Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later

EDGE - - SECTIONS - STEVEN POOLE Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­poole.net

Three decades af­ter his first space trip, Steven Poole heads out again

The year was 1984, and a young boy came home from a com­puter fair at Olympia clutch­ing the most amaz­ing game ever made. It was a space com­bat game in which you could warp at light­speed from one star sys­tem to an­other through­out the galaxy. If you spot­ted a planet you could fly straight at it and smoothly tran­si­tion to sur­face fly­ing, in or­der to de­stroy en­emy out­posts and lib­er­ate the planet. The uni­verse seemed lim­it­less and epi­cally sug­ges­tive. Dark Star, by De­sign De­sign Soft­ware, was surely the apogee of space games.

Decades later, I want to go into space again, but this time it’s not so easy. I awaken on a luridly coloured planet, and the first thing I have to do is go shop­ping. Here is my shop­ping list of el­e­ments, and over there is where I have to trudge. Sud­denly I am be­ing shot at by fly­ing drones. Only 200 bits of herid­ium sil­i­cate to go. Sigh.

As Philip K Dick didn’t quite ask, does Elon Musk dream of No Man’s Sky? In terms of the aes­thetic emo­tion of won­der, ap­plied to visions of space, this game is the apogee of the form to date, and the re­al­i­sa­tion of all the dreams of the young boys and girls who grew up play­ing space games of ear­lier tech­no­log­i­cal gen­er­a­tions. Light scat­tered through dust clouds takes on all the hues of the spec­trum, plan­ets loom im­pos­ingly with a real sense of enor­mous scale and mass, and space­craft mash up the de­signs of the coolest sci-fi de­signs from the 1950s on­wards. To the ques­tion of ‘How do you make the es­sen­tial black­ness of space vis­ually in­ter­est­ing?’, the game’s artists re­spond by chan­nelling the tra­di­tion of aes­thetic lib­er­ties taken by gen­er­a­tions of sci-fi book-jacket de­sign­ers. The whole thing feels com­fort­ably retro and as­ton­ish­ingly fu­tur­is­tic all at once.

Apart from the starfield gen­er­at­ing the strik­ing sense of move­ment, there are no ce­les­tial bodies that are sim­ply dec­o­ra­tive place­hold­ers. Every­thing re­ally ex­ists, bend­ing grav­ity around it. This is rare in videogames of any genre, where we are used to see­ing ob­jects that look use­ful or in­ter­ac­tive turn­ing out to be just a part of the polyg­o­nal set-dress­ing. (Mod­ern videogames have taught us over and over again to ex­pect the mild sense of de­fla­tion when we walk or fly up to some­thing that looks in­ter­est­ing and don’t see an ac­tion-but­ton prompt ap­pear.) The fact that you can fly di­rectly at any planet to burn down through the at­mos­phere and in­ves­ti­gate its sur­face, and also seem­ingly go any­where you like in the galaxy – just as in Dark Star – gen­er­ates an enor­mous sense of free­dom and pos­si­bil­ity.

So it is a bit of a downer when you re­alise that what there is to do in space is just what there is to do in so many vir­tual worlds: farm­ing. The game’s first hour, mak­ing you farm the lo­cal rocks and wildlife to re­pair the ship, is ef­fi­cient in the way it gen­er­ates sus­pense and im­pa­tience in the player to be able to fi­nally take off and en­joy all the el­dritch plea­sures of the whole star sys­tem. But a few hours later you are still grimly farm­ing ac­cord­ing to prompts, and you re­alise that this is the ‘game’ that the whole ex­tra­or­di­nary galaxy has been struc­tured around. But I wanted to be a space hero, not a space farmer.

No Man’s Sky re­calls Dark Star in its tech­no­log­i­cally cut­ting-edge vi­sion of space; but it also of course re­calls Braben and Bell’s orig­i­nal Elite, with all the finicky busi­ness of ga­lac­tic trad­ing and ship-up­grad­ing. It makes a real dif­fer­ence, though, that in Elite the heart of the game­play (apart from the no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult dock­ing pro­ce­dure) re­ally was in the stats, while the vi­su­als were mainly just an ab­stract il­lus­tra­tion of their math­e­mat­i­cal ideas. No Man’s Sky, how­ever, puts you in ac­tual, pop­u­lated, high-def­i­ni­tion so­lar sys­tems and in­vites you to marvel at their vast­ness and beauty — and then con­stantly drags you away from its own daz­zling vis­tas in or­der to make you fid­dle with flat icons on in­ven­tory screens.

One can’t blame the de­vel­op­ers, of course, for choos­ing a way to struc­ture the ex­pe­ri­ence pro­gres­sion that a lot of peo­ple seem to en­joy — or at least put up with. And

No Man’s Sky is still an ex­tra­or­di­nary and beau­ti­ful achieve­ment in the art­form. One may just sus­pect that less forced farm­ing would have en­abled more au­ton­o­mous mo­ments of won­der. Like the time I am­bled up to a sort of di­nosaur-dog hy­brid and fed it. It gam­bolled around smil­ing hap­pily, and I felt I had cre­ated a tiny mo­ment of good in a hos­tile and un­car­ing uni­verse.

A few hours later you are still farm­ing ac­cord­ing to prompts. But I wanted to be a space hero, not a space farmer

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