Until recently I didn’t have any interest in video games other than one---No Man’s Sky---which I’d read about but had never played because I don’t have a game system, and until last year my laptop was too decrepit to run anything more sophisticated than a word processor. I will say, right up front, that even with hundreds of playing hours under my belt now, I still don’t consider myself a gamer---and after reading this, you may not either!
This year has been rough for a lot of reasons which I’ve written about in these posts: Kirylin and The State of Life in Time of Death. I think lockdown has made it harder to cope with my mother’s death. Online support is support, but it’s fleeting, a burst of emotion on the screen, while for me grief is ongoing. When I say grief, I don’t mean “sadness” exactly; it’s more like grappling with something incomprehensible that keeps unexpectedly leaping out of nowhere and pounding on me. Yeah, grief is kind of like being mugged in a dark alley. It’s sudden, unexpected, and you’re blindsided again and again each time, and there’s that feeling that you just don’t understand what is happening or how this could happen, and it knocks the wind out of you. And it hurts. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, check yourself over and tell yourself that you’re okay. You can walk, no permanent damage seems to have been done. Then you see something, or hear something, or do something, and suddenly you’re in the dark again, being ambushed by grief. The grief, probably compounded by the isolation of being in the middle of a pandemic, triggered a strong flight response in me. Grief ---and dealing with the messy aftermath of paperwork and physical possessions of a family member’s death--is not something that one can run away from, especially under lockdown. But I did. I ran. I ran to a wintry alien planet in the Euclid galaxy.
I hadn’t intended to run away. It just sort of happened. When lockdown began, one of the things that bugged me was not being able to get together with the extended family---Bro-in-law, sis-in-law, niece and nephew---to play board or card games over the weekend. While some super-dedicated game groups set up elaborate audio-video, multi-camera things via Zoom, I looked for a simpler solution: I joined Steam which offers digital board games in addition to all the usual video games. I looked into other online board game platforms, but they either didn’t have the games I was looking for, or no family or friends were already using the service. I had some friends on Steam, and my nephew had an account (though I found out later he’d abandoned it after he’d gotten PS4). Plus, Steam was having a sale: that video game---the only video game I’d ever had any interest in---was on sale. I began bombarding my more tech-and-game savvy friends with questions about whether they thought it would run on my new laptop. The answers were uniformly…”maybe”. I got it, and another video game I stumbled onto, as well as the free Catan app and one other tabletop game.
Once I could no longer go to see Mom, and after she died, I spent not just hours, but increasingly, days in No Man’s Sky, in creative mode, exploring the galaxy and building a home there. I was candid about it: I didn’t try to hide my sudden and out-of-character game addiction. Surprisingly, both family and friends were supportive: they understood that I needed to escape and thought that me exploring alien worlds was an excellent idea. I think the joy and excitement in discovering new things was something that they were all happy I had in the midst of grief and a pandemic. I thought I would never leave, that I’d be in this world every day for the rest of my life, but now I only go there maybe once a week for an hour or so--if that, not every day for many hours. That compelling feeling that I need to be there is gone. I’ve learned something during my sojourn in the Euclid galaxy: I’m the same person---I mean, the exact same person---in a video game as I am in real life.
When some people play video games they are not at all who they are in real life. Sometimes this is simply a function of the game mechanic: if the game is a first-person shooter, you shoot. In other games you may have all kinds of open world options to kill, steal, ruin other player’s in-game lives, be destructive, domineering, power-mad, etc. The 21st century version of Walter Mitty. You want to know what I became when I literally had an entire galaxy at my feet, with no restrictions in creative mode? I took long walks, explored, took joy in a breathtaking sunrise in the mountains. I met aliens, even hostile aliens, made friends with them, learned their language, and helped them out when I could. I could’ve taken things and gotten into fights with impunity: no damage or death in creative mode, but instead I was basically the same person I am in real life. I never lost an opportunity to learn a new word or make a friend. Of course, all these “friends” were NPCs, but I suspect that if I chose to steal and kill and fight, the game play even in creative mode would’ve been less pleasant: NPCs are programmed to respond to input from players, after all.
One of the things I love doing in No Man’s Sky is logging plants, animals, and minerals. There are in-game rewards for this, and missions build around this, but I’d be doing it anyway. I love finding new plants and animals, especially. I’ve logged hundreds, if not thousands. I especially love finding and logging all the animals on a planet. I hit the max level for that a while back, but I’m still scanning for animals and logging them like crazy. I find ecosystems interesting. In real life, I’m part of iNaturalist and regularly log plants, animals, insects, basically any living thing I come across in the wild. Because in real life I’m interested in ecosystems.
After I got the hang of flying a ship, I explored more, did a lot of missions, contributed to the research projects at The Nexus, and so unlocked special items I could buy with the copious wealth that’s readily available in creative mode. What did I buy? I got a terrarium and aquarium for my home base, right away. Just like real life--except I don’t have a blob creature in a real life terrarium! Then for the special things I unlocked: the first were plants. I bought plants, lots and lots of plants. I did missions so I could buy more plants. I planted a fruit tree first, then worked to get the conifers and a snow-covered planter for my snowy homeworld. I spent many a morning happily landscaping my ever-growing number of bases with all kinds of trees, chosen to blend in with the landscape, the color tweaked to be just right. I filled in when the groves around the bases were sparse, and planted outlying areas. But before all that I put in a hydroponic dome at my homebase and started harvesting plants. I quickly became familiar with flora that could be grown on various planets and so when I put a base on a planet I always included native flowers in the landscaping. Just like real life. (I also have hydroponic systems at home in real life; it just doesn't take a Biodome to grow them!)
One of my favorite things to do in-game is feed the animals. There’s a staggering assortment of animals in the game. Just when you think you’ve seen them all in every variation, you land on a planet and find something utterly unique. I fed them all. Everything. Friendly animals, hostile animals, timid animals, weird and grotesque animals. One of the things that’s frustrating is that although the game allows players to ride animals they’ve fed, there’s no gesture for petting them. I really want to pet them. I feed them and coo over them and they follow me around in expectation of more food. Just like real life.
I have the option of making food for them or setting up an automated feeder, but I like coaxing them near with the inexhaustible supply of their favorite foods in creative mode. I do make food in No Man’s Sky. I’ve made an assortment of things, but I especially love running up a batch of baked goods in the Nutrient Processor. I keep a good supply on hand to sell to traders I encounter or occasionally to the chef in The Nexus. (I don’t really need the reward, but sometimes I'm curious what his reaction will be.) I also keep some goodies on hand as surprises for friends who drop by. My only complaint about the food in NMS is that you can’t put it on the table for friends to pick up. I’d love to have a nice spread of my baked goods laid out at my bases for friends when they drop by. Perhaps that’s just a result of my upbringing--Southern hospitality. Since NMS has recently instituted cross-play I have been able to connect with my nephew who I introduced to the game. He plays on his PS4. I gave him a chocolate cake when I last saw him in-game. We’re building a base together on a water world. I bought us some fireworks for the 4th of July and made some Iced Screams in the Nutrient Processor for the occasion.
I’ve kind of created a personal Utopia in No Man’s Sky. Sure, there are fierce animals, Sentinels (hostile flying drones which are the only thing in-game that I’ll kill), signs of some kind of Horror in abandoned buildings, haunted planets (kinda cool, actually), and pirates, which are just sooooo annoying, but none of that really impinges on my personal little slice of heaven. I know some of you will find it boring, or exasperating, or perhaps even infuriating, that I don’t play this game like a game. The things I love that I’ve enumerated are just the small peripherals which are in no way central to the game or the game goals. (I have engaged with the story and ongoing game elements occasionally.) But if it really is supposed to only be played one way, then creative mode wouldn’t exist. There are things that I wouldn’t be able to do---or enjoy doing---anywhere except creative mode: I can thoroughly explore---and take delight in---a strange wonderful planet so antithetical to human life that I’d die as soon as I landed in the real game mode.
I find it kind of amusing that I’ve gone into a game to escape reality only to find that I’m basically living my exact same life in the game, only with aliens, alien animals, alien plants, on alien planets (and without all the real life death, which is probably an important point). I’m taking long walks exploring and looking for new plants and animals, which I log. I’m planting gardens, forests, including native plants, as well as growing plants inside (I have walls of plants in some of my bases). I’ve got an aquarium as well as a terrarium, and am often surrounded by wonderful animals which I take great delight in. I gather ingredients for baking all kinds of things and enjoy sharing my baked goods with friends and family. I love hiking in real life and even though I go long distances in my starship, I do enjoy a good ramble on an alien planet (though I enjoy it less during a firestorm). I’m a better swimmer on alien planets and I have a mini-sub if I want to explore an ocean or water world. In real life, oceans have ecosystems that fascinate me and on alien planets there’s nothing to stop me from plunging to the deepest part of the ocean (except, perhaps an Abysmal Horror, which I did get caught by once). I’ve discovered that I have a “type” for favorite planets: I like lush planets with lots of vegetation (not necessarily green!) and teeming with fauna, or planets which are utterly alien with nothing that strikes the eye as even remotely familiar. Planets with floating columns, rock creatures, living minerals, bubbling fissures which send translucent bubbles streaming into the atmosphere, and creatures made of light…
And on that note I will end, for what is a video game after all, but a stream of light?