Pixel Theory Blog

False Discovery in "No Man's Sky"

by Adi Stein

I’ve fueled my first warp drive and launched headfirst into a new and unknown galaxy. After tearing through time and space I find myself surrounded by green auras and several planets in my immediate view. I pick one at random and use my pulse cannon to send my ship rocketing through the planet’s atmosphere. The surface is a vibrant, neon green with splashes of golden light coming off of the plant life. It’s rich with minerals, trees, wildlife, and oceans. I cannot wait to go out and explore.

So I begin searching for a transmission point. Quickly I find a landing station that leads into a mysterious building. I dock my ship and hop out. As I do so, the screen is filled with near heroic text telling me that I have just discovered this plant. Clearly I have some naming to do. I pull up my command module and start plugging in names. The galaxy? “Cereal.” The planet? “Fruity Pebbles.” Yes, I was hungry at the time and yes, my cereal drawer was open and in my peripheral vision.

I start analyzing wildlife and plant-life, naming things as I discover them. After getting a decent amount of money for my work, I walk into the building that I have landed in front of. Inside is a humanoid creature. It’s a dense, muscular looking thing with small cat-like eyes, blocky, squared off teeth, horns coming out through its cheeks, and green skin. It’s wearing what looks like an old astronaut suit but with no helmet. We talk. I can hardly understand what it’s saying but I can put together enough information from the creature’s body language and my limited knowledge of the language to guess an appropriate response. As a reward for my guesswork, the alien gives me money and blueprints for a new modification for my mining tool.

After that interaction I walk over to a terminal that’s on the wall and do some trading. “Do I need this gold? Not really and it’s selling a little higher here than the last place. Done!” After this exchange I head back to my ship and continue my adventures.

Such is the cycle of my time in No Man’s Sky, a beyond massive exploration game created by the team at Hello Games. This game came onto the scene a few years ago and hasn’t been able to leave the spotlight since. It’s been pitched as a full, randomly generated universe filled with hundreds of billions of unique planets. It’s been hyped in a way I’ve never seen a game hyped before. Based on my dozen or so hours with the game I’d say that some of that hype is warranted and most of it isn’t, but that’s not what I want to talk about here. For me, the most interesting and ultimately upsetting part of No Man’s Sky is its white imperialist idea of “discovery.”

The entire story I just told you – about discovering a new galaxy and finding a new planet and naming new life forms – it just isn’t “discovery.” The entire sense of “I’m the first thing ever to be here and name this place” is moot the second I walked into that building and saw that alien. That alien discovered this place! Well, maybe that specific one didn’t, but one of them did. The point is, there was another intelligent life form on this planet before me. So what right do I have to rename all of their stuff? To reclaim their planet on behalf of my species (though, truth be told, I don’t know what species I am – this guy could be my literal brother for all I know)?

What’s most troubling about all of this is that this false discovery is at the very core of what No Man’s Sky is. If you find and name every animal on a planet, you can upload it to the No Man’s Sky server and receive hundreds of thousands of the in-game currency. As the game opens up, you are flying through space looking at random names of galaxies “discovered” by other players. The most exciting part of landing on a new planet is finding new life, scanning it, and naming it. This sense of wonder and ownership pervades every part of No Man’s Sky, and for good reason! It’s abundantly rewarding and a lot of fun.

But it’s also deeply troubling. I find ancient runes that tell of long lost civilizations. I talk to intelligent life forms that have a variety of feelings and ideas. They introduce me to new technology that is far more advanced that what I knew before. And yet I’m the one discovering. Based on what Hello Games is telling me, the work of these alien creatures is meaningless, and that’s intensely problematic. It reinforces this idea that foreign ideas, homes, and civilizations don’t count until you discover them.

It makes me think of a video I saw online a few weeks ago. Posted by the YouTube user Andiasedi and entitled “KevOn Stage - Yall STAY Discovering Stuff Black People Been Doing & Renaming It,” the video talks about white people “discovering” things black people have been doing for decades and renaming it. While the video is somewhat funny, it does bring up a serious point. Nowhere is that point better encapsulated than when Andiasedi says, “It’s like American history to ‘discover’ something and be like, ‘Oh! What is this?’ Like America. How Christopher Columbus came over and was like, ‘Yo! India is dope.’ And Native Americans were like, ‘No no. This is America.’ And he was like, ‘You guys are Indians now!’”

This is exactly the problem that I have with No Man’s Sky. I land at this alien’s front door (which the game tells me is called “Udorol Moor”), I talk to the alien, they help me on my way, and then the game encourages me to rename their home. And let me be clear about this: I’m not saying that outside of the game this is what I will call this space. The game has a literal rename button that, once pressed and completed, uploads the name that I have chosen and tells the world that this is the new name for this pre-existing space.

Now I don’t want to sound like this was a malicious choice made by Hello Games. I seriously doubt that it was. But the fact that it could have been unintentional almost makes it worse. It shows an ignorance to this perspective that in turn validates that perspective all the more. Giving Hello Games the benefit of the doubt still says that they have no idea the implications of their own game mechanics.

But I see these implications. In fact, I see them more now that I have moved to my new neighborhood in Brooklyn. I walk through my new area, an area that has been around much longer than I have, and see the results of my choice to move here. I’ll be clear and straightforward: this part of Brooklyn is well into the gentrification process. I do not look like most of the people living here now, but I see many young, white, twenty somethings walking around and patronizing the local hipster coffee establishment or eating at the new falafel shop. I see people who look like me unknowingly raising the cost of living in this area and pushing out the community that was here before. We’re reclaiming the homes, renaming the shops, and completely altering the culture around us. That is hugely problematic.

I don’t want to be this change that I am a part of, but I also need a place to live. I need an apartment I can afford and right now that apartment is this apartment in this neighborhood at this time.

I recognize how lucky and privileged that is. Does my recognition make any tangible difference? No, it absolutely does not. Do I have an answer to this dilemma? No, I absolutely do not. I love this neighborhood. I love this apartment. It’s not where I want to spend the rest of my life, but it’s perfect for me right now.

The sad part is, though, that when I do move one, this neighborhood will not. It will forever be changed by my living here, even if I’m not forever here to see it change. And while that level of foundational change won’t happen at Udorol Moor in No Man’s Sky, I certainly left my mark on it… for better or for worse.