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    No Man’s Sky moves from Dream to Reality


    2016 - 07.27

    One year ago today I put up a post about a forthcoming game that I am very excited about called No Man’s Sky.  One year after that posting, the release of the game is now imminent on August 9th.  There’s been a lot of attention on this game and a lot of hype about the boundaries it promises to break, so before it drops and we all find out what surprises it truly holds I want to wax philosophical one last time.

    One of the comments I heard that made me pause the longest was a person saying they hadn’t been this excited for a videogame release since Super Mario Brothers 2.  Just let that sink in for a second. Super Mario Brothers 2 came out for the NES in 1988.  Almost 30 years ago.  Which also says something maybe about the age-group of people who are really fired up for this game, and why.

    If tomorrow there was a Call of Duty game released which attained perfect review scores and was praised for design of the highest caliber with exquisite attention to detail and peerless action, I doubt I’d play it.  Why?  It’s not because I’d doubt the reviews, it’s just because… I’ve “done that.”  Not only have I done it, I have done it so many times, that it’s been done, completely.  Done into dust.  I’m simply finished with doing that.  Over.  Finito.  This can happen with any genre within an art form.  Like heavy metal music.  There was a time in my life when I was totally into it and now the page has turned and I just can’t stomach any more.  Maybe it’s because you become so familiar with the common devices and the tropes of the genre that even what’s new doesn’t feel new anymore?  A new Metallica album?  I just can’t.  It might be new, but it sounds so familiar.  What’s new is no longer new.

    This kind of fatigue has set in for me, and a lot of other players my age when it comes to games.  On top of that, as we grow older life expands to fill your free time.  Obligations, other hobbies, working, or broadly speaking other parts of life that you want to do—they all fill in the gaps and free time spent playing games gets put onto a smaller and smaller portion of the backburner.  And yet we still never forget this medium because we experienced the magic that it can contain.  We have seen, and felt that alchemy.

    There was an excellent, far-reaching piece at Kotaku (which feels strange to say, given their recent track record) discussing why No Man’s Sky is the most necessary game of 2016—a great read even for the mildly interested.  While that author focuses on world events and social norms my own reasons are simpler.  Personally the last game I felt this excited for was Red Dead Redemption.  One, because it was a very underserved segment of the gaming market (westerns) and maybe two, because I was moving to Texas right as the game was coming out.  Red Dead promised to do something new: put you “there” in the wild west.  And when I played the game, that’s exactly the aspect which made it so great.  In Red Dead it’s all about the little moments between the action.  When you walk up to the edge of a cliff to take in the scenery and a hawk flies over your head with a searing call.  When you camp out in the wilderness and see a bold sunrise above the rocks in the distance.  When you pause your horse to get your bearings and some faint trumpets remind you that you’re in Mexican territory.

    Little moments of color like those are what made Red Dead.  Before its release skeptics were panning it as GTA with horses.  And sure, there were plenty of action scenes where that’s pretty much what it was, but it also had its own tone going on, much different than GTA’s.  I never wrote about Red Dead on here, mostly because it was so loved and so praised by the gaming community that to heap a bunch more words onto that bandwagon didn’t seem necessary.  But action isn’t what made Red Dead—in fact it could have had far less action with worse mechanics and still been practically just as good, because the main strength of the game stood on atmosphere.

    That’s the connection between Red Dead and No Man’s Sky: Atmosphere.  Moods.  For me personally, that’s the biggest unknown question about what it can provide.  With No Man’s Sky, the creators have deliberately withheld a ton of information about the game, even this close to launch.  Nowhere is this more glaringly obvious than the most recent trailers put out by Sony.  The whole premise of the “Fight” trailer is to showcase combat, yet we’re presented with 1 second quick-cuts showing just teasers.  Really?  Even with less than 20 days remaining until release we’re keeping things this close to the chest?  And the creators keep conflating the words galaxy and universe, in what I can only assume is either a running joke or more likely, a deliberate obfuscation of these terms to avoid any hint of what the “journey to the center” actually means.  This is in stark contrast to the information-rich, National Geographic documentary-style trailers that preceded the launch of RDR, which were some of the best gaming trailers I think I’ve ever seen.  This kind of secrecy right up to the 11th hour is maybe a red flag, but I’m going out on a limb and trust that Hello Games knows what they’re doing and just want to keep it fresh for individual players to discover.

    Putting all those questions aside, the thing I’m most excited for in this game are the vistas.  The dramatic scenery and strange discoveries.  And that is the very beating heart of the game, the core of what it promises to deliver.  I gotta say I’m knocked out by the fantastic aesthetics of the buildings and the spaceships in this game and I will definitely spend a long time hunting neat looking stuff for screenshots.  Procedural generation will also lend a strange sense of responsibility to actually “experience” your experience since everything you see will likely be yours and yours alone.  It’s guaranteed that new designs will always keep coming and something really rad will be truly rare to the point that a sweet looking spaceship might literally never be seen again, by you or anyone else!  Let alone something even harder to find like a neat cave or a cool nocturnal creature.  Given the sheer vastness of the NMS universe, even the most beautiful, enchanting planet you find will probably never be explored again.

    Which brings us back to the idea of “new.”  With that stupefying number of eighteen quintillion planets available to explore in this universe (Wait, galaxy? Universe?  Galaxy?), how many hours can we pour into No Man’s Sky before what’s new no longer feels new anymore?  How much exploring will it take before the feeling of predictability sets in, and I begin to think to myself okay, here’s another new Starfighter design that I’ve never seen… but I’ve pretty much seen that design before in a slightly different paintjob or with different wings.  Answering that question is perhaps the main journey of No Man’s Sky and getting there, almost with zero doubt, will be a fascinating, entertaining time whether it resides at the center of the 1st galaxy or my 5th.

    But backing up a step further, that journey isn’t the only factor in the longevity of NMS.  Obviously games don’t live or die by freshness, as the latest incarnation of Call of Duty 17 can attest.  Like in Red Dead, it’ll be the thousand little moments along the way.  The quiet moments between the action where you pause to look around, finding yourself transfixed by some calm scenery.  The sound of the wind as you stand atop a small hill on a planet of blue colored grasses.  The eerie stillness of a cratered moon, devoid of life.  The distant calls of three-headed dinosaur-like beasts moving in a herd on the horizon.  The feeling of relief as you find a cave to flee nocturnal predators on a planet where you explored until nightfall caught you off-guard, far away from your ship.  And the feeling of safety as you finally return to your ship, your spacefaring horse of steel, chock full of goodies you snagged on a dangerous planet, ready to escape to the nearest space station and cash in.  These moments are my hopes for the game.  We’ll see if I can find them among—without hyperbole—the largest explorable universe the medium of video gaming has ever produced.

    Planet or not…


    2015 - 09.09

    So obviously I haven’t written much about space exploration in quite a while. Some of the projects I wrote about long ago have pretty much fulfilled their missions; the planet-hunting Kepler space telescope is now thousands and thousands of exoplanets deep, and the ice-cube neutrino observatory has found its high energy neutrinos. I haven’t lost my love for all-things space related, but I have had somewhat of a philosophical shift on this site that what I write about here is more focused on either my own creations or journaling for myself, rather than reporting the current news.

    But there was one thing that happened recently which was pretty amazing: the New Horizons space probe finally reached Pluto! (talk about earning that “tremendous voyages” tag) Dwarf planet or not, this is a new achievement in the exploration of distant worlds. This mission’s a high water mark in terms of pure kilometers that, let’s be real, won’t be exceeded in my lifetime. And that’s awesome to think about. Seldom do we get to watch something happen and know within that very moment that history is being witnessed… but this is one of those times. These pictures are a kind of rebuttal against that refrain “born too late to explore the Earth, born too early to explore the galaxy.” Well here’s a new part of your galaxy to admire:

    2015-8-12-15-PlutoEnhancedColor

    Pre-Release Hype: No Man’s Sky


    2015 - 07.27

    I just want to go on official record as having raised my alert status to super-mega-stoked for this PC/PS4 game which might get released later this year called “No Man’s Sky.” For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, the game is a sandbox/exploration game where you begin on a generic planet and start hunting for resources. Eventually you find a weapon and a ship, which frees you up to either explore more of the planet… or leave and go find another planet to explore. It is an incredibly open concept just at this level, but here’s the kicker: everything in the game is procedurally generated. That loosely means that your computer is “inventing” everything on-screen as you go. It has a broad set of rules regarding what types of air/plants/animals/stuff should appear on a given planet which is situated a given distance from its star, but that’s it. No one has “designed” these worlds–they are the output of a complex mathematical system.

    The information (and the names of all the things you encounter) are cataloged on a central database that all the other players are feeding into, so effectively a whole universe (yes, with multiple galaxies) is being created/populated by the players of this game as they explore it. Hooooo. I mean, there’s an idea that’s never been done before in gaming, at least not on this level. It’s a heady concept and I’m captivated by the idea.  And the scale of it all is preposterous: the creators estimate the universe contains 18 quintillion planets.  That’s 18,000,000,000,000,000,000… and no that’s not a typo.

    At this stage there’s still a lot which is unknown about how the gameplay will flow, but it seems heavily influenced by the game Journey… a sparsely populated but strikingly beautiful landscape that appeals to explorers and open-world fans. That’s me! I eagerly await this one. There’s a lot of great videos including long gameplay ones if you search on youtube but I really like this one for the pure excitement value:

     

     

    Alan Watts & Andromeda


    2012 - 10.27

    Beginners Mind again, for this: The Hubble Extreme Deep Field


    2012 - 10.21

    One of the first cosmological images which really and truly blew my mind as a young adult was the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field. Basically the idea was “Hey, what happens if we take our most powerful telescope and point it somewhere that’s pretty much empty and just stare at that spot for a really long time. What would we see?” The answer to that question was “We see somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 very distant galaxies.” Pause and let that marinate for a moment.

    Here is a closeup on one small area of the image, a random part that I thought looked cool:

    For a long time I left that as the wallpaper for my computer at work and I’d come in every morning and stare at the image while my slow computer took forever to finish loading windows. What was cool about having it as the wallpaper I had to look at while I waited for the machine to become usable was just how much there is to look at in there. As long as I stared at it, I’m certain there’s oodles of things I still didn’t notice. Looking at it first thing in the morning too, when the mind is raw and still gradually awakening surely added some awe to the effect as well. It’s staring into an abyss. Staring into infinity. And knowing that it stares back at you too…

    As a humorous aside, I’ll note that the “Hubble Ultra-Deep Field” is actually the sucessor to the “Hubble Deep Field” which showed a different region in space. And this new image, the “Hubble Extreme-Deep Field” is a closeup of a smaller section within the Ultra-Deep Field image, adding around 5,500 galaxies to the original 10,000+. When the James Webb Space Telescope goes online, they have plans to image the same area with it’s mighty Infrared sensing capability. What will that image be called? The Ultra-Extreme Uber-Deep Field Tournament Edition Plus. Director’s cut. Enhanced, expanded edition. Two. Strikes Back. Reloaded. Chopped and Screwed. Remix. Turbo.

    Whatever, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. Just, everyone, do me a favor: full rez this new baby and spend at least two minutes staring, thinking about what it shows:

    Everything on the internet, everything in a book, everything you’ve ever heard, learned, imagined, or even dreamed, in the most remote recess of your subconscious, is all within the realm of the ‘Earth’ experience. And Earth is a single, small terrestrial planet out in some sleepy backwater arm of the Milky Way, a perfectly average spiral galaxy with about 300 billion stars, and about as many planets, with maybe 10 billion of these being in the goldilocks “habitable” zone. Or at least habitable to “life as we know it”. Nevermind moons, nevermind thermally-supported life, nevermind ‘Steppenwolf’ planets that were flung from their parent stars. If the entire breadth of human knowledge, emotion, and experience resides within our differential-unit-small grain of sand that’s floating in the Milky Way swimming pool, then try to concieve of the vast diversity of lifeforms, cultures, natural wonders, and sub-realities residing within the oceanic field of view of this image, depicting thousands upon thousands of distant galaxies. Try to imagine traveling there, surveying them. Imagine exploring just a handful of those galaxies and chronicling the habits of their residents.

    How could we explore it? First we’d need to aggressively master interplanetary voyages, remote communication and colonization. Fly probes and listening devices to the Kuiper Belt. Mount them to passing comets for a long voyage back out to the Oort cloud. Use those to learn about the radiation and galactic wind in interstellar space. Develop shielding, life prolonging and hybernation capabilities for deep space travel. Contact alien cultures within our own galaxy and master inter-species diplomacy. Develop non-invasive, non-destructive ways to study primitive life still early in its evolutionary tree. Catch the best bacteria to help us live longer, retain more knowledge. Authoritively chronicle the Milky Way with billion-year data storage capability. Pool resources with other intelligences to build intergalactic ships or probes. Scatter them in all directions to search for points of interest. Then, finally, research ways to reach the most distant of galactic neighborhoods like the ones we see in these pictures. My point: The actual exploration of these places is not something that’s a few ‘ages’ away in terms of a civilization. Exploring these places is an act for intelligences unthinkably more sophisticated than our own… But we can dream of it.

    When I look at this, I like to focus in on individual places and try to imagine what might be there. I like to find a pretty looking galaxy and think about what planets might be inside of it. Or sometimes find a teeny sub-pixel dot and wonder if that less-than-a-pixel point is a whole giant supergalaxy, burgeoning with life forms, interstellar commerce & conflict, culture & craftsmanship. Maybe these two galaxies colliding are locked in an interspecies war millions of years long. Maybe they’ve evolved organic-electronic synthetic intelligences that can instantly teleport between host bodies, allowing them to be anywhere their race has ever traveled instantaneously. I wonder what their music sounds like. I wonder what senses they have. Can they “see” radio waves? Does their culture have money, or government? I wonder what “pleasure” or “sex” means to them? Or consciousness? I wonder what THEIR telescopes have discovered about the formation of the cosmos. Does it look “the same in all directions” from the far-far edge of what we humans can see?

    It’s fun to try envisioning all these things. And then humorous, in a zen sort of way, genuinely humorous, knowing that it’s impossible. You can’t. You’re looking at something so much bigger, ancient, and wilder than the capability of the feeble human brain to comprehend. The are not human words in any language to meaningfully describe what any of these Hubble Fields show. These images, obscured by the thick, nearly-opaque veil of distance, give the most fuzzy, teasing glimpse of something beyond us. Something beyond even what our most distant descendant will ever become. I find that deeply exciting. This picture shows, unquestionably, indisputably, that the universe has more to explore than is possible to explore. What better reason to be alive in this cosmos?

    Armstrong’s gone & the full moon’s blue


    2012 - 09.03

    Still ruminating on the passing of Neil Armstrong.  As my tiny tribute to him, I decided to take a photo of the first full moon after his death, which also happens to be the last blue moon until 2015.  I added the blue coloration in post… the blues for one less moonwalker among us.

    Neil Armstrong,1930-2012


    2012 - 08.26

    The first man to walk on the moon died yesterday.  That’s a guy whose name will be printed in history books as long as humankind ever has them.

    Will there come a time when all people who’ve walked on the face of another world are no longer alive?  That’s a sad thought.  I hope that we get some fresh boots back into deep space sooner than later.  Armstrong would certainly want it no other way…

    The Carl Sagan Most-Awesome-GIF-EVAR runner up


    2012 - 08.05

    He’s back, with another #1 summer jam! That’s right kids, it’s the Carl Sagan “deal with it” remix. Who could do it cooler, I ask? Obviously, no one.

    For obvs, guys. Obvs.

    The Summer Blockbuster of 2012


    2012 - 07.20

    It’s the 43rd anniversary of the moon landing today, so I gotsta post this:

    It’s coming. August 5th, 2012 at 11:30pm. The Seven Minutes of Terror:

     

    I dig how the official NASA video builds it up like a movie trailer. Because really, this stuff is honestly more badass than any movie. This is the exploration of other worlds, happing in real life and we get to watch it! Unless the sky crane doesn’t work and it crashes. Which is possible… keep your fingers crossed everyone. It’s gonna be an edge-of-your-seat ride, coming soon to a planet near you!

    A nice reminder


    2012 - 07.19