No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey, Dennis-1*

One of the (few) advantages to being from the US, but based in the UK, is that I have been able to maintain my access to the US-side Playstation Store. (I never switched my account over, and I don’t think I will, at least not in the foreseeable future.) Because of this, I found myself in the position yesterday of being able to access the PS4 iteration of No Man’s Sky before it was released in the UK and Europe.

I did not intend to stay up until 2 in the morning conducting planetside ground survey.

I stayed up until 2 in the morning conducting planetside ground survey.

It was totally worth it, and I say that as someone who still had to be up at 6 to take out the dogs, and who had to be in the office by 7:45.

Backtracking though, let me go through how the process worked, and what I took away from my first night as an official NMSAS Archaeonaut. I can’t speak to how normalized my first experience was compared to the starting experience of others, so if you don’t want to know how the “tutorial” worked, this is a good place to stop.

Loading into the world, I found myself on a planet that was mostly purple and red, with pod-like carbon-based vegetation and twisting, almost organically shaped iron deposits, many of which were taller than me. My ship was nearby, but in a state of disrepair, and there were crates, boxes, and bits of detritus nearby, all clearly from my crashed vessel. Upon interacting with one of these pieces of mess, I was linked up to the Atlas, and given basic instructions on what I needed to do to to repair my ship. The option was presented to allow the Atlas to help me, or to completely free range and see what happened. I accepted the help of the Atlas, but…ended up ranging pretty far afield anyway, because 1) I’m an archaeologist and I was tempted by vaguely constructed-looking shapes just at my horizon/draw distance, and 2) I’m crap at orientating myself on a map, which is a professional failing that I am very aware of in myself.

With a need to fix my ship established, I took off across the planet, using my hand-held scanner to look for nearby resources. I was concerned, prior to starting this project, as to what role collecting and resource gathering would have in the process. My work focuses so strongly on the ethics of archaeological practice in games, and on archaeological representation in games, that I had worries that No Man’s Sky would be the largest set-back to archaeological representation in games since the first Tomb Raider. Thus far, those concerns have been unfounded, but I’m still monitoring the way the game handles commodification, and my role in that process as an Archaeonaut.

I ended up climbing mountains and falling into a crevasse and learning to use my jet-pack thrusters and meeting several cow-like creatures that ran away from me. The interface tells you how long it’s going to take to reach any particular object, waypoint, or goal that you’ve found via your scanner, and when it said it was going to take 30 minutes to hit a particular deposit I needed for my engine repairs, I assumed it was joking.

It was not.

Time, and time management, are huge issues in this game. If it says it’s going to take 45 minutes to get somewhere, it means it, and that 45 minutes is only 45 minutes if you don’t get distracted by anything else, and if it’s a straight (non-crevasse-filled) line between you and your target. The process feels very foreign, in a game, as I’ve become used to fast-travel and jump points and not walking everywhere. Later, when I finally got off-planet and into “space”, the process was repeated in an even more intense way.

It’s more than just time management in that you may not have 6 hours to play every day. It’s also that as you explore, or in my case, as I attempted ground survey, you also have to keep yourself alive by managing your systems. Heat was a problem for me. My suit kept overheating, my life support failed, my shielding went down, I had problems with it being too hot, and then too cold, as the day-night cycle progressed. I had to do a lot to keep myself alive, beyond just not getting eaten by anything, which I had some real concerns about. The game made me feel very, very small, and very, very alone. I had no idea what would happen if I “died”.

Having recovered everything I needed, I took a roundabout way back to my ship, as I’d been enticed by three question mark icons located during my hand-scanning. They turned out to be two obelisks, and a shrine. From an examination of the obelisks, I learned some of the (possibly?) native language, and at the shrine, I was able to put together those words and partially decipher an associated text. This language acquisition proved helpful when I left the planet, as the tongue had spread to other planets in the system.

Taking off into space was intense. I have a fear of heights, and of flying, and the user interface combined with my big screen and a dark room was enough to again make me feel very small and isolated, and very alone in the universe. If that was the intent, well done Hello Games. You nailed it.

I finally logged off around 2, having located the next closest planet and begun working with the FAIMS toolset that we’re using for data recording for the project. Thoughts on that, pictures of Dennis-1, the first planet I recorded for the project, and thoughts on my first encounter with demonstrably sentient life, to come later.

*As part of the survey, we are recording our discoveries as Surname-PlanetNumberDiscovered, therefore, the first planet I encountered was Dennis-1. I am also recording the indigenous names of all planets and features encountered, but have not yet determined how, and to what extent, to incorporate those indigenous naming conventions into my personal reports. For now, I’m making note of them, and will be consulting with a colleague regarding the appropriate response.