No Man’s Playing

There’s two questions on the lips of thousands of people who pre-ordered No Man’s Sky.

“So… now what?” followed by “is that it?”

There may never be another game like this. The idea is extraordinary. If you haven’t heard, then I’ll let creator Sean Murray pitch it to you; here’s what he said in an interview on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

What we are trying to do is generate an entire universe… and set players loose in it… something like eighteen quintillion planets.

Eighteen quintillion planets.

Eighteen quintillion.

That’s over three times as many planets as there are grains of sand in the world.

The game’s intention was to be the pinnacle of sandbox gaming. An entire universe, simulated in one sixty dollar bundle. Colbert then replied:

“Wouldn’t the game get boring after the first trillion planets?”

It was a joke, a little good-natured teasing, really. But behind many good jokes is a basis in reality.

Because Colbert’s joke appears to have come true.

In the last two days, the game has seen its active player count drop… a lot.

… A LOT.


That’s somewhere between 80 and 90% of its players jumping spaceship. But why? There’s an entire universe to explore!

And that’s kind of the problem.

Again, I’ll let Sean Murray explain it to you.

Even if a player discovered a new planet every second, we would still all be long dead before they were all discovered.

Ever heard the expression someone’s bit off more than they can chew?

The game comes in-built with an existential crisis, free of charge! Because the whole point of the game, to discover new planets, is defeated by the very idea that made the game so intriguing. He’s right. The game can never possibly be fully explored.

And that would be okay if there was something else to do.

“I guess providing a game with no missions, growth as a character, or a story means people get bored pretty easy,” says redditor /u/Mtfilmguy.

Seeing as this a writing blog, let’s hone in on the word story.

Perhaps the easy retort to Mtfilmguy’s comments is that Minecraft is an open world sandbox with millions of players and no story or arc to follow. But there are stories to Minecraft. Players just create their own.

In Minecraft perhaps you set your mind to building a large mansion for yourself and decorating it however you like, or perhaps simply an unassailable fortress to protect yourself from the griefers, a word I totally didn’t have to ask my twelve year old little brother on. There’s an element of danger to the game once nightfalls and the monsters come out that provides conflict. Because that’s what stories are.

Let’s forget about character development and setting and rising and falling actions for a moment. What are the absolute basic elements to a story? Conflict, and resolution. A story is a series of events that revolve around a conflict until that conflict ends.

There’s no conflict in No Man’s Sky.

You fly to a planet, you name it, you name the animals, you collect stuff, you fly off to another planet. There are some “dangers,” but if you happen to die from, say, a planet with dangerous weather conditions, you respawn with all your belongings and no real punishment. That’s not really a conflict. The closest the game comes to making conflict is the “sentinels,” robotic forces that come to attack a player if they kill too much wildlife on a planet. But reviewers and gamers are complaining that the Sentinels are too easy to defeat and besides, the goal of the game is to accumulate scientific data. In order to trigger the Sentinels’ appearance, you have to be doing the opposite. So in a way, there’s no conflict at all. The Sentinels aren’t their to put a stop to a players’ goals, they enable them.

There’s also no Player versus Player interaction, because the game is just so enormous.

Contrast to a game like EVE Online, which is basically meeting No Man’s Sky halfway. Players inhabit a galaxy, not a whole universe, and are free to do whatever they please, not following a rigid storyline or battle lines. But players do interact with each other, and create conflict with each other. A few years ago EVE made headlines when a player cheated another out of over ten thousand dollars worth of materials while operating completely within the legal means of the game. (That’s ten thousand real US dollars, mind you. Not in-game currency. That total is much much higher.)

But that doesn’t quite sound like the dream of Sean Murray. His dream seems to be create a zen-like utopia of gaming. To make a game without conflict, but instead using that instinctual drive humans have for knowledge and exploration as the focal point of the game. Which is admirable and surely ambitious.

But that’s not how games work.

You don’t play Monopoly to peacefully strut around the board and build pretty houses for the hell of it. No one says “no, please, you take Yakutsk” in Risk. Even in Minecraft people don’t just fly around in zen-mode looking at the surroundings forever.

There’s got to be something to do.

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