Monday, August 15, 2016

No Man's Sky - 20/20 hours

Today No Man's Sky joins an elite club of games where I've logged more than twenty hours in less than three days. It's the paradox of the blog. A game that I really enjoy, I tend to breeze through. Games that give me trouble, I tend to string out over time. It's probably all down to the little procrastination voice that tells me, "hey, a youtube video will only take 5-10 minutes to watch . . ." When I like a game, it's easy to tell that voice to go to hell. Also, I tend not to eat as well when I'm playing a really captivating game ("I could stop playing to make myself a nice home-cooked meal or I could swing by Taco Bell, snarf in the parking lot, and be ready to go in minutes . . .")

But enough about my sybaritic dissolution, let's talk about the game. No Man's Sky has frequently been compared to Spore, usually in a disparaging way. I think that misses the point, though. There are points of similarity between the two games, but those points of similarity are Spore's (hitherto) unique strengths, the features you would push forward if you were trying to get someone to overlook its flaws.

In fact, the two biggest complaints about Spore's space stage were - 1)you couldn't get out of your spaceship and wander around these hundreds of procedurally generated worlds and 2)whenever you tried to focus purely on exploration, some random eco-disaster or pirate attack would force you to divert back to your home systems. These are both issues that No Man's Sky simply doesn't have (though in the process it loses global terraforming, the economic simulation, and the sheer pleasure of terrifying primitive species by buzzing them in a UFO).

I think the idea this criticism is trying to get across is that both games promised limitless diversity, but never quite managed to occlude their methods enough that a jaded eye couldn't see the seams. Spore's community became expert in using the different creature parts in surprising and unconventional ways to make some truly unique animals . . . but you could still identify which tail was repurposed to make that weird monster's ears. Similarly, I've yet to see two No Man's Sky animals which look exactly alike, but after a time, you can see patterns in the body plans (and simple creatures, like the squat little hoppers have such a basic design that their cosmetic similarities are hard to overlook) and certain peripheral appendages become very familiar.

And the question is - how much does it matter that you can see the seams? If you wanted to be perversely reductive, you could do the same thing with real animals - a fennec fox is just a fox with big ears, a panda is just a reskinned bear, a cat is basically just a smaller, more agile dog, a squid is just an octopus with two extra legs and all those Galapagos finches are same damned bird with slightly different beaks. What is interesting about animals? And what is interesting about virtual animals?

I think real biology gets a pass on reusing the same assets because the similarity between animals is compelling evidence for evolution. The reason I have the same basic skeleton as the common shrew is because we shared an ancestor about sixty-five million years ago.

The other thing is that morphology is often tied to fascinating differences in behavior. A salmon is superficially your typical generic fish, but it has a weird and complex life-cycle. A polar bear is just a white bear, but it thrives in one of Earth's most extreme environments.

None of that is really true for the creatures of No Man's Sky. I don't know what goes into the algorithm that creates the different animals, but purely on the fiction level, similar-looking creatures do not share an evolutionary history with each other. And while there are a variety of animal behaviors, they're not that complex and not related to the creature's morphology (although every crab creature I've seen has tried to kill me).

But assuming one could create all that in video game form, how would you even be able to tell? It's not as if people are going to sit down and watch the fluorescent space lemur for months at a time, taking meticulous notes about what it eats, where it makes its nest, and how it cares for its young. As big as it is, No Man's Sky is still scaled down and simplified when compared to the real world. People are going to range less far and spend less time searching than they would if they were real-life explorers setting foot on an alien world for the first time. Ultimately, the things you find need only be complex enough to fill that window. Anything beyond that is likely a waste (though who knows, maybe someone is working on a procedurally generated "Sim Field Biologist" game as we speak - and if they are, I'd like to know about it).

Enjoying No Man's Sky, then, involves buying into its premise and accepting its illusions. It's frankly absurd that there would only be ten or eleven novel species on even a small alien world, but that's alright, because they're only there as a collectible mini-game (and so you can take screenshots of the occasional unbelievable freak). It's okay that you can work out the stock types that go into constructing any random creature, because even discounting near-reskins, No Man's Sky has more diversity than nearly any game you'd care to name (strangely enough, only Spore springs to mind as serious competition).

So what does this all have to do with me? Well, to be frank, I don't give a damn about the seams. I like seeing what the algorithm will throw out next. I'm delighted by seeing the same rocky planets in increasingly unlikely color-schemes. I love walking around and soaking it all in. For me, twenty hours is not nearly enough time to spend in the No Man's Sky universe.

Which is why I'm going to keep playing the game, at least for another couple of days. I don't anticipate ever getting bored, but I'm guessing I'll eventually reach a point where the weight of my 73 unfinished games will start to get a hold of me. There will be a tipping point where anxiety about failing my goal will overwhelm my desire to just poke my head into just one more beautifully-realized scifi world (and if you're not impressed by the game's combinatoric approach to diversity you should be astonished that procedural generation can produce so much visually engaging material with a minimum of human intervention).

Once I reach that point, I'll probably put this game aside, vowing, with perhaps more plausibility than usual, to one day return. Expect a couple of follow-up posts in the meantime, maybe one every couple of days.

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