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The Deep, Dark Secret of No Man's Sky: You're The Bad Guy

No Man's Sky casts the player as a lone explorer, flung into a vast universe of untold riches and possibilities...but, that doesn't mean you're playing as a hero.

After a lengthy development cycle, No Man’s Sky is finally upon us. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks discovering new planets, breaking apart asteroids, dodging security robots and trying to outrun pirates as I haul tons of valuable minerals off of planets and back to the endless riches awaiting me once I sell it all to the highest bidder. 

I’ve sailed through the atmospheres of lush worlds I’d do anything to live on, and also discovered completely dead planets, hospitiable to only the strangest and heartiest of creatures. No Man’s Sky has for once made me feel truly like a space adventurer, exploring diverse climates, finding more and more interesting things that could make me rich and/or kill me, and  trying to understand my place among the other alien races that inhabit the worlds I’m relentlessly exploring and exploiting.

One of the main draws of the game, to me, is that you’re responsible for making your own story, for the most part. The game doesn’t hand you much in terms of telling you how to survive and what path you should take to get to the center of the universe, which, despite being the stated goal of the game, I feel zero pressure or urgency to get there any time soon. Instead, the game lets you explore, it lets you build your own narrative based on the adventures you make for yourself while exploring the vast array of planets.

As with any game of this profile, there’s been a ton of press about No Man’s Sky...some good, some needlessly harsh, and some accurate of the game’s shortcomings. I think a lot of people expected a very different game than what arrived, but if I’d been developing it myself, i don’t know if there’s a lot I’d change, personally.

Some of the press for the game caught my eye, though. Particularly this piece on Polygon talking about how the game’s central tenet of exploration and exploitation is somehow an encouragement of Imperialism and Capitalism, that the game casts you as the game’s hero, endlessly shuttling from planet to planet, stripping them for material gains, and running around to already populated settlements to “claim” them for yourself, slapping your own name on them for others to see for the rest of eternity.

But the game never says you’re a hero, or what you’re doing is even a noble cause. I would even argue that there’s ample evidence in the game to point toward your character isn’t doing good at all, but rather could very well be a villain.

Let’s, first, look at the name of the game itself. No Man’s Sky, to me, is a signal that none of this belongs to you...that despite the fact that you can explore and exploit all of these worlds, nothing in the game ever really condones this behavior other than your own motivation to get a bigger ship, more dangerous weapons, and more money to buy those things. The game’s Sentinels, already being derided as annoying and overzealous, will only attack you if you do something like, say, lob a grenade at a multimillion year old plutonium crystal outcropping, or even worse, smash open a locked door so you can break and enter a building that doesn’t belong to you. The sentinels aren’t malevolent security drones, they’re planetary police, keeping the peace and watching for property destruction and other space felonies.

To further drive the point home, for me at least, while I was exploring a planet and finding the various monuments that allow you to learn new words in alien languages, one of the first words I learned was the Korvax word for ‘interloper’. A word I’m sure I’ll be hearing a lot of on my journey through the stars.

In truth, I think No Man’s Sky is a canny response toward the Western world’s nasty habits of Imperialism and Capitalism. The game’s development studio, Hello Games, is based in the UK, and the game’s creator, Sean Murray, grew up in Australia, and both of those countries know more than a little bit about the unintended (or entirely intended) consequences of rampant Imperialism and Capitalism.

Maybe this is just the story I’m making up for myself as I play through No Man’s Sky, though. Maybe it’s just my perception of how the world around me seems to be sitting there perfectly fine until I come along to tear things apart. And none of this keeps No Man’s Sky from being a great game...in fact, I think it might even enhance my experience. Nobody ever scolded me for blast mining mountains into rubble in Minecraft, I never felt bad emptying vast cave systems of all their natural resources in Terraria, and I never thought for a second what greedily claiming every plant, mineral and substance I could might do to the surrounding populace in Starbound. In No Man’s Sky, though, I feel a slight pang of guilt for my actions every time I train my mining laser on a pristine, hundred foot high pillar of gold. And that’s one of the most complex feelings I've had while playing a game in a long time.

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