So it was Gamescom 2015 a few weeks ago, self-proclaimed as ‘the world’s largest computer and video game event’, which basically means it’s a trailer factory for Sony, Microsoft, and any other entertainment conglomerate that dare enter the ring. Avid gamers might have caught on to the interesting correlation between the slew of games released during the winter months — November being the most popular for marketing to perturbed parents faced with the prospect of supplying adequate Christmas gifts to whatever teenaged creature they might have living with them — and the onslaught of games conferences attempting to disguise the commercial desolation of summer, when people would rather ‘go outside’ and ‘be sociable’ than play games on their consoles or PC.
It’s about this time of year — when the number of game trailers far outweighs the number of actual playable games — that people like myself (I consider myself a closet gamer, in that I like to discuss games exclusively with those who might reciprocate my excitement lest I should be shunned by those more erudite folk in whose company I spend the occasional afternoon or evening) begin to think about the trajectory of this controversial medium. And I don’t mean controversial in the normative sense; games like Manhunt and Mortal Kombat have happily been the scapegoat for the entire industry in the past, but every medium has its fair share of gratuitous entries. When I talk about gaming as a ‘controversial medium’, what I’m trying to get at is an ontological controversy; that is to say, the underlying consensus that games are, in some way, inferior to similar narrative media like film, theatre, and literature.
Now, I’m not here to try and argue that videogames are an ‘art form.’ Unfortunately that’s a debate made so banal by the legions of keyboard apologists that it’s barely even worth mentioning here (just go to the ‘Games’ section of The Guardian and you’ll see what I mean). What I am here to do is maybe offer an alternate perspective on the ways in which games can work, and more importantly, the more complex relationships we can have with them.
I might as well make the hackneyed statement that video games are evolving. For a non-gamer — let’s call them ‘muggles’ as a familiar, if transferred, epithet — the most obvious ‘evolution’ is graphical. Games look prettier now because of better hardware, better software, better televisions, and more demanding consumers. But in many ways, graphical developments are little more than the shading of some altogether more groundbreaking steps forward. Games like The Last of Us, Journey and The Walking Dead set the bar for new heights of emotional engagement; LittleBigPlanet and Minecraft push the boundaries of user-generated content; and World of Warcraft and Planetside 2 are able to hurl hundreds of players at each other all at once. Everything is getting better; it’s the stick with which developers prod consumers and critics alike as if to say ‘take us seriously, please.’
But ultimately, the biggest evolution in games in my mind is the amount of freedom that we are granted in them. Generally speaking, this seems to be a post-millennial thing, spearheaded by Rockstar’s obscenely popular franchise Grand Theft Auto. What made GTA such a big hit wasn’t necessarily all the sex and violence (although it would be foolish to say that wasn’t part of the appeal) but that it debuted what we now call ‘sandbox gameplay’. As the label suggests, ‘sandbox’ games were those in which the player — the toddler in this strained metaphor — was giving a few toys to play with in a defined area, within which we’re expected to fulfill all of our dormant hedonistic desires. Want to take a joyride to the other side of the map? Sure! Story missions can wait. Want to ride a tank off a bridge after causing a police car pile-up? Go for it! For the first time, gamers were granted permission to fulfil whatever fantasy they had within the safe confines of an enclosed digital space, where the most brutal acts went without consequence. It was a freedom facilitated by the technology of the time, and as that technology got bigger and better, so did efforts to expand that freedom.
In our mid-teenies world (or whatever it is you call this awkward decade we’re in), sandbox games are so commonplace that they’ve come to be expected, resulting in games developers falling over themselves to add ‘sandbox gameplay’ to whatever linear franchise they might want to continue. The Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid V, and even Rocksteady’s recent Batman games have all undergone this process, generally to critical acclaim. Sandbox is an industry standard; ‘linear’ gaming is now met with a pejorative sneer from the majority of gamers, for the reason that it appears to ‘restrict the fun’ by not catering to our impulse to deviate from the given path.
So what happens, then, when gamers are finally given the ultimate sandbox game, one so big that any boundaries that might exist — which is in itself a purely hypothetical assumption — will never be encountered by the player? Funny you should ask, because a new game called No Man’s Sky does just that.
No Man’s Sky is the first game in history to promise a fully explorable, procedurally rendered galaxy, one that is made up of — according to Playstation’s official blog — 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 possible planets. By which I mean, the game is incomprehensibly huge: “Even if a planet is discovered every second, it’ll take 585 billion years to find them all”. Thanks to some clever mathematics and possibly magic, the game can seamlessly render a galaxy as you explore it, one bigger than the Milky Way, all the while remembering planets that you have visited in case you want to revisit them. And yet, as I salivate over that ultimate sci-fi fantasy fulfilment, I can’t help but think: what will I actually do?
This is a valid question, and one so far only really answered with a sheepish smirk and/or shrug and something muttered about having ‘loads of options’ by the co-founder of Hello Games, Sean Murray. It’s a non-response that leaves even the steel-faced games journalists, observably burdened with the yoke of promotional obligation, suspended in a purgatorial state between awe and perplexity. The singular objective, the game director must repeat in every interview, is to reach the centre of the universe. But then he goes and admits that yes, some people might not want to do that, and sure, most players will never reach the centre of the universe because it’s essentially unachievable. Which, you know, isn’t that encouraging.
I suppose that the quandary we face when confronted with this mathematical universe is a sort of anxiety. The digital space within which we are used to performing riveting feats of wish fulfilment is now far too expansive to be discussed with any rhetoric of confinement, which grants it a magnitude more in common with the real world than with video games. Therein lies one of the key issues at hand, here; games, like films and books, are primarily a mode of escapism. And while the aesthetic of a sci-fi universe certainly sounds like traditional escapism, it could begin to bring about what Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called ‘the anxiety of freedom.’
Now, I’m not going to delve too far into the particulars of Kierkegaard’s theory, but the anxiety of freedom (or ‘dizziness of freedom’, as it is also described) is, to relate this to common experience, that feeling you get when confronted with making a big decision. Just knowing that we have the capacity to direct our own lives, to make those decisions that could benefit us or damage us, generates a lot of anxiety, which is probably why linear games and movies offer a more involving sense of escapism (speaking for myself, here) than these sandbox games do.
For Kierkegaard, this feeling of anxiety is an unfocused fear. Conventional fear functions by selecting an object in the world to reject in the aim of keeping you, like, alive. For example, you might experience fear when you are being chased by a bear, because your fear is generated by the bear and its pursuit of you. Anxiety doesn’t function that way. You can’t be ‘anxious’ of a bear. Anxiety is what’s left when fear is present, but there is no object to latch onto and reject. Rather, what we want to reject is everything; with anxiety, fear is directed to the world and our own potential to ‘mess up’. Therefore, anxiety is central to our own understanding — or doubts about — our place in that world.
Martin Heidegger, a German existentialist philosopher during the early twentieth century, picks up on Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety in his corpulent treatise Being and Time (that’s Sein und Zeit in German, for you aspiring polyglots). He argues, however, that anxiety is essential in our understanding of ourselves, because it causes us to withdraw from the world that generates the anxiety within us into ourselves, and in doing so develop a fuller understanding of our own sense of ‘being in’ the world. It’s kind of an exercise in self-awareness, an intellectual workout in self-understanding that is not afforded to by those who are never granted freedom. That in turn is why human freedom is so important; even though it generates a certain ‘dizziness’, it prompts us to think on a higher ontological plain, to consider a bigger cosmic picture and to locate ourselves within it.
No Man’s Sky does not offer a conventional sandbox experience. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, it is not designed to be a simulacrum of reality designed to purge you of all that naughty violence and mayhem you secretly want to unleash upon the world (if you subscribe to that idea). Instead, what a game like No Man’s Sky offers is a safe place within which we can practice decision-making and consequence in a world as infinite and as uncertain as our own. We can’t get used to the map. We have to settle with the idea that, since we don’t have billions of years to spare, we’ll never see it all. Our journey through the game will be parochial, and most frightfully of all, all our fault. Like real life, there’s no story missions you can jump to when you’re tired of aimless trivial pursuits; the whole thing is the story. This is real freedom, pure and uncut. It’s all about having to make a decision, and sticking to it.
What, then, is the attraction of a game like No Man’s Sky? Why would someone want to spend their free time contemplating the nature of their own existence? Well, I think it probably has something to do with the payoff of freedom: the thrill of discovery. The benefit of having a universe-sized game is that each time you discover a new planet or solar system, even the developers haven’t seen it before. It’s entirely new, and in some way, it’s yours. Heck, you can even name new species that you discover in the game for new players to encounter later on (which will inevitably prove a foolish decision on the design side, but alas). And, if you want, you can pick up your laser rifle and be responsible for that species’ extinction!
There’s something rewarding about enduring the anxiety of freedom — taking a risk by casting oneself off into a sea of uncertainty — and finding that your journey is, as a result, totally unique. You might not have the most diverse or entertaining experience in the game, but you’ll have a story that is yours. In return for your commitment to a decision, you get to be the craftsman of your own destiny. Sounds very romantic.
So, in the context of No Man’s Sky, we might see the trajectory of ‘freedom’ in video games — on a fundamentally spatial level, at least — as the path towards a new level of interactive enlightenment. Gamers will have to decide what their aim in the digital universe is, because it’s simply too big to accomplish everything, unlike extant sandbox games. They will have to understand their place in the artificial universe, and accept it, in order to overcome the anxiety of freedom that comes with something so mind-bogglingly large. It’s about practicing being a small, limited being in a big, limitless universe.
And, you know, they might just play it for a few weeks, get bored, and switch back to playing FIFA or something. But hopefully, they’ll be playing with a better sense of their own being, having quietly pondered the question of their own existence. Yeah. Let’s go with that.