Shoot first, ask questions later
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