My Archaeological Methodology in No Man’s Sky

No Man's Sky_20180514231629Introduction

The Legacy Hub (née Galactic Hub) is a landscape of systems and planets in a portion of the Euclid Galaxy of No Man’s Sky, which was settled by hundreds of citizen-scientists not long after the game launched. The Legacy Hub is composed of 11 regions consisting of dozens of star systems each containing between one and seven planets, some of them with moons. Each system and body within that system contains a unique identifying address composed of a 12-character numeric code, which is then translated into glyphs for use in portals. Residents of the Legacy Hub kept detailed records about their homeworlds, and nearly always published a public address along with photos of the landscape as well as the homes and farms that they built for themselves. This Utopia encouraged visitors, and the goods grown on farms were shared with all travelers whether they were official members of the Hub, or “Interlopers,” a term of endearment for those just passing through.

When version 1.3 (aka Atlas Rises) of the game was released on August 11, 2017, it reset the climate and topography of each of the quintillion planets in the universe. The Galactic Hub’s residents were forced to move because the changes in climate were catastrophic. Rather than endure extreme weather and the introduction of new predatory animals and the extinction of valuable resources, the entire civilization relocated to a new region thousands of light years away in order to rebuild and resettle until the next major extinction-level event. For all intents and purposes, this will happen with v1.4 (aka NEXT), on July 24, 2018. As with the Aswan Dam project of the 1960s, all sites classed as “heritage” by the Galactic Hub’s governing body are at risk of being annihilated.

My case study was originally meant to document the abandoned capital planet of Lennon (originally Drogradur NO425), but with the deadline of July 24 looming, it became imperative to complete my archaeological investigations of as many of these Legacy Hub heritage sites as possible. My data and documentation serve two purposes: 1) to support answers to my research questions about human settlement and abandonment in a synthetic universe, and 2) to serve as a salvage excavation to preserve as much information as I could gather on behalf of the Galactic Hub player community.

This paper details the methods I use(d) on how to locate an abandoned heritage site within the Legacy Hub, and what I did once I got there in order to understand its archaeology.

Location

Because the universe of the game is the actual size of our own natural universe, it is easy to get lost, and is nearly impossible to stumble upon ruins of an abandoned human settlement. While the capital planet of Lennon was easy to find and record, other systems, planets, and bases needed external signposting. The Galactic Hub had created a page on their wiki, which listed planets with abandoned bases, each with their own links and pages. Many of these contained dedicated addresses that could be converted into glyphs via the open source nmsportals.github.io tool. Systems and planets without explicitly published addresses could have their approximate locations inferred via naming conventions, through oral histories, which included galactic landmarks / waypoints / features, or galactic photogrammetry where I was able to match nebula clouds and constellations followed by dead reckoning to certain locations. I would opt for the low hanging fruit of known addresses whenever possible, broadening my search later in the project. I would occasionally get help from Galactic Hub “OG”s, for whom I am quite thankful.

Once I had an address, I would activate the portal on Lennon to enter the coordinates. Arriving on the new world, I would set a galactic waypoint through the game’s Discovery interface, and then return back through the portal in order to board my starship. Establishing an orbit over Lennon, I would activate my star map and then navigate to the waypoint I marked earlier. Planets in the Hub are rarely farther than 1,000 light years away from any other Hub world, which means typically only one jump through hyperspace is needed to get to an abandoned heritage site.

Upon arrival in the abandoned system, I scanned it to identify the location of the old player base. The game permits only one base per system, so if the base survived, it would appear on its original planet as either a flag icon or a colored beacon icon. Once identified, it was only a few minutes’ sub-light-speed travel to the old homeworld of a player.

Upon arrival above the planet, icons for communication stations would appear, indicating messages left behind by other players. Clusters of these icons indicated an area of archaeological importance, typically either a base or a portal. On some occasions when bases could not be scanned from space, arriving at these clusters would reveal the presence of a human-built structure.

After landing near a base, I would record the coordinates given by the local signal booster (if present), or I would construct my own in order to confirm the precise location of the base not only on the planet, but also in the universe. This is not unlike assigning a set of GPS coordinates to an Earthbound feature. Translating these into glyphs, I would enter both the numeric and glyph versions of the site’s address into my log for that particular planet, treating it as a discrete site within the landscape of the Legacy Hub. These addresses will enable future visits by heritage tourists—a phenomenon that already exists in No Man’s Sky—and so that I can return to each of these sites after v1.4 deploys in July in order to see what damage, if any, has occurred because of the software update.

Reconnaissance and Mapping

Reconnaissance

I conducted three levels of reconnaissance prior to doing any physical work at a given site: orbital, suborbital, and terrestrial.

  1. Orbital Reconnaissance: A No Man’s Sky starship is a versatile piece of mobile hardware. Upon arrival at a planet, I treated it like a satellite, taking images from space of what was often a planet-wide dispersal of archaeologically significant sites. I could easily identify clusters of features from space, marking those as primary points of interest to be explored first. I also took the opportunity to calculate the circumference of the planet, which would also allow me to calculate volume. I learned that planets can be classed into two sizes, and moons have their own diminutive size).
  2. Suborbital Reconnaissance: Having identified points of interest from space, I would then enter the atmosphere and fly to the main clusters of communication stations as well as to the abandoned base itself, noting their locations in my paper notebook. Prior to touching down, I would fly to other icons indicating places of interest, deciding which to review first, and which to visit later.
  3. Terrestrial Reconnaissance: Returning to bases or comm-clusters, I would land in a location within walking distance (1–2 minutes) of the feature/structure so as not to interfere with its composition as well as with site photography. On occasion, my presence within a site would alter its location and/or contents, so it was important to keep my distance and approach on foot with discretion.

One other important form of site reconnaissance is . . . research before making the jump to a heritage planet. The NMS community has been great at keeping records of their initial settlements, so looking up histories and images of these places-as-they-were has been helpful in trip-planning, and gives me a way to compare and contrast the site-as-lived-in with the site-as-abandoned.

Mapping

Depending on the site, I would create between one and three maps of it.

  1. Pen-and-ink: It was easiest to first hand-draw a map in my paper notebook of sites that had multiple items of archaeological interest in various spots around the globe. I would draw the base (or other fixed point) on the center of the page with north at the top. Standing at that fixed point, I would then rotate 360º clockwise from north, stopping to mark icons as they appeared. These icons would indicate a walking-time to the features they marked. I would indicate the compass position and time on the map as well as any other landscape features (e.g., mountains, ridges, floating islands, water, etc.).
  2. Time-maps: After completing my investigation of a site, I would create a digital time-map in Adobe Photoshop CS5 based on my paper map. The time-maps would have the key feature (typically a player base) in the center, with comm stations, portals, and other areas of interest marked within a compass rose. Because planets in No Man’s Sky3 only have cardinal directions and no reliable Cartesian grid, placement of archaeological and landscape features is relative to the fixed point. I know that the site of a base is fixed, and can create a reliable map indicating time, distance, and direction of travel to other features, which may or may not remain in future iterations of the universe. To the best of my knowledge, this is a new kind of map, differing from those ancient maps listing how far one can travel in the course of one or more days. The fixed point of the base is treated as the planet’s pole, and all directions stem from that immovable location.
  3. State plans: On rare occasions I would find base locations with dozens of communication stations and other features (e.g., beacons, save-points, and signal boosters). For these, I would take overhead photos via drone (either my starship or through the game’s Photo Mode, which allows players to position a camera in the sky ca. 50 m above the surface). Exporting to Photoshop, I would orient the image and then identify each of the features by consecutive number on a plan. These numbers would tie into numbered rows in a spreadsheet that contained information about what was pictured, who placed it, and any other data of note.

Photography and Videography

I was able to use the photo and video capabilities of Sony’s Playstation 4 console to document each site, activating NMS’s Photo Mode when necessary (see below). All photos/videos were saved initially with a date- and time-stamp. I then renamed each file to indicate the order in which the file was taken, the name of the planet/base, and a brief description of what was depicted. These were then uploaded to my WordPress site as well as backed up to a 1 TB removable hard drive plus my Google Drive at the University of York in anticipation of transferring all files and data to York’s Archaeological Data Service as per prior arrangement with Dr. Julian Richards.

Photography

I photographed each site first with No Man’s Sky’s head-up display (HUD) active. The HUD displayed the name of the planet along with other environmental data, very much like including a scale when photographing artifacts, or a chalk/whiteboard with photographing site features/trenches. I photographed each base within its landscape from a distance and also from overhead to get a feature’s footprint. I would then photograph an abandoned base clockwise: N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW. Following that, I would photograph interiors including various views of rooms and their contents, as well as any other unique identifiers (e.g., base IDs and Trade Terminal IDs). After completing the initial photography, I would repeat the process in Photo Mode, which removes the HUD from the frame, providing for clean images. Also in Photo Mode, one can adjust the time of day, which allowed me to photograph sites in daylight and in starlight, as well as with raking light should a feature require it.

In the frequent presence of communication stations, I would photograph (with the HUD on) the unit in situ in relation to its surroundings, and then a detail photo of it once I activated it to read the message.

On the occasion that I have old photos of the base-as-inhabited, I try whenever I can to reproduce that photo at the abandoned site to show how things have changed.

Videography

After completing photography, I would take two site videos: 1) walkthrough, and 2) flyover. The walkthrough would be done with the HUD activated, touring the outside of a structure followed by a walk around inside. The flyover would be done in Photo Mode in order to get a full representation of the structure in the landscape. On occasion, bases and other features would be buried, so it was important to show the relationship between the built structure and the planet’s topography.

In the instances where I needed to excavate, I filmed the excavation with the HUD turned on.

On certain occasions where the base or its landscape was glitched, I would record what happened during a flyover in order to demonstrate the nature of the glitch.

Perhaps the most important thing I do following photography in videography is writing up descriptive text of the base inside and out. Writing allows us to see things we would ordinarily miss through the lens. Writing descriptively forces us to focus. Where the lens can make us lazy, writing makes us describe each detail, and in doing so helps us think critically about the site. Another benefit to writing up the site is that I can include the presence of ambient sounds in the base and the landscape it occupies. On some occasions I could hear a phantom door from a floating or buried base-placement. At other times I could hear rain or the arrival of visiting starships.

Excavation

I often needed to conduct excavation of features and/or bases in the Legacy Hub. This was achieved in two ways: 1) using the Terrain Manipulator tool, and 2) performing a game-save.

Hand-Excavation

Because Atlas Rises altered the topography of every planet in the universe, the new mountains/hills/rocks would often cover up significant archaeological features, most notably bases and communication stations. To excavate, I activated the game’s Terrain Manipulator feature of the mining tool, increasing the diameter of the hole to be dug, and then fired the tool in the direction of the comm station or base. The overburden would disintegrate, leaving a hole a few meters deep. Continued excavation would remove additional rock until the station or base was found and recorded. On rare instances the buried feature would lie beneath bedrock, which could not be excavated. In those cases I would mark the location of the feature and then move on.

There are only two levels of strata on NMS planets: “topsoil” and “bedrock.” Topsoil can be removed, but bedrock cannot. There are no layers to read, and the game is not yet sophisticated enough to obey the Law of Superposition.

Note also that the Terrain Manipulator does not damage artificial structures, so there is no risk of accidentally “biffing” or breaking an artifact during excavation.

Game-Saves

Something I discovered by accident is that committing an explicit game-save while at the site of a buried (or suspended) base will often relocate the entire base to a flat building site elsewhere on the planet, restoring the structure to its complete and original form. The issue here is of course that moving the base removes it from its context, although the communication stations remain behind to mark the original site of the base. The restoration and relocation enables the base to be visited by others, and also takes the guesswork out of what the base used to look like. On the other hand the contemporary ruins are destroyed, even though they are reassembled someplace else. In communicating this to the Galactic Hub community and the people responsible for documenting Hub heritage, they seemed to be okay with relocating the bases. For them it is important to see these structures as they were originally built, even if they now appear in a new location, albeit on their original planet.

Publication

One of the core elements of my archaeological method in No Man’s Sky is to publish immediately on a site that I just finished documenting. To date, I have visited nearly 30 abandoned bases, have taken hundreds of videos and thousands of images, and have noted something unique to each and every base. These sites continue to surprise me.

It is the responsibility of the director of any archaeological project to publish the results, whether as preliminary, end-of-season write-ups, or as full, detailed monographs. It is quite easy to put off the drudgery of publication in favor of continued excavation / analysis; however, procrastination leads to confusion of data, lost media files, and fuzzy recollections of sites, features, landscapes, and artifacts. It is best to write up each site as soon as it is completed.

Because of the great detail involved in visiting NMS bases, I forced myself into the habit of stopping after completing the archaeological investigation of a given site, updating all of the media file names, creating all of the maps and plans, creating a spreadsheet for the comm station data, and then writing the whole thing up with some introductory, synthetic text, then an almanac of planetary features (flora, fauna, landscape elements, climate, etc.), followed by the actual data and commentary on that data. This would then be published for public view online at archaeogaming.com, tagged with “No Man’s Sky,” “Galactic Hub,” and “Legacy Hub” for easy identification. Once published, I would post the link to the @nmsarchaeology Twitter account, as well as to @archaeogaming and @adreinhard for maximum coverage.

Once published, the Hub’s player community would reblog, share, and save it to their own databases and wikis for future reference, seeing as I am excavating their cultural heritage and material culture. Frequently members of the Hub (especially their chief executive and the person in charge of “Galactic Heritage”) would reply or would leave comments and questions, and their insight and knowledge of the history of the place has been a godsend. This project has been conducted publicly and transparently, and has engaged members of the NMS community while at the same time communicating the archaeology of a synthetic world to a wider archaeological audience whose interest remains piqued.

It is my hope that at the completion of this project, I will create a site gazetteer for distribution to anyone who wants to tour these heritage locations (provided they are still visible after v1.4). I would also like to prepare a proper archaeological monograph on the archaeology of No Man’s Sky, one that features an online media component and, one day, VR.

Summary and Conclusion

To distill the methodology above when documenting sites of previous human occupation in a digital space:

  1. Discover and select a location to visit, focusing first on places with clearly defined addresses that can be reached easily, working outwards from there—this will allow one to rapidly create a base of data that will be helpful when working farther afield;
  2. Upon arrival, perform reconnaissance of varying degrees of granularity, from general to more detailed, using that information to determine what gets investigated first, and how;
  3. Document everything, but start with pen and paper to learn the environment slowly, determining how things relate to one another: mapmaking enables one to consider the general relationships of places to other places;
  4. Record both general and specific images and video, with and without related data on display, because they serve two purposes: media-with-data helps us look, but media-without-data helps us see (sometimes we just need to experience a beautiful vista from the window of our house to understand why we built it here), and supplement those images and videos with verbal descriptions of what is depicted, because when we describe something, we see it differently;
  5. Publish the work as soon and as publicly as possible, which serves two functions: 1) immediately writing up a site allows one to come at the material with an intimacy derived from constant attention with every detail fresh, something that will be forgotten even as soon as the passage of a day, and 2) engaging the public encourages their attention, which can sometimes lead to observations of details you might have missed based on your proximity to the material and the fact that the site is new to you even if it falls within your specialty.

After visiting dozens of abandoned bases and homeworlds in the old Galactic Hub, I continue to refine my methodology in collecting and interpreting data. I suspect I will be modifying my methods through the very last site I record. Despite what has become routine, every site continues to offer up surprises, some kind of unexpected behavior emerging from the rules of the game, and the rules I have set for myself as an archaeologist. What I describe is not unique to digital archaeology, or for the archaeology of synthetic worlds, but should be familiar to anyone engaging in fieldwork anywhere. The view from my dig house might be different from yours, but the process is the same as we consider our research questions of occupation, abandonment, and being.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

One thought on “My Archaeological Methodology in No Man’s Sky

  1. Pingback: My Archaeological Methodology in No Man’s Sky — Archaeogaming – Coffee Break Archaeology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s