No Player’s Sky: A Meditation on Gaming and the Role of Narrative

It would seem that no game could possibly live up to the pre-release hype of No Man’s Sky.

So argues Nathan Grayson over at Kotaku, pointing out that while Hello Games promised (and failed to deliver on) quite a few things, they never promised “The Ultimate Video Game.” Rather, it was the players who promised that one to themselves–and when it didn’t show up in their Steam library, they were quite upset.

Of course, ‘upset’ might be putting it a bit lightly. At the time of release, No Man’s Sky boasted over two hundred thousand concurrent players; after two months, just over one thousand players–a measly 0.5% of the original player count–can be found on the game at a time. Recent reviews are totaled as “overwhelmingly negative,” placing the game within the bottom-most qualitative tier on Steam. I would cite some other games which have warranted this ranking, but none are worth mentioning–and that is possibly the biggest indicator of the sort of game we are talking about; it is ranked with the games which no one speaks of, which no one knows anything about.

It could have been better, at the very least. The advertised image of the game was godlike; players could navigate an endless universe, explore countless millions of worlds, each planet unique and full of a diverse array of procedurally-generated flora and fauna; players could upgrade their ships and their persons and become nigh-invincible combatants in galactic conflicts; the game promised both a wealth of content and a blank check, assuring that players would never, ever reach the bottom of what the game had to offer.

The dream proved almost impossibly too good to be true. In fact, the dream could not have been true, in part because the dream exceeded the capacity for any game to sufficiently render it, especially a game of this sort.

I speak here of games without provided narratives–or rather, games which encourage or demand self-imposed narratives, games which approximate the cumulative narrative of actual living.

When we consider stories and tales–which are our bread and butter here at LTUE–we tend to consider the characters which inhabit them, or the worlds they open up to us, or the gripping plots which ensnare us and keep us reading late at night, far past the hours at which sane people turn in and shelve their media.

It’s far less often that we consider with some degree of depth the narratives which constitute the substance of the story, or the ways in which we opt for a narrative that fits our cognitive demands.

When we start reading, we start small. Children’s books often provide a piecemeal narrative, episodic at best and usually undemanding; it’s not until we get older that we start delving into complex narratives, unreliable narrators, twist endings, unsolved mysteries, or narratives approximating the unknowable nature of the universe.

And yet these more-developed narratives still occupy the role which narratives offer to readers: structure–and with structure, defined limitations.

Let’s talk about this for a bit. A story extends only so far as its plot. Even though we recognize and assume that an operable world exists in the background, we don’t actually go there over the course of the story; instead, we follow the protagonist, who might end up passing through that world; then again, they might not. We often enjoy the passing references to things outside the immediate foreground of the story; these provide a sense that the story inhabits a strong milieu, a world worth exploring and spending time in. And yet that world remains palpably beyond our reach. It’s only an imagined world, after all.

As such, the structure of the narrative defines limitations for the reader. (Fanfiction writers tend to operate through a rejection of these limitations.) These limitations might feel constraining; and yet it is these same constraints which allow the plot to have direction and substance. After all, if the reader were able to wander off in some direction other than where the narrative went, they would miss out on the story.

Most games provide some degree of narrative. There are certain things which need to be done; there are certain ways to go about doing them; there are certain obstacles in the way. This constitutes the conflict inherent in gaming–that the path to the end of the narrative requires effort. In that sense, it can be an even more rewarding form of narrative than reading; after all, all you need to do to reach the end of a book is to read.

But what about games without a narrative? What about games where you just happen to ‘do’ things?

In this case–and there are an increasing number of games which feature this sort of ‘directionless’ gameplay–the narrative is provided by the gamer, not by the game’s creator.

Sandbox games, we call them. What narrative is there in a sandbox?

“Look, I just built a castle. And then a meteor crashed into it. And now there’s an all-out conflict between the green and tan Army Men.”

The only narrative in a sandbox is the one provided by the person playing in it. To much the same extent, the only narrative in a sandbox game is the one provided by the gamer.

Remember how narratives provide structure and limitation? In a sandbox game, those limitations are determined by the limits of the gameplay–the things which are possible within the constraints of the game’s content.

Essentially, the main reason that No Man’s Sky failed is because the narrative provided by the gamer failed to find expression in the game provided by the publisher.

And even more so–the narrative provided by these countless anxious gamers could not have been met by No Man’s Sky. Or any other game. This is because gamers looked for something beyond anything which gameplay could reasonably provide. They wanted a game which could cater to the literally limitless narratives they wanted to provide for it–something which, to this date, no game could ever possibly provide.

Indeed, the only medium which caters towards anything approaching this degree of complexity is life itself–real living, with all of its messy corridors, its closed opportunities, its drastic limitations, and the narratives which we impose on it in order to make sense of it–and which we edit over and over again.

What are some takeaways from this?

We might consider the pervasive influence of narrative. Even where narrative seems like a non-issue, consumers are likely to provide their own–often to the mutual detriment of both fans and creators.

We might consider the nature of sandbox narratives and the perils of undercutting the capacities of a sandbox–or of overhyping them. After all, there are few things quite as disappointing as a sandbox without enough sand.

Finally, we might consider the value of the narratives which we storytellers and writers provide the rest of the community. We foster the desire for plot and story; we provide the healing drug which the rest of the world hungers for. Through us comes that which No Man’s Sky could never ever hope to accomplish–to provide an impetus for endless narratives, and to further a medium which breathes life and meaning into them.

The Ultimate Video Game might still be a pipe dream for media developers. But the Ultimate Narrative is well-within our reach–and some lucky few of us might live to write it.