Originally published April 12, 2017
One of the worst things about recovering from pneumonia was not being able to leave the house, and not being able to go downstairs into my home office where I could play No Man’s Sky. Happily, Minecraft worked on my laptop upstairs, but I still missed all those planets to explore…
Even though it may have been one of the most controversial titles of 2016, I have a sneaking suspicion that the best video game science fiction plot last year was in No Man’s Sky.
No Man’s Sky is an acquired taste. It’s not a space combat simulation, or a hardcore physics simulator. Its standard mode isn’t even really a challenging survival game, although it does have some survival elements. Instead, No Man’s Sky is a combination of the mission statement from Star Trek and a restful camping trip: it gives the player an entire galaxy to explore, without any time limits or urgency. It may not be for everybody, but for somebody like me (particularly with how badly 2016 turned out), wandering around alien planets and playing Charles Darwin is a much needed relaxing game experience.
But, there is a story there, if one is inclined to follow it — and it’s even a brain-breaking one, which the ending complements perfectly. Unfortunately, in large part due to a misstep by Hello Games that made the entire Atlas storyline look like the beginning tutorial, it’s one that many players missed. And it’s all about the simulation hypothesis.
The simulation hypothesis is the theory that our entire reality is a simulation of a universe in an alien computer. Variations on this theme — reality as an illusion — have been around for a very long time. The modern theory began with a paper titled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation” by Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom.
Bostrom’s argument was, in his words:
A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.
It’s an interesting argument, and one that has found support in a some surprising places — both Elon Musk and Neil DeGrasse Tyson have expressed support for it (although, to be fair, a closer reading of both Musk and Tyson suggests that they have not adopted the idea beyond a thought experiment). The question is how to prove it, with the best suggestion being to look for glitches in our reality that can only exist because of imperfections in the simulation, and the most common proof being considered our creating a simulated universe of our own (based on point #2 of Bostrom’s argument).
I am not a supporter of this hypothesis, and I think there are problems with it on just about every level. For one thing, it represents a reintroduction of mysticism into science after centuries of removing it, with God being swapped out for an alien computer. For another, the proof of creating a simulation ourselves begs a massive question of just how many simulations deep we are. It also makes huge assumptions about what a post-human society would look like and do — simulating a universe to understand our own makes perfect sense right now from a pure research point of view (consider for a moment how many things we simulate today), and that’s not likely to change for any civilization with sufficient curiosity about how their universe works. Or, put another way, as we develop better tools for theoretical research using simulation, those tools will invariably be used.
And then there’s the issue of games and gamers, which might best be illustrated by a scene from the Ender’s Game movie. There is a moment where, facing a simulation where a giant offers Ender a choice between two poisoned chalices, Ender brutally murders the giant instead. The administrators monitoring the simulation are shocked because nobody has ever done this before — except this holds no water. Anybody playing the game would have seen the giant as a puzzle to be solved, and once it was clear that both chalices were poisoned, would have moved on to other solutions. In reality, the administrators would have been inundated with cadets finding new and creative ways to kill and otherwise get around this giant, because that’s what people do when they play games.
Likewise, if you look at video games as an example, we’ve simulated almost everything one could imagine. Alien planets — done that (Alpha Centauri). The Medieval past — meet Shadowlands, Total War, and any other number of historically based Medieval games. The entire Milky Way galaxy — meet Elite Dangerous, whose galactic model is so sophisticated that it has successfully predicted exoplanets. The entire history of a world created at the beginning of each playthrough — welcome to Dwarf Fortress. We don’t just simulate things and places for pure research, we do it for recreation. The only reason we have yet to create an entire simulated universe to play in is that a computer powerful enough to do so has not hit the general market.
And this is where the story built into No Man’s Sky becomes an amazing and brain-breaking piece of science fiction. As the player progresses through the game, they discover that not only is the entire galaxy a computer simulation, but that the player character is an AI created by the Atlas, the program controlling the simulation, for the express purpose of mapping and expanding it. Because the galaxy is a simulation, there is no possible escape — the best the player character can hope for is to be freed after serving the Atlas’ purpose and/or to be bounced into the next simulated galaxy after reaching the galactic core.
But because it is a story of a simulated galaxy in an actual simulated galaxy, it reaches into the real world in a meta level that no other game has ever attempted, much less achieved. If you believe in the simulation hypothesis, No Man’s Sky is the first step to proving that our reality is nothing more than an illusion. If you don’t believe in it, the game affirms reality in a perfect example of why the hypothesis doesn’t work — it is a simulation of a galaxy made for no other reason than recreation that by its mere existence explodes the idea that nobody outside of a simulation would ever have a reason to create such a thing.
And that is simply breathtaking.