How No Man's Sky Is Like Reading

It’s all about the transitions.

Robin Sloan

Here’s what I did on my way to the alien monolith:

I bought a PlayStation 4, set it up, heard the game I wanted to play had been delayed, put it away. A year later, I set it up again, preordered the game, downloaded it overnight, and woke up early on Tuesday, August 9, to leap immediately into the cockpit of a dinky starship crashed on the surface of a poison planet, my 100 percent unique starting point in a virtual cosmos that is—the game’s makers assure us—functionally infinite. Then, I went roving on the planet’s surface—layered with deadly miasma, no big deal—to gather the minerals required to fix my ship.

In the shadow of a steep ridge dusted with gray-purple fronds, I discovered the monolith, which taught me a single word in the language of its alien makers.

I did all this in a rush on Tuesday for two reasons. First: the premise of No Man’s Sky, a game of exploration and survival played across a procedurally-generated galaxy, is, for me, too magnetic to resist. Second: over the past few years, I’ve become aware of the livestreamed video game launch as a new and fascinating kind of media moment. This time, I wanted to follow along. I wanted to be part of it.

Imagine yourself a game developer in the era of Twitch, the livestreaming platform on which hundreds of thousands of viewers at a time, sometimes millions, gather to watch other people play games. For you, the developer, it’s been two years or more of extreme effort and/or self-recrimination. Now, finally, the game is available; the streamers are live; and you are granted a rare experience.

It was my friend Patrick Ewing who alerted me to existence of this experience. He worked on the acclaimed game Firewatch and earlier this year, on the day of its release, he sent me a message. “The gates opening and the sudden flood of thousands of live-streamers experiencing your game in real time,” he wrote, “commenting on it and making new media on top of it that they are sharing with THEIR audience in realtime. This feels like a New Thing.”

When you watch a streamer play a game, you see exactly what they see, and in many cases, you see the streamer, too: a human face (concentration! confusion! jokes!) superimposed. You, the developer,  get to watch all these players respond, fully in the moment, to the way you’ve designed your characters, or laid our your levels, or written your story.

That’s if you’ve released a conventional game.

What if you’ve released a game like No Man’s Sky?

Courtesy of Robin Sloan

This game’s cosmos wasn’t designed directly—tree here, black hole there—but rather indirectly, as a set of rules, or procedures. This kind of world generation has been part of video games since their beginning; what makes No Man’s Sky noteworthy is the number and complexity of the procedures, and also one special trick. The game’s galaxy contains more than a billion-billion distinct planets; I did not download these overnight. No one did, and no one ever will. Rather, the planets are “grown” on demand from seed values: large, 64-bit numbers. The procedures—which govern the geometry and placement of trees, lakes, alien quadrupeds—are deterministic, so each unique seed yields one unique planet. The game doesn’t expose the seeds to its players, and it doesn’t allow them to navigate in this way, but, if two players both found their way to the planet seeded by, say, 49,979,687—a nice prime—they would see the same trees, the same lakes, the same quadrupeds. It would be the same planet. It’s there right now, waiting patiently for both of them, and for everyone.

Let’s flip it around. If no player EVER finds 49,979,687, the planet won’t ever be grown. The geometry of its trees and lakes, and the length of its quadrupeds’ legs, won’t ever be calculated.

It is therefore fitting that No Man’s Sky has established a rule: the first player to lay their eyes on a planet gets to name it. On Tuesday, the live-streamers named their discoveries, one by one, after loyal viewers. Planet Deonte. Planet Da Basic Gamer. Planet Mustard.

For much of the day, at the same time I was playing on my PS4, I was toggling through streams on my laptop, watching others play, too. (I was not alone: Twitch's count of simultaneous viewers for No Man's Sky streams topped 150,000.) This had an effect like one of those disorienting phone calls where the other side has put you on speaker, but something’s wrong and your own voice is in your ears, distant and delayed. On the streamers’ screens, I saw the same things I was encountering myself, except shifted through procedural space, colors and geometries and biologies all reshuffled. Their quadrupeds were enormous!

In No Man’s Sky, there are fire planets and ice planets, dry planets and wet planets. There are planets with enormous rocky features that twist like huge worms across the landscape, evidence of some long-ago fictional geological process. They’re strange and beautiful, and they are also obviously tied to one specific procedure, maybe even one specific variable. “Worminess”?

But the planets all harbor the same kinds of structures. The same alien remnants. You do the same kinds of things on all of them.

I ended my all-day play session with a triumphant flight into a wormhole, and I had to laugh when the game announced I had leapt more than 790,000 light years… to reappear in front of a space station basically identical to the one I’d just departed.

Courtesy of Robin Sloan

If the game’s rules and procedures don’t deliver mind-boggling diversity, what are they for? Why bother?

It goes back to my friend Patrick’s notion of the New Thing.

When I think of my day playing No Man’s Sky, I don’t think of the trees or lakes or quadrupeds, or the space stations, or even the monoliths. I think instead of the in-between moments:

  • Dropping into a shadowed slot canyon to find an alien ruin.

  • Dashing through a stand of house-sized mushrooms to discover—surprise! — a flock of alien chicken-dogs that scatter at my arrival.

  • Piloting my starship over a planet’s surface, following a set of coordinates, boosting hard, chasing the sun so fast I make a false dawn that flares through the misty atmosphere, blinding me.

  • Pushing out of that misty atmosphere into glittering interplanetary space.

The reason you might bother with all this procedural machinery, rather than just design these moments directly, as most other game developers do, is that now the moments are as much the players’ creations as they are yours.

A billion-billion planets, and some only slightly smaller number of steep ridges, means no player had ever seen the one dusted with gray-purple fronds that sheltered the monolith that taught me my first alien word. Its form was determined by the game’s procedures, but didn’t my exploration call it into being?

This New Thing, the streamers’ rush to consume and transform a newly-released game’s content: it’s different with No Man’s Sky.  This game’s “content” isn’t its planets, which, honestly, are a bit monotonous. The content isn’t its story, either, though the game does have one: a loose narrative that draws you toward the center of the galaxy.

It’s tempting to say the content is the procedures themselves, but the procedures can’t be seen directly, only intuited over time, as you see more planets—your own discoveries and others’—and begin to form theories about what varies and how. (“Worminess,” for sure!)

Watching Tuesday’s glut of streams, the weird mix of familiarity and dissonance made me think, more than anything else, of a book club, which likewise pairs the pleasure of shared appreciation—yes, I loved that part!—with the reality that every reader brings something different to the table. (Which explains how you could possibly get THAT out of this book.)

So maybe it’s not such a New Thing. What is a game like No Man’s Sky, really? A set of symbols that specify a world but do not themselves constitute it. A rich grammar that’s inert without the trigger of human attention.

Doesn’t that sound like something else?

It sounds like a book.