No man’s game
I first heard about the video game No Man’s Sky in an article by Raffia Khatchadourian that appeared last year in The New Yorker. This was probably a warning sign in itself. The New Yorker may be the best magazine in the world, but its coverage of gaming has often been disappointing, in part because it assigns novelty stories to gifted writers—like Nicholson Baker—with minimal knowledge of the subject, and because it’s difficult to thread the needle between being both informative to fans and comprehensible to readers with no firsthand experience of the creations of Shigeru Miyamoto. Years ago, I speculated half-seriously in Salon that there was a New Yorker feature curse, much like the more famous one that haunts the cover of Sports Illustrated. It seemed to me that a lot of artists who received coverage in the magazine, especially on the movie side, went on to spectacularly implode soon thereafter, often for the very project that had been glowingly described in the article itself. (John Carter is the first example that comes to mind, but there are plenty of others.) At the time, I suggested that this might be due to regression toward the mean: whenever a filmmaker attracts the attention of a magazine that only runs a handful of Hollywood profiles every year, it’s usually because of an outsized success in the recent past, which is generally followed by what seems like a failure in comparison. But now I think that this is only half the reason. In order to appear in a timely fashion, a feature article has to be written and edited long in advance of a work’s completion, and there’s no way to predict the quality of the result. A reporter might be able to watch the dailies or look at some demo footage, but that’s pretty much it. And if it’s ambitious enough to merit this kind of extended treatment, it’s no surprise that it frequently fails to live up to expectations. It’s just hard to spot a masterpiece before the fact.
No Man’s Sky is beginning to look like a perfect example of this phenomenon, and it’s likely to supplant even John Carter, at least in my own head, as the definitive case study. Khatchadourian’s article, which, by the way, is engaging and intelligent, opens with these lines:
The universe is being built in an old two-story building, in the town of Guildford, half an hour by train from London. About a dozen people are working on it. They sit at computer terminals in three rows on the building’s first floor and, primarily by manipulating lines of code, they make mathematical rules that will determine the age and arrangement of virtual stars, the clustering of asteroid belts and moons and planets, the physics of gravity, the arc of orbits, the density and composition of atmospheres—rain, clear skies, overcast. Planets in the universe will be the size of real planets, and they will be separated from one another by light-years of digital space. A small fraction of them will support complex life. Because the designers are building their universe by establishing its laws of nature, rather than by hand-crafting its details, much about it remains unknown, even to them. They are scheduled to finish at the end of this year; at that time, they will invite millions of people to explore their creation, as a video game, packaged under the title No Man’s Sky.
Khatchadourian goes on how to describe how the game, the brainchild of developer Sean Murray, is meant to evoke a feeling of limitless discovery. It uses procedural generation—in which elements are created on the fly by algorithms, rather than manually by a human being—to populate its universe with quintillions of planets. “Because of the game’s near-limitless proportions, players will rarely encounter one another by chance,” Khatchadourian continues. “As they move toward the center, the game will get harder, and the worlds—the terrain, the fauna and flora—will become more alien, more surreal.”
As many of you have probably heard, this isn’t exactly how it turned out. No Man’s Sky was released earlier this month to enormous early sales, followed immediately by a furious backlash as players realized that it wasn’t the game that they had been promised. (For the sake of full disclosure, I should note that I haven’t played it myself, and the game also has its defenders—although even the positive reviews tend to be carefully qualified.) There are vast numbers of planets, but they don’t orbit stars: they just sort of hang there in space. The characteristics of a planet, like its climate or natural resources, don’t depend on where it is in relation to anything else, or on any kind of physical logic. Nothing much changes as you get closer to the center. Your freedom to fly your spaceship is severely limited. A multiplayer experience isn’t just rare, but it doesn’t even seem possible, based on the design of the game itself. It was billed as a fantasy of exploring the unknown, but every planet has already been colonized by an alien race with the same generic architectural style. Worst of all, the procedural generation that lies at the heart of No Man’s Sky results, by most accounts, in a boring, repetitive playing experience: all of the planets are technically different, but they mostly follow the same basic patterns and templates, with the knobs twiddled here and there to achieve minor variations. The result might be a decent game on its own merits, but as a damning thread on Reddit makes clear, it doesn’t bear much of a resemblance to the experience that players were sold. When you look at the promises that the developers made, compared to the version of the game that was actually released, it isn’t hard to conclude, as many players have, that they were lying through their teeth. But it seems more likely that at some point during the development process, Murray realized that he was unable to deliver on the grand conceptions that he had outlined to the media. Features were cut or scaled back, ambitions were lowered, and the game was reduced to something more manageable. It’s easier to sketch out an expansive vision than to execute it in detail, and they just couldn’t give players a full universe in a box. As the Dean once said on Community: “Time travel is really hard to write about!”
Inevitably, the reaction to No Man’s Sky has also turned into a referendum on procedural generation itself. If you really want eighteen quintillion planets, you can’t make any of them particularly interesting, because extreme values for any of the relevant parameters could render the results broken or unplayable. Because the variations have to occur within a narrow range, they suffer from a certain sameness. It is possible to create levels that break all the rules, but it requires a human eye, an ability to tinker and revise, and endless user testing, which isn’t available when all your planets are being generated, as Khatchadourian puts it, “out of only fourteen hundred lines of code.” (To be fair, Khatchadourian also notes: “Games based on procedural generation often suffer from unrelenting sameness…or from visual turmoil.” But he adds that Murray hopes to find “a middle ground” that, in retrospect, was probably impossible.) A game like Super Mario Galaxy, which has never received a writeup in New Yorker, has only a hundred levels or so, but each one has been lovingly conceived and burnished by a real person, taking infinite pains and thinking hard about how to delight the player, which is a far more impressive accomplishment. And there were reasons to be skeptical. When I first read the article, my eye was caught, for obvious reasons, by this passage:
The game is an homage to the science fiction that Murray loved when he was growing up—Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein—and to the illustrations that often accompanied the stories. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, sci-fi book covers often bore little relation to the stories within; sometimes they were commissioned independently, and in bulk, and for an imaginative teen-ager it was a special pleasure to imbue the imagery with its own history and drama.
The italics are mine. No Man’s Sky claims to have been inspired by classic science fiction, but it’s really about the artwork, and the confusion between the two is the real problem. Khatchadourian’s profile contains one unforgivable sentence: “No Man’s Sky’s references may be dime-store fiction, but the game reimagines the work with a sense of nostalgia and a knowing style that is often more sophisticated than the original.” If anything, this statement seems even more ridiculous now than it did at the time. Genuine sophistication, as Heinlein and the others knew, isn’t just about creating a sense of wonder, but about using it to tell a real story. And Murray might have been better off if he had thought less about what was on the cover and more about what was inside.