Storytelling in an infinite world

No Mans Sky

The universe is huge. Just a few days ago scientists discovered the most distant star ever, located 9 billion light years away from earth. Imagine travelling that far: along the way you’d probably come across some bizarre planets and incredible sights.

It is this premise that excited me about No Man’s Sky, a game released by a Guilford based games studio, Hello Games, in 2016. Perhaps like the universe itself, No Man’s Sky is procedurally generated by algorithms within the game. This means that you can explore planets that no one else has ever seen and interact with creatures that have never existed before. An infinite universe offers absolute freedom. Not constrained by a linear storyline or specific waypoints you can go wherever you like, and fly for billions of light years.

RedSpace

Despite attracting a huge amount of publicity before its release, the reaction to No Man’s Sky was divided. The problem - visible after just a few minutes of playing - is that infinity is pretty boring. New planets often take over ten minutes to discover; flying through desolate astroid fields and empty black space. When you arrive, the randomness of the world around you leaves it devoid of meaning. Perhaps the biggest criticism of No Man’s Sky is that after playing the game it’s difficult to know what to think. Am I deeply bored or eternally enchanted? Since the initial release each update of the game has attempted to constrain, rather than expand, the universe.

It might seem surprising that after creating an infinite universe the developers would attempt to shrink it. And yet the problem with No Man’s Sky is that it is just too infinite. John Yorke’s 2013 book “Into the Woods” describes how every good story essentially has the same, tight, linear structure. A character resolves their problems by stumbling into a frightening new world (“the woods”) - discovers what they’ve been missing - and then stumbles back to reality. The archetypal Into the Woods story is Alice in Wonderland. A girl goes down a rabbit hole, discovers something about herself, and then escapes to reality. Importantly, Alice wasn’t wasn’t stuck in Wonderland forever.

In No Man’s Sky your character is stuck in a far and distant world, forever, with nothing to resolve. The self-guided quest become aimless and deeply unsatisfying. Every new planet discovered creates more lethargy leading you to ask the question: why does my character exist in this universe? What am I trying to reach, and why am I gathering these resources?

These are important questions, though, and it may be that the greatest achievement of No Man’s Sky is a philosophical one. By playing the game you not only question the No Man’s Sky universe but the larger, real one around you. A good story - told though traditional or technological means - is attractive because it makes sense of the senselessness of the world around us. Randomness not only powers chance events in our own world, but also underpins the uninhabited spheres of rock and gas swirling around the universe, billions of light years away. Perhaps the No Man’s Sky universe lacks an overarching story because our own universe lacks one. But then again, it makes for a pretty unplayable experience too.

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