Saturday, 13 August 2016

No Man's Sky and the Political Economy of Hype

You've heard of GamerGate, right? The "movement" of online men-babies who harassed, doxed, and attacked women game developers and game firm employees because they were ostensibly upset about "ethics in video game journalism". No? Well here, knock yourself out. Anyway, "professional" video game journalism has another problem: a tendency to fall for the hype it generates. This reveals itself in the release of Hello Games' No Man's Sky, the much-trailed space exploration game.

What is particularly eye-catching from a game development/technical point of view is that its universe contains over 18 quintillion planets. These are generated procedurally from the developers' algorithms, which specify planetary formation, the distribution of sea and land, atmospheric composition, toxicity/radiation, and the appearance and behaviour of alien flora and fauna. Players wake up on a random world and start their exploration from there, with an official (but non-compulsory) objective of working one's way to the centre of the galaxy. Money can be earned from identifying the native wildlife and uploading your discoveries to the servers where, in the first 24 hours, players had "discovered" some 10 million species. These discoveries become fixed points in the universe which can later be visited by other players, but given its size ... And that's all there is to it. Explore, mine, trade, very, very occasionally shoot things, and follow the loose story threads weaved into the game. It's definitely the kind of game I avoid because I'd never have the time to inflict my writing on you. But my nearest and dearest is hooked. She might resurface in time for Christmas.

Not everyone is satisfied, though. Destructoid moaned that it's all a bit samey, and the differences between worlds are cosmetic. Slapping down a six-out-of-ten, Video Gamer made similar points, saying it becomes endlessly repetitive. The question has to be asked, after talking it up for so long, what were they expecting?

Since I was a nipper, hype has been part of any big game's pre-release. Game mags did then as games mags and websites do now. They wax lyrical about the game, bigging it up right to the release date. As far as the industry's political economy is concerned, it serves the interests of the game companies because interest and sales go hand-in-hand. And for the reviewers, it drives sales and web traffic as regular readers stick around to await the final verdict. You don't have to pretend a conspiracy between developers and reviewers, even though they have been uncovered in the past. Both have an identity of interests in the hype and will work independently of each to feed the machine. In No Man's Sky's case, Sony threw their full weight behind the project and have ensured it got plenty of coverage since its first appeared in late 2013. But unlike other huge games, Hello Games' Sean Murray has been scrupulous describing what the game is and isn't. Extensive previewing and interviews have set out the game world, what the thing entails, the slim chance of ever bumping into another player in the universe, and the very light plot elements. So to see it copping criticisms for "being boring" and not being a fast-paced first person shooter like Destiny, well, it's a bit like attacking Tetris for lacking platforming action.

It's not like we haven't seen this sort of game before. No Man Sky is more of a direct sequel to the classic Elite than Elite's official follow ups are. Back in the day on the trusty old Spectrums, BBC Micros, and the like the same procedural trick was pulled to produce a universe of just over 2,000 planets. Game play was about trading commodities between planets, upgrading your ship, shooting up space pirates (or becoming one yourself), and that was it. Completely without aim, it was a fundamentally open gaming experience that just wasn't available elsewhere, and is rightly regarded as one of the greatest games ever made. I have very fond memories of using the mining laser to light everything other than asteroids up. I have not jumped on every scrap released or leaked about No Man's Sky but, again, no claim has ever been made that we were looking forward to something qualitatively different to its illustrious ancestor.

And here lies the problem. Hype is inevitable when it comes to entertainment commodities, but time and again the political economy of reviewing inflates and distorts expectations. A preview creates a frame which is populated by all manner of wonderments and claims designed to generate interest in the game and its coverage, and it is through this distorted view that the game is subsequently evaluated. It's a bit like economists or sociologists creating models of the world, and then criticising real-life social action for refusing to conform. And in some cases, it leads to reviews that are egregiously off-centre and structurally dishonest. How about a critique within its own terms, like the mysterious absence of gas giants (when they dominate our own universe), or lack of variety among solar systems which, again, nowhere near match the diversity we've turned up in our own telescopes?

No Man's Sky is a refreshing change to the cavalcade of shooters, action RPGs, shooters, and action RPGs that are the lot of modern video gaming. If you want a change of pace, then approach on its own terms.


Chris said...

How can you not support Gamergate? Studies have shown most participants are liberal or leftwing and it is an eminently justified backlash by ordinary people against a sanctimonious cultural elite that treats them with contempt.

There is nothing any Gamergate supporter has ever done that I wouldn't heartily endorse.

Phil said...

Given that you think sexist abuse of women online is okay because they're "middle class", I'm not surprised you endorse this movement of sad fuckers and losers.

Lidl_Janus said...

Re: GamerGate, I defer to the magnificent summary (of all places) came up with in 2014:

A few weeks ago our message board and general inbox were bombarded with demands we address something called the "GamerGate Scandal", posts written with the urgency and rage one would associate with, say, discovering that Chipotle burritos are made entirely from the meat of human babies. It's apparently a big deal in some circles, so we followed the links and read the piles of data presented, and had to stop and take a deep breath just to grasp it all. "Gentlemen," we said amid the stunned silence, "do you realize that if what they're saying is true, then this is still the most pointless fucking bullshit anyone has ever forced us to read?"

jim mclean said...

My partner is lamenting the end of Mafia Wars, the sheer joy expressed when she "iced" her enemies left me rather nervous at times.

Chris said...

I don't think sexist abuse is OK so much as I don't believe it exists at all.

I don't believe sexism exists, but all forms of online verbal abuse are A-OK by me.

Chris said...

You need to realise that your left has come and gone. Your embrace of identity politics is hilariously outdated in the Corbyn era. People on the left only latched onto that stuff because New Labour made real socialism temporarily impossible. No need for that anymore.

Phil said...

"I don't believe sexism exists"

And that marks the point where anyone should cease taking Chris's opinions remotely seriously.

Lidl_Janus said...

"My partner is lamenting the end of Mafia Wars, the sheer joy expressed when she "iced" her enemies left me rather nervous at times."

Jim, you should be absolutely fine, unless - wait, you're not a Trotskyist, are you?