Boring But Maybe That's Not a Bad Thing", Rolling Stone
No Man’s Sky certainly looks like a utopian future, or at least as close to one as any of us could realistically hope for. The three advanced species seem to live in harmony with each other, and other than the occasional asshole pirate, no one is fighting or killing. Things seem pretty chill, pretty nice. But if fiction has taught us anything, it’s that every utopia is hiding a dark secret, and the “utopian serenity” of No Man’s Sky is no different. There is a dark and bloody history to this universe, and the ramifications of extreme violence still linger in the calm.
But that history is more than just a history, more than just a series of past events. It's also a commentary on gaming, on the relationship between player and developer, as well as on the player and the game world. Even more, that commentary itself is expressed in the fiction in terms of religiosity.
Atlas, a seemingly omnipotent god-figure, lies at the center of all this history and commentary. The divine shadow of Atlas looms over every system and planet. There are the countless Atlas-created Sentinels on every world, the many Atlas Interfaces in space, the ancient Atlas-created monoliths, and one of the main space-faring species worships Atlas as their creator. Atlas, or at least its influence, is everywhere.
Since Atlas is at the center of everything, we can’t understand the commentary or history of No Man’s Sky without first understanding Atlas itself. Not so much what it is, but what it is not. Atlas is seen as the god figure of this universe, but it's no creator. Atlas is more of a caretaker. Most importantly, though, Atlas is a software program.
The universe of No Man's Sky is a computer simulation. It is literally a simulation in that it is a video game, but the fiction recognizes itself as a simulation. It recognizes every living thing is an NPC, it recognizes the universe as the byproduct of a complex algorithm, and it recognizes the player as the specially designated observer of it all. In this universe, the developer Hello Games is God, the actual creator of life and matter. Atlas is more like the Right Hand of God, a spokesperson who tells us God’s will and ensures that we stay true to it. Or to put it practically: the one who tells us how we should play the game and ensures we play according to the developer’s plan.
In a previous blog post I explained the game’s themes as they relate to its non-ending: “We were created to admire and marvel at this [universe], its diversity, its repetition, and most importantly its size, and then to invite others to do the same”. The important takeaway there is that we were created to observe the universe, or at least our character was created as an avatar for us to observe the universe. Either way, our role as the designated Observer is special because it gives us access to special knowledge that is denied to the other creatures and creations of the game. We're privileged with knowledge of the origin of creation so that we can better appreciate the creation.
No Man’s Sky has been (vehemently) criticized for a perceived lack of game mechanics, a lack of "things to do", but those criticisms miss the larger point of the game. We're not supposed to do those things in first place. We’re not supposed to build things like we do in Minecraft, we’re not supposed to team with other players like we do in EVE Online, and we’re not supposed to leave our mark on the world. The mechanics (or lack thereof) only reinforce our role as Observer. This is not a game about doing. It's a game about seeing. The religiosity around Atlas gives our role as Observer a divine significance within the fiction.
We essentially becomes deist gods, supreme beings who watch and know but do not interfere. We're not a creator, but we are in a privileged position of power due to our knowledge, and the game indirectly asks us not to use this power for destructive or even constructive purposes.
That’s what we should do, at least. That’s what Hello Games wants us to do, but as players with free will, we’re free to ignore this command from on high. We’re free to strip mine a planet as much as we can, and we’re free to play the game without cataloging a single species. We’re free to ignore the wider universe and simply stay on one planet.
In order to get us to play “correctly”, the game gives us three parables of play in the form of three major space-faring species. Each species has its own detailed history, and we learn this history through the Atlas monoliths, ancient structures that "predate all known civilization, although over time they have become imbued with the beliefs and the histories of the creatures that evolved around them”. In other words, they’re an anthropologist’s dream: artifacts specifically designed to record a unique and personalized history of a species. Through them, Hello Games tells us how we should play their game.
The Korvax are the obedient ones. Their monoliths explain: "The Korvax Echoes tell of a time, long ago, when the Monoliths of Atlas woke the civilizations of the Outer Edge. Their presence filled them with a desire for knowledge”.
The Korvax were a scholarly species from their inception. They sought to understand the world around them, the worlds around them, and the universe around them. They deeply valued this collective knowledge that made “Each generation... greater than the last.” They saw that knowledge led to self-improvement, for the individual and the whole. So naturally they sought out the ultimate form of knowledge, the ultimate form of self-improvement: “an understanding of the Atlas”. That is, an understanding of God.
We can probably assume that given this predilection to learning the Korvax were unlikely to destroy the things that they discovered as the species spread from planet to planet. This likely endeared them to the Sentinels, the drone army of Atlas that protects the physical universe, and this is why “Through [the Sentinels] the [Korvax] found the formula of enlightenment”.
Since the Sentinels provided knowledge, it was easy to submit to their authoritarian rule. These drones are weapons, make no mistake, but they’re only weaponized in specific situations. They’re peaceful if you’re peaceful, but the moment that you start wrecking the environment, they turn violent. The Korvax, being the relatively peaceful and science-minded species that they are, never (or rarely) invoked this wrath. So life was peaceful and profitable. They eventually started to worship the Sentinels: “Theirs is a way of peace and fulfillment, of logic and probability”.
The Korvax are basically a society of Christian scientists trying to learn about their creator through close inspection of its creations. They walk the same path as us (we’re all pilgrims of Atlas), and since they’re on the same path, they might too someday learn the truth of the universe. In some of the solar systems that we visit, we might come across a certain anomaly: a spherical space ship, the vessel of Nada and Polo. Nada is a Korvax that knows the universe is a simulation or is very close to realizing this truth. Naturally, its full title is Priest Entity Nada, and it offers significant aid in our journey.
Nada and the Korvax are a parable of the obedient believer. Follow the rules that the game (the God) sets forth, and you can be blessed with the ultimate truth. All you have to do is marvel at this universe, its diversity, its repetition, and most importantly its size. Then, invite others to do the same.
The Gek First Spawn are the repentant ones. Initially, they were a vicious warrior culture that sought self-improvement through war: “The MINOR GEK were purged. It is only through fire that imperfection be destroyed and the path to domination is revealed. The First Spawn feasted on the flesh of the discarded and GREW STRONG”.
Strength was seen as the single most important trait one could have, and strength can only be expressed through domination. So, they went to war with each other to prove who was strongest among themselves, then they united in a war against the Sentinels to prove themselves stronger than the machine army. Later, they went to war with the Korvax to prove themselves the strongest species in the universe: “Their First Spawn FEASTED on the DEBRIS of KORVAX PRIME, gorging on a banquet of fragments plucked from the void, consumed to fuel the Great Ascendency”.
They Gek themselves by their opposition. This motivated them to go to war and to achieve victory against seemingly impossible odds, but it left them exposed when left to rule over the people that they conquered. They enslaved the Korvax, but that didn’t diminish the latter’s religiosity: “The Korvax Echoes... never relinquished love for the Atlas. As millennia passed this affection spread. The Cult of the Atlas grew within the Gek”.
The Gek are the parable of the prodigal son. They’re the player that comes in ready to fight and build and conquer and leave their mark on the universe, like we do in nearly every other game, but who eventually succumbs to the scope of No Man’s Sky. It’s that scope that eventually converts the Gek: “They felt their insignificance at the center of an unending universe... The unspeaking, unmoving Atlas Interface inflicted insignificance upon the Gek emissaries that showed them their role within the expanse of infinity. It forced recognition of their true place in a limitless universe”.
The Gek represent a player that starts playing No Man’s Sky as they would any other game, and thus spends much of their time in conflict with the game, but over time, the scope of the universe dawns on them and they’re humbled by it. What might begin as a journey of destruction becomes a journey of exploration, and, thus: “The wisdom of the Korvax and Atlas prevailed.”
The Vy'keen are nonbelievers. They’re another warrior race, but they’re little less destructive than the Gek in that they don’t fight for the sake of fighting. Rather, their culture is built around war because they see death in battle as the most honorable and glorious form of death. Thus, the immortal Sentinels are a blasphemous enemy that threatens their way of life. If the Gek defined themselves by their opposition, any opposition that is, the Vy’keen are defined by this specific opposition. Their belief in death naturally puts them at odds with the things that preserve life.
They also have a much more specific set of beliefs than the Gek. They have a fabled leader who led their first uprising against the Sentinels: Hirk. This leader is revered because he actually found and spoke to Atlas: “It came to pass that the Great Monolith awoke. It heard the challenge of Hirk. Five times Hirk called upon it and was met by silence. On the sixth cry it awoke... ‘There should be no need of blood for our meeting, we are but a dream in an infinite universe'. But, when Hirk responded with, ‘But what of these sentinels?’ the monolith spoke no more, the silence making the ruling of the Atlas over the galaxy all the more apparent”.
Hirk spoke to Atlas and was told the truth of the universe. His journey, like ours, provided knowledge and understanding. However, he wasn’t looking for knowledge or understanding, he was looking for a solution to the Sentinels and their mechanical oppression. When he was told the truth of the universe, his immediate instinct was to change the subject. The Atlas saw that he was not interested in learning, only fighting, so it stopped talking. And so the Vy’keen did the only thing that seemed reasonable to them. They fought back against the force that stops them from living a life they want to.
There’s an undeniable nobility in this fight. It’s not violent for the sake of violence, but fighting for a way of life. It’s hard not to root for the Vy’keen in this regard, as they’re the classic underdog-against-the-empire. But this is not a typical story. This is a religious parable. The Vy’keen are sympathetic, but they’re still disobeying God. They’re not submitting their lives to God. They’re fighting for a life out from under God’s thumb. Thus, they remain in the wrong no matter how rational and good and noble their cause.
Like the Gek (or rather, together, with the Gek), the Vy’keen win after a long war and the Sentinels and flee to “congregate in the dark places of the void. There they watched in the in-between nothingness”. The story of the Gek ends with this victory because it leads to them being converted from the inside, but that conversion takes time. In that time, they’re still a violent race, and in that time, the Sentinels return:
The brutality of the Gek First Spawn called back the automatons that were hiding in the darkness. Their forces had grown. Their technologies had developed. The foolish Gek beckoned the monster back into the places where our nations might have dwelt in strange harmony…The Gek changed. They became peaceful. Their spawning pools bred in the name of commerce. The Vy’keen accept this peace, but we do not forget as the other beings of the Galaxy are so keen to do. Dishonor is unchanging. Crimes marked in blood do not fade. We do not forget.
The Vy’keen are the player that wants to fight and build and conquer and wont accept any other way to play. Ultimately, they can’t win this fight because those systems are not in the game. They, like all other players, are eventually kowtowed by the Sentinels, forced to follow the same rules, but they do so reluctantly, begrudgingly, and only out of spite. They hate their role, they hate the game, and they hate their God.
The Vy’keen represent a player that remains unhumbled by the infinite universe. If we consider the intensity of the backlash against the game, I’d say a majority of players probably fall into this category. It’s important to note that the game doesn’t demonize this rebellion, it doesn’t paint the Vy’keen as evil like it does with the Gek, but it still places them in the wrong. Hello Games and Atlas want you to play a certain way, and if you deviate, that’s your prerogative. They can’t erase our free will, but it’s also a futile battle. We can only play as they want us to play.
A Utopian Serenity
No Man’s Sky creates a fascinating universe, filled with interesting species that speak to the game’s larger themes of life's place in the universe, while also working as a meta commentary on the player’s place within a developer’s game. You can rebel, you can submit, or you can flit between those two extremes. Regardless of how we choose to play No Man’s Sky, we’re still engaging with these themes. We’re still an individual trying to find purpose within a constructed world. The player’s struggle under a developer is the same as a character’s struggle under their writer is the same as a follower’s struggle under their God. The context changes, but the actions, thoughts, worries, and fears are all the same.
It’s a calm universe, but that’s only because the physical struggle of its life against their god has long since passed. Now, it’s a universe defined by mental struggle, the search for purpose. This universe may be calm, but it’s certainly no utopia. No game ever is.