No Man's Sky only feels lonely because the universe doesn't revolve around us.
No Man's SkyPublisher: Sony Interactive
Developer: Hello Games
Release Date: 2016-08-09
One of the most common words used to describe No Man's Sky (common, at least, when being positive about it) is "lonely". PopMatters’ own Erik Kersting wrote a piece just last week about its "vast loneliness".
But for a game that's supposedly so lonely, there's a crap ton of life everywhere you look. There's a space station in every galaxy, and every planet is littered with crashed ships, outposts, transmission stations, and ancient monoliths -- markers of intelligent life and civilization. Not to mention all the plants, every planet has some plant life, so there are no truly dead worlds. In fact, I'd say there's too much life in No Man's Sky. No matter where you go, you can never escape the presence of the three big spacefaring species. I think the review by the A.V.Club has the best description I’ve read of the game, "Your traveler is not really an explorer -- you never visit a planet unknown to the galaxy's intelligent species -- they're a pilgrim, traveling towards their sacred destination slowly and alone." This universe was discovered, charted, and colonized long before we ever showed up. We may be traveling alone, but we are also never truly alone.
And this life isn't indifferent to us. Each trader that I talk to is happy to trade. Each lifeform stationed at an isolated outpost is happy to ask for my help or happy to ask me for help. I might have trouble understanding them through the language barrier, but they're not ignoring me. They're not pushing me away. They're inviting me in. Communication is encouraged and camaraderie with my fellow traveler is assumed.
Let’s compare: Out There is a lonely game. It's very similar to No Man’s Sky in that it's about gathering resources to fuel a ship with limited cargo space while also learning alien languages one word at a time (and it did come first, so really No Man's Sky is similar to Out There). However, Out There is a far harsher version of this game.
It's a traditional roguelike, so you're meant to die and fail a lot. As a result, life is rare in this universe. Most planets are just chunks of resources. I've had runs in which I have never encountered alien life. I might find an abandoned ship, evidence of past life, but nothing current, and those abandoned ships are actually even rarer than lush planets. Finding life is special, a pleasant shock, but that also means that every time that I take off from an inhabited world, there's no guarantee that I'll ever speak to a living thing again.
Travel is lonely because we're made to feel truly alone. No one is happy to help us because no one is there to help us. Out There is a lonely game because it posits a universe that is naturally hostile to life, one in which your mere existence is an improbability and your continued existence is an anomaly.
RymdResa is a lonely game. We pilot a lone ship sent into the depths of space to find a new habitable world for humanity. There are wondrous sights to behold, like stars, comets, and colliding planets, and at each sight, the game breaks into a poem to praise the beauty of the cosmos. But that beauty is always tempered by a timer that ticks up as we float through the procedurally generated universe, counting the months and years that have passed since we left earth. At each anniversary, the game again breaks into poetry, ruminating on the emptiness and isolation of our voyage.
The game is relaxing thanks to its chill pacing and music, but it’s not easy. The universe is dangerous, and if we’re not paying attention, a tiny asteroid can end our journey in an instant. We are absolutely alone out here. Despite all the alien and human relics, there’s no one to help us if we’re damaged. It’s up to us to help ourselves. If we can’t, we die.
RymdResa is a lonely game because it posits a universe that is beautiful because of its emptiness and solitude.
Once again, by comparison to these indies, the universe of No Man's Sky is overflowing with life, including the aforementioned plants, animals, and the three spacefaring species that have touched literally every corner of this universe, but also the asshole pirates, the indifferent freighters, the strict sentinels, and even the mysterious Atlas, a person/thing positioned by the game as a kind of god figure, a higher form of life than us.
The game is only as lonely as you make it. Yes, you can spend a lot of time on your own mining minerals, but you could just as easily spend that time trading items between ships on a space station, taking advantage of their differing prices by playing a space hustler, buying low and selling high in an intergalactic parking lot.
But this is all kind of beside the point. When people describe No Man's Sky as lonely, they're not really referring to the physical presence of other life, but the depth of our interactions with that other life. We can trade with the intelligent species and catalog/kill the animal species, but that's about it. We talk with a lot of aliens, but we can't really converse with them. We can't make friends or enemies. We can’t come to know this random trader as an individual with personal hopes and dreams.
But that actually strikes me as realistic in a way that few games are. I don’t have long conversations with the cashier ringing me up at the grocery store. We just trade a few pleasant words and both move on with our lives, much like I do with the aliens. In real life, people don’t vent their personal problems to strangers, and then ask for help. There are no side quests. Someone at the bus stop isn’t going to give you a breakdown of the history of their race and religion like an NPC in Mass Effect. People don’t talk like that in real life because we don’t need that information in real life. Games have to find a way to relate that information, and they often do so through wordy conversations.
What makes No Man’s Sky different from other games, what really makes it feel lonelier, is this truth: we are not the center of attention. For once, the universe doesn't revolve around us. In fact, it doesn’t care one iota about us. It doesn’t offer any feedback, whether we’re doing something right or wrong, efficiently or inefficiently. It doesn’t offer any validation, no acknowledgement of our successes or cool moments. We're like a child holding up a crayon drawing to a parent that doesn't see us and never will.
Honestly, what's the point in being able to rename stuff? It's highly unlikely that other people will see my planets, and the whole idea of renaming things already discovered by another species seems uncomfortably colonialist. But this system works as a psychological life raft of relevance. Renaming things that have already been discovered is an act of arrogance that makes us feel special. It's a mark that we leave on the universe to make us feel like we matter, like we did something important. A defiant fist raised against the void.
To enjoy No Man's Sky is to stare into the infinite ocean of life and stars and realize that nothing you do means anything to it, nothing you see or think or learn means anything to it, and you can never change it. You can never make it care. You can only realize the great insignificance of your actions within the greater context of the history of space.
And then you learn to be okay with that because our significance doesn't actually matter anyways. What matters is upgrading my inventory space and getting enough gold to upgrade my warp drive. What matters is learning another word of Korvax so that I can finally understand what they're saying when they stab my face with needles for science. What matters are the little goals that we set for ourselves. We won't save the universe, we won't even save a planet, but we can save a Gek whose life support system is running low on plutonium, and we can save a random freighter from those asshole pirates. We can save ourselves.
Games typically prop up our sense of importance with constant validation and support. They make us feel significant. No Man’s Sky does the exact opposite, it makes us feel insignificant. It feels lonely because it posits a universe that lacks any external validation for our actions, but it's important to recognize that insignificance is not the same as loneliness because there are actually tons upon tons of other insignificant things around us at all times reaching out for our help and attention. Insignificance doesn't negate community.
No Man's Sky isn't really a lonely game, but it is a game that confronts you with the utter meaninglessness of your every accomplishment in the grand scheme of things.
That doesn't change the fact that I still want that warp drive upgrade.