So, after about 70 hours, I’d fallen through the world. Diving in radioactive waters on my 30th or so planet, I had found the near impossible; a procedural generated glitch. I was in nothing space, on the literal other side of the looking glass. I could see the landscape I had just been exploring but I was under it. In radioactive water. With my suit corroding and my oxygen running out.
I’d mentioned the 70 plus hours of gameplay, right?
This wasn’t the first time No Man’s Sky had terrified me. The game opening with you near(ish), a downed and (mostly) repairable spacecraft was a little like waking up inside a Lem novel. A later moment where I skipped merrily into a cave system looking for red fissile crystals nearly finished with my next character finding this one’s desiccated corpse next to a carved message:
MAKE A MAP, IDIOT
But those were just player character choices. This was a crack in the world. I panicked and immediately tamped it down. I went back to where I’d fallen through, found it was a one way door. I hopped back to my previous save and…it was an automatic one and had taken place on the wrong side of the looking glass. The whole time I did this, my suit was decaying, my oxygen was falling and my pulse was rising.
Frantic research ensued. It turns out the NMS developers had seen this coming (And I was not the only one it happened to) and there was a secret extra save file from earlier in the game. I found it, I opened it and…arrived back in the cockpit of my ship. In the world. Not under it. I sat very still in that cockpit for a long time, saved, twice and quit out for the night while I was alive and not under the world.
I’ve only ever felt like that in the real world once, a mile or so off Santa Cruz beach. Marguerite grew up in the area, we visit every year and it’s one of my favourite places. Watching The Lost Boys on an inflatable screen on the beach next to the promenade that’s IN The Lost Boys? I don’t believe in bucket lists but if I did, that would be one of the things crossed off on mine. Likewise boogie boarding in the Pacific, staying out for so long we got sunburn and, brilliantly, at one point getting buzzed by a seal. Out of nowhere this massive sea dog head popped up next to me, looked around and vanished again. I swear I heard the ‘sup, brah?’ Before it disappeared.
But the time before that I went out a little too far and found myself on the wrong side of a rip tide. You don’t feel any change, don’t feel any difference at all. But suddenly you’re swimming towards the beach and heading sideways more than forwards. Suddenly you’re getting tired. Suddenly, you’re very aware of how much you have left in the tank and how much you need to have there. Suddenly, panic is sitting on the edge of the board, dangling its feet in the water going ‘Want me to tag in? I think I should’.
I didn’t panic. I told Marguerite I was having trouble and she guided me in from the other side of the rip tide, Dory style. Seriously ‘just keep swimming’ is it turns out, the best advice in that situation. It took me 20 minutes. It took another 40 of sitting very still on the beach, breathing very very deeply, for the adrenaline dump to pass. There were a dozen things between me and real danger but there’d been two dozen before I crossed the riptide. That took a little processing.
That sense of danger, that tickle of adrenaline as you realize you may be out of your depth that unites these two experiences is one of the driving forces behind After The War. There are no support structures beyond the ones your characters build and encounter. The only people saving them are themselves or the people they’ve befriended. The universe is vast and beautiful and will not hesitate to dump anyone on their head without a moment’s notice. Tremendous beauty wrapped in tremendous danger. A blank canvas scattered with wreckage. The inspiring, horrifying realization that not only are you able to rebuild it how you see fit, but that you may be the only people equipped to do that.
Get scared. Get lost. Get back up. Go again Because if you don’t, who else will? Polvo doesn’t have a motto, not yet, but I figure that has to be a strong contender.