Transport yourself back about a month. It’s August, school is getting closer yet still seems far away; the sun is out, it’s hot, men are walking around in sandals and shorts, showing off as much body hair as is humanly possible. Because you’re somewhat of a sad and dirty recluse, you decide to spend this cherished time by buying and playing the new, much hyped video game, No Man’s Sky.
You’ve heard the reviews and read the press releases. You’ve pondered the idea of a procedurally generated universe with 18 quintillion Earth-sized planets, realized that if one of those 18 quintillion planets were discovered every second, it would take about 584 billion years to discover them all (our real-life Sun is predicted to roast us to a crisp in just 5 billion years) and imagined the possibilities.
You started to play the game. After spending the first half-hour locked onto your starter planet, you finally blast off in your Asimov-inspired space ship. You spent that brief moment looking back at the planet you were just on, realizing just how huge it was, and how comparably tiny you are.
After a few more hours, the repetition started to grate on you. There’s tonnes of stuff, yeah, but not a lot to do. Besides, the goal of the game is so vague. You have to reach the centre of the Universe, something about Nada and Polo, you’re not entirely sure actually. You found the gameplay started to devolve into a pattern: find resources to craft a tool to find more resources to craft a better tool to find more resources etc.
You turned the game off, and, if you were like over 90% of all the original No Man’s Sky players, presumably never went back to it again.
But, think about that moment when you turned the game off. Why did you stop playing? Because there was no clearly defined goal, the gameplay was repetitive – to be fair the variety of stuff, be it planets, life or anything else, was impressive, but after a while it kind of faded into the background. Above all, you felt like your actions weren’t having much of an impact. The universe was so huge with so many other players; there was no evil Empire to vanquish, no planet to free, no Death Star to destroy. You just didn’t feel like a hero; an experience almost all video games are meant to give.
Or, in other words, you stopped playing the game because it was too much like real life.
No Man’s Sky, despite its often austere story, is rich in mechanical themes of philosophy. Specifically: Metaphysics, Cosmicism and Camus’ philosophy of the Absurd.
Despite its deceptive scientific name, Metaphysics is a practice of philosophy dealing with the concept of reality. Common metaphysical questions include whether or not time exists, what the nature of personal identity is, whether free will exists and, most relevantly to No Man’s Sky, whether what we experience is actually real.
No Man’s Sky is, obviously, not real. It is a simulation designed by a team of developers in Guildford, England, who can show us how they made it. We possess the ability to choose whether or not to experience No Man’s Sky, therefore it cannot be real. While that’s all well and good for us, it raises the question: how do we know we’re not living in our own simulation? The character you control in No Man’s Sky doesn’t know it’s in a simulation, so why would you?
Remember the earlier point about the size of No Man’s Sky? About how it has 18 quintillion planets that are procedurally generated (ie not created until a player comes close enough to them)? Well, who’s to say our own reality isn’t like that? We can’t prove something we haven’t seen before existed before we saw it. For all we know, it could’ve been created the moment we saw it, much like the planets or flora and fauna in No Man’s Sky.
After the freaking third time you made a jump in your hyperdrive to another far off, ‘Undiscovered’ system, only to find out it has its own space station complete with a Galactic Trade Terminal and aggressive, yet adorable, trade merchant, you tried to come up with explanations: explanations as to how they could’ve gotten here, why they haven’t successfully colonized any system yet, why they don’t try to learn your language when you’re desperately trying to learn theirs, etc.
The problem is, coming up with explanations for these questions is futile. Not because there aren’t any – there probably are – but because your puny, inferior human brain can’t even begin to comprehend the true nature of the Universe. This is the overriding theme of Cosmicism.
Created by early 20th century American horror novelist HP Lovecraft, Cosmicism is a purely existential form of horror. Rather than focusing on grotesque imagery or evoking anxiety related to sex (horror is obsessed with anxiety related to sex), Cosmicism horrifies you through identifying just how insignificant you are. Popularized in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu books, Cosmicism is the idea that the Universe has its own defined nature, but that nature is so beyond our feeble understanding that the mere thought of it is enough to make a man go insane. Thus, because we are held back by our cognitive abilities and insignificance, all human achievement – all our search for knowledge – is pointless, because we will never even get so far as peaking beyond the curtain at the truth of the Universe.
Just looking back on your starter planet in No Man’s Sky and realizing how utterly minuscule you are in the grand scheme of things – how little you matter – is enough to make you question your own personal, out-of-game existence. Faced with the sheer size of everything, you realize you only really have two options: Keep on going on with the knowledge of how worthless you are and how little you matter, or kill yourself.
The final question No Man’s Sky leaves you with – whether or not you should continue existing – was one pondered extensively by the French Pied-noir Nobel prize-winning writer and philosopher, Albert Camus. The bane of all French A classes, Camus was the closest a philosopher will ever get to being a celebrity: he was a goalkeeper for a professional football club’s junior team, he slept with numerous women (including a Spanish film actress) and died at 46 in a car accident. More importantly, he pioneered a form of philosophy he called ‘Absurdism’.
Camus famously opened his 1942 essay, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus), by declaring: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” What Camus meant by this is after centuries of philosophers tackling the ‘absurd’ – that is, trying to prescribe meaning to something that is meaningless, eg Existence – only to realize that their efforts were fated to be fruitless, we are left with two options: existence or freedom from it.
Think back to that moment when you turned off No Man’s Sky. If you never go back to it, how is that different from effectively killing the character you play? It will never experience anything ever again – a non-existence equivalent to death. And, as previously established, we can’t be sure whether or not we’re in a similar simulation. If whoever is controlling us gets bored, are we doomed to the same fate?
And why? Why did you turn off the game? Why did you stop playing? Because you felt like there was no meaning. After being faced with trying to place meaning on the monotonous tasks you found yourself doing, you decided to quit. There was no point to trying to earn credits so you could buy new gear so you could earn credits more efficiently so you could feel rewarded, the same way there is no point to trying to get a good education so you can get a good job so you can get a lot of money so you can have a good life that you won’t be able to enjoy because of your job.
Despite how dark this seems, Camus didn’t advocate suicide as a freedom from the absurd. Instead, he believed that we as humans should rise above and revolt, drawing a parallel to the Ancient Greek Myth of Sisyphus; a man cursed to push a boulder up a hill that will always fall down when it reaches the top for eternity. Camus argued that Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill was identical to existence: both have no point. Rather than view his boulder-pushing as a punishment, Camus suggested that the struggle of the boulder – or existence itself – should “fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
For Camus, there is no universal meaning of life. It is individual, and it is whatever keeps you from killing yourself at this very moment.
After being faced with how tiny and insignificant you are by No Man’s Sky, you quit the game. However, now, after a little perusal through the collective works of Albert Camus, you realize that those futile tasks you were doing earlier – mining plutonium to fuel your space ship so you can fly to to the space station so you can buy suspension fluid and so on and so forth – weren’t trivial or meaningless. On the contrary, they were what gave you meaning. You yourself may be living in a procedurally generated simulation, the true meaning of which is so vast that you could never plausibly comprehend it, but that doesn’t matter; because as long as you form your own meaning, nothing has to.