Over the next ten minutes or so, I will address how my mere presence in a digital space makes things happen in that space, how I have created an accidental universal “stub”, how I was able to instantly excavate and restore a player-ruin, and what that might mean for the ethics of a digital archaeology.
In my archaeological investigation of the “heritage sites” of No Man’s Sky, those buried, ruined bases made and then abandoned by players from between March and August 2017, I have twice created an event through merely being in those spaces. Both relate to saving my progress in the game. Both events were accidental, yet demonstrate the power of agency (even casual agency) in a digital environment.
First, many archaeologists excavate, and there are areas I have seen in No Man’s Sky that have required excavation in order to extract data. I have been given permission to dig by the past creator of the Galactic Hub now that the Hub has moved to its new location leaving the evacuated region now known as the Legacy Hub. I have been in conversation with the player running the Galactic Heritage project, and we correspond regularly now. I publish my work and media files openly, and these are shared by the NMS player community. So far there has been a lot of support surrounding my work, as it is archiving a history of the game and its players who invested many, many hours in constructing their residences and making pilgrimages to others. Because of the game’s mechanics, excavation is temporary and is invisible to other players. This is good and differs from archaeology in the natural world because it is a non-permanent destructive process that backfills itself. Other people can see the world as it was before my intervention.
There is a problem, however, and there are both good and bad sides to this issue. It relates to explicit saves, and also reverted saves. In No Man’s Sky, one can save the game in several ways: exiting a ship, building a save-point, activating a waypoint, and restoring a previously saved game. The first abandoned base I visited was on the planet Pepper Dusk. After consulting with the base’s owner, I knew not to establish my own base on that planet because in doing so, it would wipe out the original base and any other archaeology associated with it. I could, however, build some minor technology, which is useful for my work, namely a beacon and a communication station. Comm stations allow me to discretely mark a site I have visited. Comm stations are also left by Galactic Heritage on worlds with abandoned bases. The beacon allows me to set permanent “flags” at significant features on a planet, and the good news is that only I can see these. The issue is that I can also save my progress by activating a beacon. This is something I did after landing at the site of the buried base at Pepper Dusk. When I logged in to NMS the following evening, the base had vanished from its original site, moving halfway across the planet, leaving behind dozens of communication stations set around where the base used to be.
Traveling to the new site for the old base, I noticed that it had been completely restored to what the player had done, and it was no longer buried. My explicit save had reactivated the base, recovering it in full, and relocating it to an accessible location: instant excavation and restoration. As an archaeologist, my job is to document my work during an excavation and then use the data to help me figure out what was buried at the site. Saving the game did that work for me regarding restoration. And since I recorded the original findspot, I still have the context for the site and the surrounding archaeology, which remained in situ. As soon as this happened, I immediately wrote to the owner to explain what occurred, and was relieved that he wasn’t cross. Instead, he was glad that the base was restored and preserved, albeit in a different location, and was also glad that the base’s original location remained intact and was still populated by comm stations. Now other players can visit, and their saves should not adversely affect the base’s new placement.
The second time a base moved on me was also accidental but in a different way. On the planet Horner, I excavated six comm stations as well as the base unit of a buried, player-built ziggurat. Because of the complex nature of the build and the memory required by the Sony PlayStation 4 to record my removal of tons of overburden, the game crashed the console, forcing a reboot. That reboot reverted my game to a previous save and in doing so made the base relocate from underground to an open location elsewhere on Horner. This accidental restoration of a saved game completed the excavation of the base, and the result was a completely restored structure. The communication stations marking the original location remained behind.
Similar to the event on Pepper Dusk, I wrote to the player managing the Galactic Heritage project to explain what happened. I felt physically ill about the relocation and restoration, but the player was not put out by the restoration at all. The original site location was still marked and documented, and the full restoration of the massive temple allowed him to record the building himself for the archives, and made it easy for players to find and explore.
Note that there are only two levels of strata in No Man’s Sky: terrain and bedrock. Terrain can be excavated, but bedrock is impervious to tools. Nothing is lost from the stratigraphy is a base moves. And the site is marked by past players, these markers apparently permanent fixtures in the landscape. These two accidental saves recovered rather than destroyed the ruins, and placed them in accessible areas for others to engage with. I have mapped both the old and the new locations of these buildings. The leaders of the community seem fine with the turn of events. For them, it’s the base rather than the place that is important (although I would argue that visiting the base on Pepper Dusk with its attendant comm stations would have been best).
The ethical question then comes with the fact that my presence in these sensitive spaces can be disruptive, and has been so twice. Accidents happen, and I don’t want to make a habit of it. I’m wondering if it is more important to leave these sites alone, not even making the trip so as not to disrupt them, or should I chance the excavation to record and preserve data, which is important to the player community?
There is one other piece to the puzzle, namely that in June 2018, Hello Games, developers of No Man’s Sky, will release the next major update (called “NEXT”), and no one knows what it will do to the universe. When Atlas Rises (v1.3) was released, it was catastrophic for the players of the Galactic Hub. I have been encouraged by the player community to continue collecting and publishing data as fast as I can in anticipation that NEXT will once again reset the universe, possibly wiping out all previous player construction. In the grand scheme of things, my work has become more akin to salvage archaeology before the dam opens to flood the universe, and these heritage sites are lost forever.
Zaz Ariins, leader of the Galactic Heritage project for the Hub’s player community visited Horner yesterday (May 8) and was able to photograph and film the ziggurat in its original location, buried under the surface. For him (and therefore likely for others), the base had not moved at all. On my console, however, the base remains in its new location. I seem to have created a “stub” in the universe (borrowing from William Gibson’s The Peripheral), where a slight alteration in my universe is now permanent for me, but does not exist for others. This phenomenon is of course fascinating for the archaeologist where in some universes there are ruins, and in others, time has been kind to structures.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming