No Man’s Sky NEXT and the Volatile Identity of Modern Games

July 24th saw the release of No Man’s Sky NEXT, an update for 2016’s divisive universe exploration title. For many, this finally made No Man’s Sky the game they thought they were buying two years ago.

NEXT raises a host of fascinating practical and philosophical questions in an era when art, and games especially, can be endlessly updated.

In the metaphysics of identity there is a thought experiment known as the ship of Theseus. You have Theseus’ ship. Now imagine replacing the ship’s parts, plank by plank, gradually over time. At which stage – if ever – should it be thought of as a new object? If we build another ship with the old planks, which vessel is the true ship of Theseus?

It’s a fascinating paradox and a marginally useful way of justifying eye-watering student loans for Philosophy degrees. More importantly, your response will likely say a lot about how you feel about the meaning and morality of post-release updates in today’s video games.

Procedural game development

I have a copy of 1997’s International Superstar Soccer Pro sitting in a PS1 at home. It’s the same loveable, broken game I first excitedly unboxed as a scruffy little kid at Christmas. Despite its physical properties and code remaining unchanged for over two decades, the game, with it’s bent pitch lines and a commentator who sounds like he’s been on the sauce since breakfast, certainly doesn’t feel like the revelation it once was. Until relatively recently the inflexibility of published media and the unstoppable march of time meant all games faced the fate of Soccer Pro: doomed to have a heyday upon initial release and corrode from that point on. It was not a phenomenon unique to games either.

For better and for worse Kanye West has never been afraid to stick out. The good side of this has brought us some of the most exciting and experimental mainstream rap of the last decade. More recently this experimentation has made the very format of his albums protean. Both 2016’s Life of Pablo and this year’s less-than stellar Ye were changed and updated post-release. Like these albums, for No Man’s Sky, no clear iteration is definitive. Reviews of the launch day game read as historical documents rather than useful buyer’s guides.

A different time: England thrash France in International Superstar Soccer Pro (1997)

Art has never been stable. Each time you read a book, hear a song, or watch a movie you, and the society you inhabit, are – at least marginally – different. But the relatively new phenomenon of updates and patches brings new questions and existential crises. If something can be changed or modified endlessly its identity is anchorless. In the future, we will increasingly be talking past each other when we reflect upon ever-more nebulous games.

No Man’s Plan

As the story of No Man’s Sky shows, philosophical questions matter little when gamers feel let down or enraged. As one of the most anticipated games of a generation, it was destined to be a disappointment on some level. The original release, a lonely grind across uninterestingly different planets, a noble failure. The slating from the press and disappointed fans were the least of the issues for the HelloGames team, however.

No Man’s Sky NEXT: A different game?

Speaking to The Guardian, developer Sean Murray reflected: “I remember getting a death threat about the fact that there were butterflies in our original trailer, and you could see them as you walked past them, but there weren’t any butterflies in the launch game. I remember thinking to myself: ‘Maybe when you’re sending a death threat about butterflies in a game, you might be the bad guy.’” In a heartfelt  ‘message to the community’ ahead of the NEXT Update, Murray defended the hefty updates his team have been working away on for two years: “We always wanted No Man’s Sky to grow and develop after it released. I’m happy we’ve been able to do that.” 

The updates, including online multiplayer and the addition of third-person perspective, are impressive, especially given the six-man team at the helm. But, as our research shows, the apologies and improvements don’t seem to have changed people who avoided the game the first time round.

A leopard might change its stripes – but that doesn’t mean people will care.

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