In the Seinfeld episode “The Pitch”, George comes up with an idea for a show “about nothing … no plot, no story”. Jerry has trouble grasping the concept, telling George “You gotta have a story”.
JERRY. So you are saying, I go in to NBC and tell them I have this idea for a show about nothing.
GEORGE. …I think we really got something here.
JERRY. What do we got?
GEORGE. An idea!
JERRY. What idea?
GEORGE. An idea for the show.
JERRY. I still don’t know what the idea is!
GEORGE. It’s about nothing.
GEORGE. Everybody’s doing something. We’ll do nothing.
JERRY. So we go into NBC and we tell them I got an idea for a show about nothing?
JERRY. They say, “What’s your show about”. I say, “Nothing”.
GEORGE. There you go.
JERRY. I think you may have something here.
No Man’s Sky is the video game version of “The Pitch”. It is a game that makes brilliant sense to some gamers and completely confounds other gamers. It is, at least in some sense, a game about nothing.
One of the most interesting things that I have read in the gaming community in quite some time is the comment section on articles about No Man’s Sky. Gamers are completely divided into two categories like George and Jerry. The George category gamers believe that the game is a revolutionary breath of fresh air into a stale game market. The Jerry gamers believe this is a game with pretty visuals and no substance.
When the two clash, those comment sections are a study in the psyche of gamers and it is all pretty interesting to behold.
I go by the moniker “Unfrozen Caveman Gamer” or “Caveman Gamer” online because I am usually a bit older than the gamers I tend to interact with on a daily basis. My first console game was Pong (actually it was my older brother’s). Then we had Stunt Cycle and eventually moved into the Atari 2600, Intellivision and Colecovision. I remember one of my favorite games as a kid was Chuck Norris Superkicks. Now, in that game Chuck Norris was a white blob with a line of yellow to represent his hair and a line to represent his belt. In my mind though, it was Chuck freakin’ Norris.
Before the age of graphics being measured in “P” and frame rates, we basically had colored pixels that represented complex objects like people or spaceships. The game was twenty percent visual and about eighty percent imagination. In my mind, I saw Chuck Norris kick the crap out of those ninjas, but the reality was a white blob collided with a black blob. You had to fill in the gaps with your imagination because technology hadn’t caught up to what the human mind could visualize.
Military games to me were square tanks that shot really slow square bullets at other square objects. I spent countless hours in the woods behind my house playing “Army” with my friends using sticks for guns because we didn’t have a game like Call of Duty where the graphics were more real than our imaginations could generate in the back yard. Because of that, we all grew up with vivid and immense imaginations that allowed us to combine what we saw on screen with what we could conjure up in our heads to create vast narratives in video games that were little more than colored pixel people with scrolling backgrounds. Games were as much about the journey as the destination. There was no online multiplayer, so games were more about the story than about competition and winning.
For modern gamers, games are about achieving predetermined goals. They are about achievements, trophies and gamer scores. They are about kill to death ratios and prestige levels. It is all very different than what games meant to me growing up and in some ways that saddens me.
If you discuss No Man’s Sky with a large group of modern gamers, you will inevitably begin to see the affects of this modern gaming culture. In every single comment section you will see people trying to come to grips with the fact that this is a game about “nothing”.
“What is going to be my motivation to play this game?” “What is the point of this game?” “Is there a game in there somewhere?” “Is there anything to do besides fly around and explore?” “How are you going to get missions?” “What do you actually do in this game?”
The developers at Hello Games have stated multiple times that they don’t want to tell gamers how to play the game. They want us to show them how we play the game. It is like what George said, “Everybody’s doing something…We’ll do nothing”. The reality is not that Hello Games is doing nothing, but rather they are doing nothing FOR you. They are letting you write your own narrative and for some gamers that concept seems so foreign to them now that they don’t know what to do with it.
So many gamers are accustomed to developers and designers telling them, “Go here, shoot this, collect this, build this, drive this to that point and we will tell you that you completed your mission and you will feel a sense of accomplishment”. Hello Games is saying “You decide if you want to shoot something, collect something, or go somewhere and you decide what you have accomplished (or not accomplished) on your own”.
That is not to say there are no built in narratives and plot devices in the game. It is just that whatever is there, they want you to discover for yourself. We have been told there is a protagonist or protagonists. We have been told there are factions in the game that work together toward common goals and that those factions may clash with each other. We have been told that there will be some reason that compels you to go to the center of the universe. Largely though, they are leaving the narration and story of the game up to you and I.
You can spend an hour or a week being an oceanographer and just discover the ocean of a planet or multiple planets. You could study marine biology and try to figure out if the oceans have tides, if bigger fish eat smaller fish or if they only feed on plant life. For the next hour, day, week or month, you might decide to become a pirate and attack trading vessels. When you get bored of that, you might decide to become a trader yourself. You might also be miner, a botanist, a biologist, a hunter, a police officer, an explorer of a single planet or of many planets. They have provided you with an expansive universe that is your tool set to create your own narratives for as long or as little as you want.
Just the idea of that makes this the most appealing game to me that I have heard about in years. Yet, that same idea turns some of my friends completely off from the game. Watching this type of gamer struggle with Hello Games' message that they don't want to tell you how to play the game, what you should be doing or what your motivation for playing should be reminds me of a skit from Saturday Night Live. The skit centers around a fictional morning news show called Wake Up And Smile. The cast consists of two hosts and a weatherman. At some point the teleprompter malfunctions. The three newscasters don't know how to function without someone telling them exactly what to say. Chaos ensues and the three break down into a Lord of the Flies type society. Eventually the male host beheads the weatherman and tries to eat him. You can watch the skit here. That is the way the comment sections of some of these No Man's Sky articles look like. Gamers pleading, "Where is the game? Please tell me what I am supposed to do! Give me a mission!"
They enjoy the structure of a developer telling them every little detail about their character, their back-story, their motivations and their missions. They want to know how, when and why they need to go from point A to point B. Whereas gamers like me just want point A and then the developers to say, “Here are your tools, go and make point B whatever you want it to be”.
One type of gamer isn’t better than the other. They are just different. There are gamers who want to see how fast they can finish a mission without taking damage as a test of their skills and then there are gamers like me, who say, “Stop shooting at me, I am not doing the mission anymore…I want to see where this river goes”. Some gamers look at No Man’s Sky and say, “There is nothing to do in this game” while others look and say, “How am I going to have time to do everything there is to do in this game”.
I just find it interesting how the same game can generate such opposite reactions. A game about nothing is essentially a game about everything. You are only limited by your imagination. Yet, some people aren’t comfortable if a game doesn’t fit into a box. They want things they are comfortable with: goals, missions and traditional multiplayer. They want to know that they can win the competition or beat the game.
Others, like me, don’t care about achievements, gamer scores or kill to death ratios. I have never gone out of my way to collect flags or pigeons or pages simply for an arbitrary achievement score. I have never done a speed run. I don’t skip side quests. I don’t fast travel to areas I haven’t fully explored. I want to be fully immersed in the story and environment and running around looking for flags doesn’t allow me to do that. If I am an assassin, I am not going to run across vast cities collecting hundreds of flags that just happen to be there and so I won't bother doing that in a game because it ruins the immersion factor for me and that is worth more than some number next to my avatar to me.
No Man’s Sky is a game about nothing and a game about everything. It is whatever you can imagine it to be. Despite what you may think, there is a story and plot to the game, but that is secondary to the story you will tell. What is the point of the game? The point is whatever you want it to be and for some people that is terrifying while for others it is liberating. How does a game with no missions or complex goals (other than make it to the center of the universe) make you feel? Comment below or tweet me @cavemangamer