Mapping, Colonialism, and No Man’s Sky


Here come the colonists. Image: Hello Games.

Thanks to a thought-provoking email from my friend and colleague Florence Smith Nicholls, I wanted to explore the ideas of mapping and colonialism in No Man’s Sky, something I had neglected to consider when conducting the Legacy Hub Archaeological Project for my PhD case study. The idea of colonialism in No Man’s Sky came up when I attended the Decolonize Mars unconference and met Tahir Hemphill, the Chair of Education for the Library of Congress. When I told him about the game and what the archaeologists were doing there, he wasn’t concerned with what the archaeologists were up to, but rather what the player-community was doing based on the game’s existing mechanics. His main issue was the fact that players could rename everything: systems, planets, animals, plants, points-of-interest, and that this would overwrite the indigenous names assigned by the game’s procedural algorithm. It seemed that players were encouraged by the developer, Hello Games, to adopt a colonialist attitude towards space exploration.

For 2016’s No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey (NMSAS), we decided to rename planets only as a way to visually indicate that the planet had been explored by the team. The indigenous name was kept in the renaming, with the NMSAS designator added afterwards in parentheses (if memory serves). For non-archaeologist players, especially those in the Galactic HUB, they recorded what the planets used to be called prior to renaming them. Some players opted to keep original system names while adding HUB designators in parentheses.

Note that the game names everything based on an algorithm. The naming is not based on culture or sacred (or other) heritage. The game simply names things according to mathematical rules. Second, for versions 1.3 (Atlas Rises) and 1.5 (NEXT), the universe renamed itself, wiping out all previous names and replacing them with new names completely unrelated to the old ones. These wipes also renamed player-named systems and planets to something procedurally generated, but the new algorithm-derived names have nothing to do with anything that came before. One important thing to remember, however, is that the game recalls the gamertag of the human player who discovered a system or a planet. Even though the names have changed, the player-“discoverers” have not.

Regarding additional claims of colonialism, the three original races (plus the fourth introduced in Atlas Rises), are not indigenous to the universe. The Gek (commerce), the Korvax (science/technology), and the Vy’keen (warfare), plus the new race of Travelers, exist within the current simulation as defined by NMS’s end-game. All four races (plus human players who can now identify as any race they choose) explore the universe in order to understand it.

The Sentinels (autonomous, armed droids), however, are a “race” apart, and exist from some earlier moment of creation in the simulated universe. As the player progresses through the game’s main narrative, they learn that the Sentinels are an infestation of jealous guardians whose makers left them in motion before departing for parts unknown. These are amoral machines always in a state of readiness and observation. It is unclear whether or not all the Sentinels or other races are colonists, or if it is possible and/or ethical to colonize a simulation of reality.

Perhaps the biggest mystery in No Man’s Sky is the culture that left ruins behind, as well as monoliths, plaques, and portals. These are permanent structures, unable to be destroyed, but can be excavated and, at times, used, based on the game’s existing mechanics.

Since the 1.2 “Pathfinder” update, the game allows for human settlement by way of base-building. In 1.2 and 1.3, the game provided generic base units on nearly every planet, flagging them as being available for occupation and construction. Players could move into an unused unit, making it their home. In version 1.2, planets could accommodate more than one player base on their surfaces. Players on the Galactic HUB’s old capital world of Lennon (Drogradur NO425) lived near one another in peaceful farming settlements, commune-like. In 1.3 only one player could build per system. If another player claimed a base on another planet in a previously human-settled system, that base would get overwritten by the new player, which soon became a way to troll other players, and in more extreme instances, was viewed as an act of war. In version 1.5 (now up to 1.6x, NEXT), any number of players can occupy any number of bases on any number of planets within the same system. The new Galactic HUB is pushing this through their new Project Coruscant, attempting to create a planet-wide, continuous city, as envisioned by the Star Wars universe.

Questions Regarding Colonialism in No Man’s Sky

Here’s what Wikipedia says about the term “colonialism”:

Colonialism is the policy of a foreign polity seeking to extend or retain its authority over other people or territories, generally with the aim of developing or exploiting them to the benefit of the colonizing country and of helping the colonies modernize in terms defined by the colonizers, especially in economics, religion, and health.

Based on the above definition, consider the following questions about No Man’s Sky specifically, and exploration-style games generally:

  1. Is it colonialism if the game encourages human settlement by providing base units, or by allowing any planet/location to be built upon by human players?
  2. Is it colonialism if none of the existing races in the game are indigenous to the simulated universe?
  3. Is it colonialism if the game’s mechanics are purpose-built to allow players to rename whatever they find?
  4. Is it colonialism if NMS is identified as a simulation (by the game’s narrative via the Atlas Path) and not reality?
  5. Is it colonialism if it is impossible for human players to subjugate or disenfranchise a non-human population in the game?
  6. Is it colonialism if harvested/farmed/mined resources regenerate after a set period of time?
  7. Is it colonialism if a single player occupies a planet for a limited time, builds a base, and then abandons it, never to return?
  8. Is it colonialism if the game automatically assigns a player’s gamertag as “discover” of a system or of a planet, and the player has no way to disassociate (or refuse) the connection?
  9. Is it colonialism if the game wipes the slate (universe) clean of player-created bases after each major software update, returning all planets to a natural, undisturbed state?

I defer to my ethicist colleagues regarding answers to the above, but thanks to Nicholls’ question to me, these are colonialist questions I could come up with after a minute or two. I don’t think there are easy answers here.

Mapping in No Man’s Sky

As of this writing (October 6, 2018), there is no native mapping function/mechanic at the planet-level. A galactic map does exist, showing names of systems and whether or not they have been previously contacted. Unlike other games, NMS does not have a map “hotkey” to show places unexplored, or to reveal areas of the map that a player has identified. Players are given a compass rose (introduced in 1.2), cardinal directions (introduced in 1.3), and latitude and longitude (introduced in 1.5). From the beginning, units were the only way to measure size and distance (1 unit = 1 meter). In earlier versions (1.0, 1.1, 1.2) one could measure distance on planets only through actual travel based on the game’s Log feature. In versions 1.3 and later, one’s head-up display (HUD) shows distance in units from a feature. Naked-eye observations of features identified via icons displayed with time-to-travel in hours, minutes, and seconds. While nearly impossible to navigate across a planet in 1.0 and 1.1, the additional wayfinding tools in later versions greatly improved the quality of life for archaeologists, making it easier to map time, distance, and direction for features both on and under the ground.

For the No Man’s Sky Archaeological Survey, the team gave up on mapping almost right away. Team members could place signal boosters, which contained 16 digits of alphanumeric locative data, but was of limited use for anything finer than a planet’s location within a galaxy. Procedurally generated content could be roughly mapped via time-of-travel, with features recorded relative to one another’s placement via triangulation, but any attempt at exactness was doomed to failure.

During the 6-month period of the Legacy Hub Archaeological Project (LHAP), version 1.3’s mechanics of compass rose, cardinal directions, and travel-time/distance greatly helped in the creation of much more accurate maps. These “time-maps” used as their central point a fixed location such as a portal (only one portal exists per planet) or a player’s base. All other features could be mapped relative to that one point. Although planets appear as spheres in the game, their surfaces are basically square, mapped to the sphere. It would appear that planetary curvature is an illusion for players on the ground, but players have documented their personal circumnavigations on foot and by starship.

As the sole archaeologist conducting LHAP, I made mapmaking decisions based on my project’s research questions. These had been submitted (and approved) by my PhD committee at the University of York, as well as by the archaeology department’s committee on ethics. Unlike the NMSAS, which was a group project focused on understanding the creation and placement of procedurally generated archaeological features, the one-person LHAP was designed specifically to examine patterns of human settlement (in v1.2) and abandonment (in v1.3) as created by procedurally generated landscapes and the 1.3-induced climate change disaster (the game’s update reassigned new climates and topography to every world in the universe). The region examined was once the Galactic HUB, populated by a few hundred self-selected citizen-scientists who opted to make the pilgrimage to a particularly lush section of the galaxy founded by player Syn1334. The HUB’s goal was to document the nearby systems and planets, wildlife and plants, plus other points of interest, creating a sustainable, Utopian society inclusive of anyone who wanted to join and contribute to the society’s goals. When 1.3 forced the HUB’s massive player-migration to another system, the original region of settlement became known by the players as the Legacy Hub. Since 1.5 launched in July 2018, the Hubs are now identified by their associated NMS version, the Legacy Hub now becoming the Pathfinder Legacy Hub (for 1.2), and the Atlas Legacy Hub (for 1.3). Version 1.5 (NEXT) reset the universe again, forcing another mass migration.

My primary goal in mapping as many of the Legacy Hub’s settled worlds as I could with the limited time that I had prior to 1.5, was to pinpoint human-created materials in relation to one another on any given world. Where was the main settlement? Where were the communication stations left behind by players? How were these placed in relation to each other? What did the messages say? Could I recreate earlier topography via abandoned human structures? My secondary goal in creating these maps was to be able to leave a reproducible record of human settlement, so anyone visiting these worlds after I had gone could see what I saw, and could document additional change over time.

The only times I chose to document features that were not created by people was when 1) that feature was the central, fixed point of the map (e.g., a portal), 2) a communication station noted the presence of a procedurally created feature (e.g., trading post) that no longer existed after the 1.3 update, or 3) when the 1.3 update merged a human-created base from v1.2 with a new, procedurally generated feature as part of the new topography.

Unfortunately with version 1.5, the universal reset combined with enhanced/modified game mechanics removed every legacy (1.2) base from the landscape, returning the most recent creations to the player’s inventory by way of a new, portable base computer. This new feature allows players to revive their most recent base prior to 1.5, placing it wherever the player would like on any planet anywhere in the universe. Unlike the 1.2 bases, the older communication stations were largely preserved from update to update, although most are now buried deep underground beneath impenetrable bedrock.

The Mapping Paradox in No Man’s Sky

NMS launched for PlayStation 4 players first in August 2016, followed a few days later for PC players via Steam, but this platform-split and inability for cross-platform play meant that instead of one universe, there were two that overlapped. The universes were the same as far as placement of systems and planets, but they differed in placenames. Players on PS4 could not see others on Steam even if both players were on the same world at the same time. Bases created by PS4 players could not be explored by Steam players, and vice versa. Player-citizens of the Galactic HUB maintained records containing the names and features of planets for PS4 and Steam. As of July 2018, Xbox One players can now play NMS, so there is a third, duplicate universe. Any maps or observations must be tagged with the platform of the investigator. Adding a final layer of complexity, maps also differ depending on the game mode the player selects: Normal, Creative, or Survival. This now yields nine duplicate universes overlaid atop one another, never to be seen by players on different platforms in different modes. Perhaps now with 1.6, players can record the latitude and longitude of a feature on PS4 in Normal mode and can then navigate to the same spot on Xbox One in Survival mode to compare the landscapes. We have entered a time of multidimensional mapping, or some sort of strange contemporary stratigraphy where nine layers of strata coexist at the same level. Mapping that will be a significant challenge, even for planets not yet built upon by human players.

Mapping and Colonialism in No Man’s Sky

For the maps I created in LHAP, I documented the material remains of people in the digital galaxy of Euclid, an apparent simulation of a “real” galaxy as stated in the context of the game’s narrative. Hello Games developed the space and included mechanics to encourage players to explore and build, giving players a kind of Manifest Destiny or Divine Right, and also giving them the choice to build or not to build, to leave messages or not, to settle or not, to explore the universe or to remain on one planet for the duration of gameplay, however long. I recorded human settlement in one part of the galaxy for one group of people in order to better understand how catastrophic climate change affected the group, and to see if I could learn how this group of players decided to settle where the did, and to build what they chose to build.

No Man’s Sky also has the potential for other kinds of maps to be made, those indicating the presence of natural resources and of non-human structures spread across the surfaces of worlds. These maps and their signposts invite exploitation of natural resources, of terraforming, of future settlement. While it is true that the natural resources regenerate and are thereby sustainable, the landscape, once changed in v1.5 and later, is changed for everyone. Our maps become snapshots in time of what was, what is, and what could be. The renaming of things by players is possessive and colonial, and maps will reflect these naming conventions. It is up to the mapmakers to choose to use indigenous, game-given names, player-given names, or both. The other races in NMS do not make maps; only the human players can, and must do so outside of the game. In that case, the mapmakers must take care not to forget the original naming and placement of things. Hello Games maintains central servers containing data on everything ever discovered in the universes they created. Perhaps this is the sole archive of the synthetic world as it existed immediately after launch, and what it has become. One hopes that when No Man’s Sky is either retired or abandoned, that the data will be made available to the public as open access so that history does not die with the game as it has with so many others.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

3 thoughts on “Mapping, Colonialism, and No Man’s Sky

  1. You might be missing an aspect. That of time. The ruins appear to be from the Great War timeframe. Occasionally, you find stone gek statue heads…from when the First Spawn was overthrown. That was a looong time ago.

    The monoliths are more of a historical textbook, recording snippets of events as they happened, and relaying them to whoever can activate them. Basically, big e-readers.

    The races there now…the Korvax, Vykeen and Gek, are what’s left after centuries of war devastated much of everything. The Travellers were always separate from the program, and are, in fact, an attempt by the Atlas to simulate its creator. It’s telling that the Atlas decided that its ‘pretend parent’ would be programmed with the need to see, catagorize and name everything. Like it wants to make us proud. ‘See what I did?’ We are modeled after the creator of the Atlas. A programmer, who’s program inadvertantly becomes self aware. And like any child, when left alone, it panics. We find messages from other travellers indication that they reset the Atlas, but it always comes to this same point. I suspect we’ll find that we are the original creator and the Atlas has preserved us.

    NMS isn’t colonalism, its post appocolyptic. The many many resets are nreaking the program and causing failures. Characters sometimes see outside of their reality into the larger truth. Polo remembers us from prior resets and is sad we can’t remember. Nada teaches us how to see the matrix, and the (black) holes within it. In the logs of crashed freighters, fallen during prior resets, we read about how, as the walls dividing the worlds thin, they became aware of the resets and of repeating the same actions over and over, and going mad from the knowledge.

  2. I hope no one paid you for this article. That anyone, anywhere, takes the fake colonialism of a video game to be an issue because, “players could rename everything: systems, planets, animals, plants, points-of-interest, and that this would overwrite the indigenous names” just shows themselves as too wrapped up in their views to be able to divest from them.

    No Man’s Sky is just a game. It’s not some grand metaphor for the evils of colonial behavior. That anyone takes it that far is more troubling than any of our paltry actions in the game.

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