Here’s a puzzle for you. Below, I’ve set up three pictures from a world in No Man’s Sky. Can you tell whether they were taken from one small area, or from three different sides of the world?
It’s hard to tell, huh. If you haven’t played No Man’s Sky, you might put your hand up and say that they’re all from the same area. They all look like they’re in a similar sort of biome, they all have mountains and flora that looks like it comes from the same region. And that’s an understandable impulse. Thing is, that’s just No Man’s Sky. Each planet is essentially what we might think of as one biome. It has a strict set of flora and fauna, a set colour scheme, and that’s it. There isn’t any real variation beyond that. These images are equally likely to be from the same place as from opposite sides of the planet. Partly this is the problem of “procedural oatmeal“: as Kate Compton, who worked on Spore, describes it, you can procedurally generate billions of bowls of oatmeal, which will all be unique, technically speaking, but – you know, they all just look like bowls of oatmeal. They aren’t perceptually unique, she says. We see that with these screenshots above – sure, they look unique enough when you’ve only got three of them, but trudge around on that planet for a couple hours and you’ll stop caring. Every hill looks much like every other. The plants are all pretty much the same. Eventually, there isn’t any compelling reason to distinguish one view from another. It all melts into the same shapeless bowl of oatmeal. And the same is true on an interplanetary level: there are billions of planets out there, and they’re all technically distinct, but – after a while, they all start to look like just another bowl of oatmeal.
So the oatmeal problem in No Man’s Sky comes down to the algorithm that designed the different environments. It’s all procedurally generated design. By contrast, if you’ve got something like The Fidelio Incident (which I’ve discussed before), you find a very strong art direction. That game drips atmosphere – because it’s created by a bunch of art and environment guys, and they know what they’re fucking doing. You can pick a screenshot more or less at random (as below), and it communicates tone and feeling and a sense of purpose, a sense of intentionality. The hand of the creator is obvious. They were clearly trying to say specific things at specific points; they were deliberately creating specific moments of impact like you would in a film or any other visual medium. For No Man’s Sky, that’s not the case. It is procedurally generated landscape soup. It has no intention, no meaning, and, subsequently, no sense of variation or difference. It ultimately stops being pretty, and starts being a fucking mindless drag.
Is that a bit of a weird connection though? There’s no meaning or intention behind the landscape, and therefore it’s not pretty? In the real world, there’s no intention behind how nature has come together. Nature is gorgeous and breathtaking, and it’s not like there’s some higher power shaping how that all – ah, hang on, is this one of those arguments that depends on whether you’re religious or not? Let’s trace back through more carefully – that can’t be right. When you have a normal game, like The Fidelio Incident, the environment is all put together deliberately in order to communicate different ideas. They could be aesthetic, political, thematic, atmospheric – could be anything. The important thing is the intention. Someone has made this experience with a player audience in mind, and you are that player audience, experiencing the game that someone has crafted for you. There’s a parallel there with Christian doctrine about the creation of the universe; for instance, you’ll find books on theological aesthetics that cast the artistic process in terms of divine Creation. We sub-create – that’s one of the technical terms that’s used. There’s the Creator, and we are sub-creators, making our own little fictional worlds in a way that’s analogous to how He made His.
Now, you could argue that No Man’s Sky doesn’t demonstrate sub-creation, to the extent that it’s procedurally generated – that is, generated automatically by an algorithm rather than put together deliberately by an artist. However, the act of not creating something yourself is still a creative choice. Think about Duchamp’s ‘Fountain‘, or the broader genre of readymade sculpture. In those cases, artists are making art out of objects that they’ve already found in the world, rather than making their own thing from scratch. That’s a deliberate creative decision. It’s used to communicate specific ideas and meanings. Even to draw back to more familiar ground, in XCOM, which is a turn-based strategy game, you’re given a percentage chance to hit the aliens. The game uses an element of randomness – if it’s, say, a 50% chance to hit, the game will flip a coin and tell you whether you hit or not. The specific outcomes of each shot aren’t predetermined by the developers. They aren’t sitting there watching your game and judging whether or not you’ll hit each time. It’s a randomly selected outcome within the percentage weightings. In that sense, the developers aren’t directly – directly – responsible for the results of each encounter. They aren’t directly determining whether or not each shot connects. Instead, they’ve set up an environment where, beyond a certain point, it’s over to chance – with the idea being that, you know, sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you don’t. It’s suggesting that war has an element of randomness.
From that perspective, the act of not deciding what happens in your game is still an aesthetic act. To bring that back to No Man’s Sky, what we’re faced with in that game is an aesthetics of abdication. That aesthetic has implications for the game’s design, and also, separately, it says things about religion and God and the universe. We know that the developers had an algorithm generate each world. They made a deliberate choice to step back from that part of the creative process, to have it randomly generated. From a design perspective, the result isn’t always particularly pretty. It can be, but it’s also often just oatmeal soup. That’s a result of not taking a direct hand in how the worlds were visually crafted. It’s not that beauty requires intention – it’s just that when you design something, it tends to look better than if you determine its features randomly. And then separately, from a religious perspective (or maybe just from a philosophical perspective), No Man’s Sky also uses that algorithmic design process to simulate the experience of moving through a universe with no higher meaning. And that prompts certain questions in the player. For me, as a religious person, I was asking – well, why am I playing this game? The random way in which the planets were designed prompted me to ask existential questions about how I could find meaning in this game’s meaningless universe. Those are not questions that I normally have to ask. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to understanding what life must be like for non-religious people.
So in the strictest sense, then, the fact that No Man’s Sky had its worlds created by algorithm does mean that it looks like oatmeal soup. There isn’t any direct intention behind how high each mountain is, or how long a river runs for. It’s ugly because it’s a universe that wasn’t designed. But then on a second level, that lack of design is itself the design of the developers, who created a game about wandering in a random, meaningless universe in order to say things about meaning and life and religion and all the rest of it. Your reaction to those ideas probably will differ depending on whether you’re religious or not, but in terms of the more basic analysis of what the game is and how it functions – nah, that’s not so much a partisan issue. The terms are just really fucking slippery.