Can No Man’s Sky help us discuss the philosophy of “the meaning of life”?



Let me clear something up. This isn’t a piece defending Hello Games and the shambles that was (and still is) their “Hype-train“. This is a piece about a thought that crossed my mind (sideways, at high speed, on a “space motor-bike”) while I was playing the game.

Let’s get started!

As I’m sure you know if you’re reading this: No Man’s Sky (NMS) has been plagued by complaints about a lack of depth and direction. The interesting part is that lots of other people are praising it for just that – that is to say the lack of direction, not lack of depth… It’s fairly safe to say that nobody is happy about the lack of depth.

I’m the kind of person who 100% completed Ghost Recon Wildlands within a week of release. So you can imagine how lonely and existential playing NMS became as I ran out of “Journey” achievements. The galaxy rapidly began to feel much bigger and simultaneously much smaller. The game started to feel so impossibly big that exploring it more than necessary felt almost futile. Resources are relatively plentiful, and life is abundant. It was at about 30 hours in that I started my little trip down the rabbit hole and asked myself “Does NMS reflect the decisions we make about meaning/direction in our real lives?”

“Why don’t we ask Sean Murray?” you ask?

That’s a good question, reader! He’d be able to tell us right away, right? Well, I don’t know about you, but I feel like games are a form of art. So, what matters more – the artist’s intent or the audience’s interpretation? I ask myself that a lot more than I probably should. However, I usually come to the same conclusion every time so it’s not too much of an issue (just hurts my solitary brain-cell and occasionally wastes some time).
I feel like the artist’s intent is important, but not paramount; like the audience is the important part; people don’t see their daily world through the artists’ eyes, why should that change when they look at a painting or play a game? Everyone has their own experiences, so I feel like you shouldn’t devalue that by saying the artist’s intention is somehow “more right” than an interpretation.

Anyway, to answer your question (or at least the question I’m going to pretend you asked):”Because interpreting stuff is much more fun than knowing its intent!”

Now that that’s cleared up!

“Does NMS reflect the decisions we make about meaning/direction in our real lives?” is a bit of an odd thing to screech through someone’s brain, let alone justify them writing an article about so if you don’t mind I’d like to justify my reasoning (justifying the question, not the article; what I waste my time writing is none of your business).

Monolith and Asteroids

The main reason that I feel like NMS offers us some parallels and analogues with real life is in the way it handles “meaning” and “direction”. What do I mean? Thank you for asking! Within days of NMS’s release, people had touched far outer reaches and the dense centre of the galaxy; one avid player was even documented as fully upgrading all their equipment without leaving the first planet. Everyone had a different story and experience in the galaxy provided by the game; they all made choices and decisions that made their playthrough (if you can even call it that) unique.

This is where I drew my parallels with the real galaxy. In the real world, people make the same decisions for the same reasons as they do in game – people become explorers, biologists, traders, miners, fighters, pirates or whatever they are, purely because they want to. This choice is called “agency”.

NIA – The “Not-so Intelligent Agency”

“Agency” is what makes us feel free and (in part) is one of the things that makes us human. This trait can be demonstrated beautifully using the “ultimatum game”. If you don’t know what that is, then that’s okay, because here’s a brief explanation…

Imagine you have a cake and your friend has a knife. You come up with a deal: your friend gets to cut the cake into two pieces of whatever size they want, but if you don’t like the portion they cut for you then you can table-flip and neither of you get any cake. Simple enough.

Most people will table-flip if they are offered anything under 20-30% and that seems reasonable, I mean it’s just unfair to offer so little! But in practice you’re just depriving everyone of cake (not reasonable or fair).

Now try the same experiment with chimpanzees (except with grapes and without giving them knives). You’ll find that they do something rather interesting: they accept any offer above zero. A human, when faced with a heavily ‘unfair’ choice, will choose the least rational option, simply refusing the offer – even if it’s only out of spite. Agency within humans is important. Got it? Good!

So what’s all this ‘agency’ good for anyway?

Games provide “agency” in different ways. Most games provide a story with multiple paths or methods to reach a pre-determined end-goal. NMS bucks the trend by not only providing you with agency on how to achieve your goals, but also by providing you with agency regarding what your goals even are. You can pick whatever goal you want and complete it in whichever way you please. If you wanted, you could make your in-game goal “to hunt down a trader who gave a bad deal once” purely out of spite.

Let’s contrast this with Fallout 4 where, outside of a few side quests, the only real goal decision you make is choosing which of the three factions you want to support. Do you see what I mean about agency being much more prominent in NMS?

Basically what I’m trying to say is that, by sacrificing depth of story, NMS allows a greater sense of personal agency within the game. Sadly, this does have some drawbacks, bringing me to my final point: purpose.

For all intents and porpoises.

Porpoise memeSo, what is the purpose of playing NMS? What is the purpose of life? The answers to these questions might not be knowable, but to me the closest I can get to an answer is, in short: “There is no purpose”. In long: “If there is no purpose, then purpose is defined by the agent”.

I know how dark that sounds, but hear me out. All I’m trying to say is that, the person/player defines the purpose of living/playing simply by having “agency” in that world.

Now, all that’s left is to ask is: “If NMS does reflect this philosophy, does agency have a part to play in attributing meaning to life?”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this theory, so please feel free to leave your opinions in the comments below!

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