In the near-olden days, when entertainment media were bought in shops rather than beamed on to the constellation of screens that light up our homes, the walk home was always the sweetest. Clutched in a crinkly bag we held the perfect product. Reality cannot compete with the imagined novel, film, album or video game. Our imaginations, worked to frenzy by marketing magicians, summon the best possible version of the work. In the idealised fantasy, dull chapters are trimmed away, duff performances are wiped. Our imaginations free the creators of financial or technical restraints too. There is no special effects budget. No expense is spared. As such, that walk home from the shop, when the box was tangible but the portal to its cloistered reality untraversed, was often the most potent moment in the journey.
Video game-makers struggle in unique ways when it comes to raising audiences’ expectations and then matching them in reality. A novelist can promise anything because it costs nothing to conjure a dinosaur, a spaceship, a toppling Eiffel Tower or a galaxy of bees on to the page. Film directors must speak more carefully: their visions come with a price tag. And game-makers, for whom the simplest features can prove inordinately challenging, face the greatest risks. The reputation of Peter Molyneux, a veteran British video game designer, toppled after he habitually promised alluring features (knock an acorn off a tree and over the course of the game you’ll be able to watch it grow, he once claimed of Fable) that never surfaced in his games.
But never has there been such consternation at the perceived disconnect between promise and delivery as with the recent release of No Man’s Sky, a space game that gives us the run of an unimaginable number of galaxies in a tiny, Kubrickian spacecraft. Made by a dozen or so artists in Guildford, the game, which launched last month, generated unprecedented hype. Its lead creator, Sean Murray, is a crack programmer with a talent for storytelling. His tale of No Man’s Sky’s genesis (as a child living on a million-acre farm in the Australian outback, Murray would stare up at the incalculability of space) is vivid, while the story he told of giving everyone a chance to tour and name universes, like galactic Elizabethan explorers, was captivating.
His vision was bought by millions, including Elon Musk, Steven Spielberg and Kanye West, each of whom booked appointments to see the game ahead of its release. Murray appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in a segment titled Sean Murray May Have Replaced Morgan Freeman As God. In an expansive New Yorker profile, Raffi Khatchadourian wrote that Murray feared the game had become “a Rorschach test of popular expectation, with each player looking for something that might not be there”.
It was a prophetic pronouncement. Following the game’s launch, those furious that it did not meet their expectations have dominated the conversation around No Man’s Sky. A lengthy thread on Reddit became a focal point for outrage, users listing all of the ways in which it failed to meet its promise, until its author, unable to cope with the fury, deleted his account. When former Sony employee Shahid Kahmal Ahmad criticised some players for requesting refunds, even after, in one case, playing the game for 72 hours, he became a target for online harassment.
Video games are expensive, which goes some way to explain the indignation. But at a deeper level, the tantrums are not about absent features so much as a game that came to represent limitless escapism from all the grubby problems of existence – the rent bills, the food budgets, the school bullies, the heart-wearying ennui – and that came up short. It was, if we’re honest, only to be expected.
from Department of Space Colonization