It may be No Man's Sky, but the quintillion planets within it almost certainly fall under the jurisdiction of some man, woman, or alien blob. There's enforcement of a sort in the new exploration game for the PS4 and PC. There I was, just blasting away picturesque rocks and plants into iron and carbon for my ship with a green beam—not unlike watering the lawn with a hose—when some buzzing little "sentinel" robots show up and start firing at me. There's a twinge of nostalgia as each looks somewhat like the commander from Flight of the Navigator, but they get annoying so I blast one with my mining gun. Then more show up. They blast harder. There's nowhere to run, and finally I lay dead beneath an alien sky.
Is this or something like this our future on earth? Will we get to a point where our resources are so precious that we need robots to get people to buzz off from taking them? Sentinel drones are more common on some of No Man's Sky's planets than others, but they generally show up (in multiple sizes and shapes) when you've fucked with a planet's flora and fauna enough to warrant action. In my first case, that involved blasting apart a single big rock for its iron for several minutes, although I was specifically focusing on the rock so as not to ugly up the environs with half-assed mining attempts. Not once did it allow me to plead my case in that regard or even get off easily by paying a fine.
Yet I appreciate that they have a code of sorts. Chopping up trees into wood and harvesting plants kind of represents square one of the human experience regardless of whether it's done with a "mining gun" or an axe, and the drones seem content to let me blast away so long as I only take enough for mere survival. Save on some planets with fragile ecosystems or valuable resources, they seem to know that sometimes your spaceship just happens to break down on an alien planet and you have to scrounge around for local supplies to keep going again. I mainly provoke their ire when I get greedy, and that's a lesson we could easily stand to learn on earth with or without sinister alien robots firing at us.
But there's the issue of scale. Alone, we humans aren't so bad—short of a tragedy like a foolishly flicked cigarette triggering a forest fire, the individual effects of a single person on the environment will usually be minimal. Even in No Man's Sky, with the immediacy and exaggeration of game conventions, I sometimes struggle to see my actual effect on the worlds I land on. And by and large, even though multiplayer technically exists, you'll usually only see the effects you personally leave as the planets in No Man's Sky are so many and so far apart that most of its players will never meet. In fact, when No Man's Sky chief Sean Murray learned two players had found each other on the game's first day, he said on Twitter "that has blown my mind."
That's a lesson we could easily stand to learn on earth with or without sinister alien robots firing at us.
Perhaps it's a good thing No Man's Sky keeps its players so far apart. After all, it's the trouble we can accomplish together as a swarm of 7 billion that really warrants action (and which No Man's Sky doesn't really highlight). As Motherboard previously reported, consider the case of petroleum companies inflicting longlasting damage on the Amazon rainforest with relative impunity or destroying the last wild areas of the world with "normal" things like houses and roads. And it'll only get worse. Already we're using more resources than we have to replenish.
The enormity of correcting the problem is staggering. But oddly enough, No Man's Sky's solution to conservation isn't as outlandish as it seems. Already, there are versions of it out in the world we inhabit. As we reported last year, the Wapichana tribe in southern Guyana has started using drones to search for illegal miners on their ancestral lands, and the approach allows them to gather evidence for their plight in ways that avoid the risks to personal safety that an expedition in person would present. Others are experimenting with using drones to stop rhino poaching.
But none of these well-meaning methods employ violence, of course. We'll have to get to a whole new level of awful for that to happen. Still, there are clues in No Man's Sky that the galaxy's population once went past a similar breaking point. For all the game's supposed focus on "discovering" new worlds, there sure is a lot of random human junk lying about in the form of crates and debris regardless of which system you visit. And even if we toss humans out of the equation, there are plenty of relics left over from alien civilizations dotting the supposedly virgin landscapes. It all seems to mean that people (or at the very least, intelligent beings) were once far more numerous in the past, but now that the bulk of them are gone, it makes the preservation of what's left all the more precious. And perhaps, having been pushed to such severe limits, whoever made the drones would feel justified in using force.
It's been said—rightly, I think—that No Man's Sky is more of a survival game than a proper space exploration game. It's more concerned with the planets it offers than the business of travelling between them. But as far as conservation awareness goes, that needn't be a bad thing.
T.S. Eliot famously said in "Little Gidding" that the "end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time," and that's kind of what No Man's Sky means to me. Even now, in thousands of cities, it's impossible to see the Milky Way at night owing to the bunched clusters of human settlement. "Wildness" in North America is usually merely relative, only 524 years after European settlers started arriving here en masse. Part of No Man's Sky's magic is the freedom to see worlds largely as they were before we cut up the prairies with subdivision plots and leveled mountains for ore. It's seeing where we started.
And will we really need hostile robots watching over us to make sure we don't fuck it up again? Somehow, the thought of that is almost as depressing as the thought of losing it all in the first place.