How No Man’s Sky exposes the gaming generation gap for 80’s kids

Martin Belam on 2016-09-20

This planet in No Man’s Sky has posed me a moral dilemma, and made me think about the many games I’ve played over the years.

I have a No Man’s Sky moral dilemma. I’m doing something that I worry may, in the long term, compromise my enjoyment of the game. “Playing it! That’s your problem right there!” yells the internet chorus of snark.

But before we get to that, a few thoughts about how No Man’s Sky unexpectedly became such a controversial launch, because of things that maybe just don’t seem as important to some gamers. In the process I think it has made clear that we have a generation gap in the gaming audience.

I understand why people were disappointed with No Man’s Sky not living up to the hype, and not being the game they thought they were being pre-sold. I sympathise with people feeling that they got ripped off. And yes, I laughed at that video too. But I unashamedly love it.

I mean, yes, some of the creatures are absolutely beyond ridiculous — the other day we discovered something that appeared to be walking upright on just two hind-legs and featured a horse’s face. We absolutely howled with laughter at it. I mean, come on. No human games designer would have signed it off as OK.

But for me, with No Man’s Sky, there’s something meditative and almost therapeutic about being able to explore such a beautiful open universe at your own pace, with no imperative to rush from cut-scene to cut-scene, and (mostly) nobody shooting at you.

One of the vocal complaints has been about the game’s lack of online multi-player options. That really bought home to me how generation-based the reception of the game has been.

I’ve been playing videogames since the seventies. For most of that time, not having online multi-player options was the norm.

The default state.

It brings to mind that wonderful Douglas Adams quote about the development of technology during your lifetime:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I know that online multi-player is fun, but it’s really difficult to get into if you aren’t playing games all the time. My usual experience of online play is getting instantly killed by people who don’t also have to devote massive chunks of their time to parenting and work, and, frankly, just being an exhausted fortysomething. Yes, Star Wars Battlefront, I am looking at you.

If I play FIFA online, matches usually consist of someone realising they are much, much better than me, and then getting their goalie to dribble the length of the pitch to score with trick-shots to demonstrate how lame I am.

Rocket League multi-player on the other hand was great — for quite some time there was enough of a kooky randomness about it that it was a bit of a leveller, and you could be a non-hardcore player and still end up on the winning side, and maybe even occasionally scoring the winning goal. It’s the only game I’ve ever really enjoyed playing with total randos over the net.

My mindset still, after all these years, is that there is a game. And then maybe it has some multi-player features that I’ll rarely, if ever, use. If you are fifteen, or twenty-five, I guess it is the complete reversal of expectations. The default is to expect to be in a multi-player environment.

For me, the peaceful solitude of wandering lonely around No Man’s Sky minding my own business is bliss.

I used to be really good at games, but I don’t really have time to get good, or learn anything really well anymore.

This Binatone TV Master is, I think, the first games console I remember having in the house, in the late 1970s. Certainly something very similar to it anyway.

I would have put hours into that, and then many more hours into some hand-held games we had, and then into my beloved ZX Spectrum. By then I had the computer and a TV in my bedroom, so it was definitely computer games all night every night — playing them, typing them in from magazines, writing them in BASIC from scratch — once my homework was finished, of course. I can probably still draw a pretty accurate map of the Sabre Wulf maze from memory.

After that in consoles I progressed through the Sega Megadrive while I was at Uni, and then on to the original Playstation and then the PS2. Again I used to know things like the attack patterns in a game like Terminator 2 on the Megadrive absolutely off by heart. I could call out instructions to fellow players.

Not so much these days.

In fact, I think that’s another factor in not feeling disappointed in No Man’s Sky. Much has been made of the lack of depth in the narrative, but I can’t think of a title in the last ten years that I’ve ever actually “finished”.

I’m kind of used to paying top dollar for the AAA releases, and then never actually getting through the promised 60+ hours of gameplay plus the DLC season pass extras, because I simply don’t have that amount of time to devote to a single game.

But it doesn’t bother me.

I feel like if I’ve enjoyed the hours I have managed to spend with it, then I’ve got my money’s worth. I’ve absolutely loved The Witcher III, for example, but I’m fairly certain I’ll never get to any ending of it, let alone have time to explore multiple endings.

So it doesn’t strike me as odd that the four or five people I know who have really got into No Man’s Sky are all of a similar-ish age and generation to me. I feel like the game fulfils an 80’s vision of games, the kind of thing I could have played years ago. Except infinitely bigger and brighter than anything we had back then. The features that it “lacks”, that have made people angry, are almost exactly the same features that make it appeal to me and some of my peers.

Anyway, to my No Man’s Sky moral dilemma, which is what made me write this in the first place.

I’m on my fourth star system now. I’ve investigated a couple of planets in it, and now I’ve landed on one which is bountiful.

And when I say bountiful, I mean ridiculously loaded with resources. The algorithm has generated a planet where you can’t move for Plutonium. And not just Plutonium, there is Chrysonite and Gold in abundance.

And pillars of Heridium.

And super-massive nuggets of Copper just hanging in the air. As you do.

Yes, I know gravity doesn’t work like that, but it does in the No Man’s Sky universe, and I don’t care, OK?

And more than that, there are mountainsides littered with huge lumps of Emeril, the most valuable of the neutral elements in the game. It looks stunning.

Flippin ‘eck Tucker! Look at the nuggets on that!

It is basically a plunderer’s dream.

I’m currently based around a shelter with a trading terminal, and I literally only have to fly for a couple of minutes in any direction, and I can set my starship down beside a massive Emeril deposit, mine it away, jump back to the shelter, and rack up hundreds of thousands of units. I’m absolutely coining it.

And utterly destroying the beauty of the planet in the process.

But my question is this: is this going to unbalance the whole of the rest of the game? I’ve already been able to afford to get my Exosuit expanded up to a huge number of slots, and soon I’m going to be able to afford to buy the biggest type of spaceship that ever comes calling to the planet.

Will that make the rest of the game too easy, given that it will make it much easier to dogfight in space, and to marshall resources while exploring other worlds? If I can even be bothered to leave this planet? I mean, assuming I’m not going to mine every single bit of Emeril on the planet, when will I have decided that I have mined “enough” to move on?

As I said, I find the game meditative.

So then I started thinking about the ethics of it. I was mining away, idly wondering if this is how some of the conquistadors ended up feeling. That in their heart of hearts they knew they were being exploitative and perhaps a bit greedy, destroying something beautiful, but basically there was just so much cash lying on the table to be picked up for free, that they couldn’t walk away.

In mining this planet intensely for cash, I’m destroying its beauty.

Maybe a more hardened gamer, or someone who was less of a namby-pamby left-winger wouldn’t worry about this —they would just hoover up the cash as fast as possible. Is this nagging worry about ill-gotten gains why I’ve never been any good at GTA V?

Anyway that’s my dilemma — is getting hugely rich early on in No Man’s Sky basically a massive cheat due to a freak of the algorithm generating this planet?

“Does this mean we aren’t going into space anymore?” Emma asked, when I explained that I just wanted to stay on this one planet for a while collecting the resources.

My kids are very disappointed with this whole turn of events. James is 3-and-a-half and Emma is nearly 7, and they enjoy playing the game with me. Watching your 3 year old pilot your precious starship and cargo through an onrushing storm of asteroids is, I can tell you, an experience.

It is terrifying watching a 3 year old pilot the starship you’ve spent ages building up

I let them name the animals, fly the spaceship, and explore the planets on foot. I sometimes have to say “Press R2” or guide them through recharging the life support, but between the three of us we’ve had sessions where we play it by committee. They love spotting animals in the distance and chasing after them to analyse them. And they want to go to new planets. On this world, there are three other planets hanging low in the sky most of the time. “But why can’t we visit them?”

I love the fact that they enjoy playing videogames. And I’m amazed when I think about how much games are going to change during their lifetimes. I grew up with that Binatone machine with its black and white graphics and wheel controllers— for them touchscreen interfaces and voice control are a done deal.

When I am playing No Man’s Sky, I am watching the kind of space landscapes that I could only imagine when I was playing the Grandstand Mini Arcade games I used to have.

When I was ten or eleven I used to have both “Invaders from Mars” and the “Kevin Keagan Big Game” from this page of the 1982 Argos catalogue.

It’s the kind of back-story that Usborne gave their number-guessing games to give them a space theme.

My PS4 is finally delivering the kind of worlds that were on the artwork of the cassettes I used to buy for my ZX Spectrum, that then produced some 8-bit graphics with colour-clash, rather than what the box had promised. I mean, even the biggest fan of the legend that is “Lords Of Midnight”, for example, would have to concede that there was a gap between the concept art and the rendering of the characters.

The box for “Lords of Midnight” — and how the characters actually looked on the ZX Spectrum

But it’s like what Douglas Adams said. When my kids are playing No Man’s Sky, or Lego Batman, or Minecraft, or FIFA, that’s just how games are. That’s their baseline for what games are, and what games can do.

In thirty year’s time they’ll see a picture of a vintage PS4 and that, for them, is going to be the nostalgia burst equivalent of me seeing Pong or Space Invaders or an Atari. I hope they’ll look fondly back on exploring space with their dad.

Imagine how brilliant the games are going to be then. I sincerely hope the three of us will still be playing them together.

James, Martin, Emma.

Martin Belam is Social & New Formats Editor for the Guardian in London. Every Friday he publishes Friday Reading, a round-up of good things to read about journalism, media and tech.