19 August 2016No Man's Sky is Elite for the 21st century. Pointless? Maybe – but also sublime
When I was 13 I took the game Elite very seriously. The seminal space exploration and trading simulation, which presented the player with a ship and a vast galaxy and then left everything else up to them, was an utterly crucial piece of escapism for me. I had a cardboard overlay that I put on my Commodore 64 keyboard, which showed all the functions of the various buttons in the game; I saved up and bought a Quickshot II joystick because it looked a bit like something you might see on a flight deck in Star Wars. I cleared my desk of action figures, toys and comics so that it felt like a serious space ship. I turned the lights off in the little dining area where we kept our computer, so that I wasn’t distracted by all the domestic detritus of the kitchen. I pretended the hum of the fridge freezer was my life support system.
Then I played.
I grew up in Cheadle Hulme, near Stockport in Greater Manchester. This was 1984, and it was proper grim. I lived in a very respectable middle-class area, but the national news was all Cold War nuclear paranoia, while the local media agenda was dominated by the mass closures of local heavy industries. There was unemployment and unrest; the world was unfathomable. So I spent great chunks of my time in space, in Elite’s second galaxy (the game had eight), trading between three planet systems. In the game’s financial mechanic, there were multiple items to buy and sell when you landed on space stations, and prices would differ depending on the economic conditions of the neighbouring planet. Agricultural goods sold strongly on densely populated industrialised planets, while you could get excellent returns on luxury goods in systems where there was cash but little urbanisation.
I took lengthy notes about planets and their economies. I plotted my own maps when I took forays into unclassified areas. In Elite, you could be attacked by pirates at any time, or you might be drawn out of hyperspace by a Thargoid invasion fleet which would trap you until you defeated them in space battle. I lived in fear of this random encroachment on my habits and routines.
There was no point to any of this. If you got rich you could upgrade your ship with better weapons and defence systems, and as you did that, you became more formidable in battle, increasing your rank. But it wasn’t really about that, it was about the experience. I’d drift in space for hours, scooping fuel from suns, mining asteroids, watching the vector-based planets withdraw into the distant nothingness behind my craft. I’d pretend to be in Alien, world-weary and skittish, terrified of passing too close to LV-426. When I bought a docking computer, I’d listen to the game’s simple but beautiful rendition of the Blue Danube as my craft spiralled delicately toward the space station entrance. I’d imagine myself leaving the ship, wandering the white, brightly lit corridors of the station, finding trading partners, discussing deals. In the game, you never left your ship, and the space station interior was depicted as a series of trading lists. You never saw anything. You had to create it all. The game was the backdrop, the words on the page.
I have of course been reminded of all this playing No Man’s Sky, which is in effect Elite for the 21st century (yes, I know there is an actual Elite for the 21st century – Elite: Dangerous – but it is much more of a serious simulation, and is constructed in a very different way). There’s little point to it, beside the promise of some narrative event at the centre of the universe. You drift from planet to planet, mining, selling and buying; there are little compulsion systems that prod you toward increasing your inventory size and following astral paths through the glittering cosmos, but you don’t have to. I like floating just above the surface of a planet, watching the details bubble into life below me; the ship’s engine makes this dull clunking sound, which seems brilliantly anachronistic in a craft capable of faster than light travel, but it adds a sort of workmanlike feel to travel. It brings back that sense that Elite provided – that you’re a lonely and vulnerable traveller, in a puny rust bucket only ever one dramatic incident away from destruction. The universe won’t care when you’re gone. The universe barely knows you’re there.
Some people have reacted badly to this. Used to being told they’re the centre of the galaxy, gamers are furious about the lack of direction in the game, the lack of point, the lack of meaning, the lack of recognition. It has occurred to me while watching the controversy unfold that many of the angry comments about the game are expressing existential angst. There’s no point and no direction. You hear this a lot about life in general when you spend time in online forums. I think the internet and the vast cynical, largely anonymised community it has engendered, has allowed a kind of nihilism to form and propagate. The people dismissing the No Man’s Sky creators as liars and thieves because some of the potential features they talked about haven’t yet materialised in the game, are having trouble coming to terms with the vagaries of the creative act – and of life itself. They think everything has to work and operate like a product; whether that’s a game, a movie franchise or other human beings. When things don’t work like that they feel cheated.
I mean, I don’t know what’s changed in the 30 years since Elite. Is it simply about technology? Is it that we require more detail and direction from our games now? That makes sense I suppose. Or is it a wider sociocultural phenomenon – that we have been taught to expect some sort of cogent journey, some carefully scripted satisfaction, from every single thing we engage with? We are certainly very impatient when the decisions we make don’t generate the rewards we expect. And now social media has allowed us to revel in and communicate our fury.
I just know that I didn’t expect Elite to provide me with much. My life in that game was 90% cruising through space with a full cargo hold, hoping not to attract attention from either the police or the authorities. The other 10% was terrifying and desperate space battles that would often see me jettisoning in an escape pod and starting my empire from scratch once again. The game had missions, but they were randomly allocated and dangerous. I rarely bothered with them.
Video games are still very tricky to define. They are not technological objects in the same way as printers or smart watches or Bluetooth speakers. But they are not art in quite the same way as cinema or literature. Instead, they are works of complex creative endeavour, they are imaginative machines, but the players themselves must complete the circuitry; you have to bring something with you – and with some games that requirement is greater. The clash over No Man’s Sky is a clash between people who see games as an entertainment product and the people who see them as an experience. As a product the game falls short in many practically understood ways. As an experience it can be utterly transcendental.
The problem we face now, in a consumer marketplace utterly saturated with choice, is that value is both a defining and an ambiguous factor. In order to commit to something, be it a TV series, YouTube channel or video game, we apply all sorts of criteria in the fear that we’re committing to the wrong thing. But those criteria can be misleading especially when money is involved. Can No Man’s Sky be worth £45 when it has no point to it; when you may get bored after 12 hours? This seems like a sensible question, but when we’re talking about experience, it really isn’t. A gorgeous meal, a trip on the London Eye, a night at the theatre, a Champions League play-off ticket – these are all hugely expensive propositions, that may only yield seconds of truly memorable entertainment. But those seconds may live with you forever. How do you place value on those things?
I still remember the hours I sat at that desk, the Blue Danube softly playing, clicking between the different views from my space ship, watching the stars dart by, watching the empty circle planets rotate. I paid £15 for Elite and another £15 for the joystick. It was so much money to me back then. But while there were other games that looked better and were more exciting, I don’t remember many of them now. I guess I’m old, that’s the thing: I’ve learned how much moments matter, and how, when the context fades, the joy often remains, like a pinprick of light in the blackest sky.