When I was younger, I used to visit a small piece of beach with my family near Minehead, UK, called Blue Anchor. It was a rather pebbly beach – full of rocks, wet sand and tripping hazards. Yet, there was one defining thing about Blue Anchor that made it worth it – sitting in the distance was something that we called the “LAVA ROCK”. It was named so after its composure – layers of ash black rock, intercepted with layers of ash white rock, pieces of translucent orange Lava Rock jutting out from it.
Me and my brothers loved this Lava Rock – every year we’d snap off some of the orange lava to bring back and present to our grandparents. We’d climb up it, waving at our parents from the top. We’d play spies on it, hide from each other, run around it screaming, until at last we were tired enough to walk back, through the rocks and wet sand.
This year, when I went to visit my Granddad with my parents, we went back to Blue Anchor, and back to the Lava Rock. It had changed. A gradual shift had caused it to topple, lying with its belly up, facing the stars. This dramatic toppling (a lot of the cliff next to it too, had fallen) gave way to a new perspective of the Lava Rock. Instead of being surrounded by orange lava, just black and white layers of ash remained. Walking to the other side of it, instead of a sheer cliff face, appeared a ramp, leading to the top. The change gave both a new perspective and new opportunities.
Over the past couple of years, a gradual shift has been taking place in games. Much like the Lava Rock it hasn’t been immediately noticeable. Beginning with the smaller pieces, and slowly working its way towards gaming’s top dogs, games are slowly being transformed, from places to do stuff, to places to be in. As you may already know - this isn't a revelatory statement - it's been one that critics have been discussing for a while. But what makes these games different? Is there any use of games as a space?
Let us begin to answer that question, by looking at one of the more recent examples of this - No Man’s Sky. No Man’s Sky seemed to be pitched initially as one of “The Ultimate Games” - a game in which you can go anywhere, do anything and be anyone. (Star Citizen is another example of “The Ultimate Game”, and one that seems to be coming closest to achieving that vision). However, when No Man’s Sky eventually released, it was not the sprawling, wide reaching, player focused ULTIMATE GAME that a lot of people had been expecting. Rather, what emerged was a different game entirely.
No Man’s Sky focused on its environment, a showcase of Hello Games’ algorithm, the player taking a transient role within its universe. Planets were these gorgeous alien worlds, always whispering in your ear, asking you to push that little bit further. Barren planets full of toxic fumes, planets full of strange rock formations reaching up towards the sky, planets featuring huge peaceful insectoids, planets teeming with valuable resources, planets with deep caves, planets with huge mountains. Planets with a seemingly infinite amount of possibility and explorability. No Man’s Sky is a game built around these places, the player slowly bumbling from one to the next, staring wide eyed at the horizon, before blasting off back into space, the multicoloured nebulae winking in the distance.
No Man’s Sky works best when it is simply being a place. When you climb to the top of a hill and stare out across the planet, at every crevice, every mountain. One of the main parts of No Man’s Sky’s gameplay loop is its scanner, which scans your local environment, returning back points of interest to you: resources, bases, fauna, crashed spaceships. These temporary waypoints are there to give the player a reason to push forward, to continue exploring. Yet, the focus of them is simply temporary - the reward being the environment itself, rather than the chosen objective.
In fact, No Man’s Sky’s core loops are made to push the player to continuously move, to exist as a nomad in an almost infinite amount of worlds, to trundle in a battered up spaceship from planet to planet. It does this by using ever tantalizing objectives that are just out of your reach, combined with resource bars that are constantly depleting, giving you a small sense of urgency to keep moving. No Man’s Sky’s space is one made for the player to be in, to observe, explore, or just stare.
Whilst No Man’s Sky is a more mainstream example, using a more traditional gameplay loop to support the sense of place and being, other games forgo this and instead simply place the player into an abstract world, to simply “exist”, in an instance of that world. There are obvious variations on this concept - some simply place you in a static, wordless world, such as a lot of Connor Sherlock’s games and Matthew Keff’s games. Others place you in various instances of that world; perhaps different seasons or times wi