[Originally published August 11, 2016]
Have you ever been mugged? I live in DC. Nice town. I’ve been the victim of a mugging, and bore witness to two others. I have a theory about muggings, and it’s that the majority of them take place over 3 stages.
STAGE 1: Hey, who’s that?
This is the when the ‘muggee’ becomes aware that there is a figure who may or may not be BAD NEWS. We look outwards – into the shadows and the dark – and make out a human form. Our step quickens. Our adrenaline begins to flow. This is our survival instinct kicking in. We’ve registered a perceived threat, and our body responds in turn.
STAGE 2: Uh Oh. They’re moving towards me.
Even if you haven’t ‘realized’ it yet, you know you’re about to get mugged. Maybe stage one was just a blank in the chamber. Maybe it’s just somebody having a smoke. Maybe it’s just a fellow late-night loiterer.
Well, now this shadowy figure is headed your way. There’s no longer any doubt in your mind. You break into an awkward speedwalk – can’t let them know you’re onto them, you think. Running would be a better option, but – for some reason – none ever try it. We just power walk like we’re a couple of suburban moms, performing some low-effort exercise.
STAGE 3: Oh Fuck Oh Fuck. They’re here.
Well. You’re deep in the paint now, aintcha? The figure is feet – maybe inches – away, and they’ve begun to get physical. It’s never pleasant when another human being violates your physical space. It’s even less pleasant when they’re holding a knife. That’s what happened to me one night several years ago. I was But A Babe – a sweet sixteen. I was stumbling home from a party (Hey Guys, this is Tom Loughney – former alcoholic – telling you to be really careful if you choose to drink at a young age, because it will have real consequences on your adult life), when I passed by a Giant Food grocery store by my home. The hour was late, or – rather – early, depending on your point of view. Around 3:00 AM to be exact. I went through these exact stages.
‘Hey, who’s that guy? Hey, who’s that guy walking towards me? Hey, oh fuck oh fuck who’s that guy that’s right behind me?’
And then I got grabbed. One hand clutched my left forearm, the other holding a knife. DC has a relatively large homeless population, which is – by and large – comprised of perfectly nice human beings. Some are out of work because they’re down on their luck. Some have untreated medical problems. To this day, I don’t know who I got mugged by, but I suspect he suffered from a combination of the two. He had a weak voice, and a weaker grip – the traits of a man pushed to desperation. He shouted at me,
“Give me the money! Give the money that you have!”
Being the dumbest sixteen-year-old you could possibly imagine, I didn’t hand over ‘the money.’ Instead, I chose to punch this man in the throat, slip out of his grasp, and run. He was slippery with natural oils, it wasn’t that hard. I was also a former cross country runner, and had better endurance. I got away.
By the way, don’t do what I did. What I did was heckin’ stupid. It’s nothing short of a miracle that I’m here today to recant this story to you.
No Man’s Sky features a very similar progression. But it doesn’t take place on the ground – no. In No Man’s Sky, you get to get mugged in the vast expanse of space.
On land, the process can end at step one. Oh, my mistake, you may think. Not so in the infinite black.
STAGE 1: Hostile Sub-Space Scan Detected. Hostile Sub-Space Scan Has Detected Precious Cargo
Oh shit. Well, we all know what this means.
There’s an old Far Side comic strip (that I was unable to find) that depicts the following:
A man in a rough neighborhood – surrounded by shady characters. His wife calls to him from yonder window:
“Harold! I got it wrong! Put the $500 – in cash – into the checking account!”
STAGE 2: Hostile Ships Approaching
When I see this warning pop up on screen, I can’t help but think of this comic. When I got mugged, I had $15 dollars to my name – and I ran. I would do a lot more for the amount of gold I’ve lost to those damn space pirates. This is the stage where you panic, and pray that your propulsion upgrades will get you to the space station on time. Just three more seconds! You think.
3……. 2…….. 1……. Aaaaaand…….
STAGE 3: Hostile Ships Have Arrived
In this moment, I feel a very similar terror to the one I felt in the grasp of that oily, sore-covered mugger. But No Man’s Sky doesn’t let me run. Instead, it’s fight or die.
In this way, No Man’s Sky heightens the emotional outcome of these Space Muggings. To be perfectly honest, $15 is worth a lot less than five-and-a-half hours of my life. I’d be willing to part with fifteen bucks (though, to be fair, I come from a background where that’s not a devastating fiscal loss). But take hours of my time? HERESY.
Maybe that’s just me.
Really, the only option is to fight. You fight – not just for your resources – but your very life-minutes. It’s empowering, actually. It turns the complexity of a mugging into a binary of survival/death. And that’s not much of a choice, is it? Which is why righteously slaughtering these desperate beings feels good. We don’t have to deal with the possibility of a different perspective – we merely act on human instinct in a synthetic world. One of the ideological safeties of video games, I suppose. Also, repelling an unprovoked ‘invading force’ always helps me get my kicks.
Getting mugged is fucking awful. It’s a process that involves several stages of disempowerment. But that’s where No Man’s Sky finds some of its strength. It preserves all those stages – those complexities – of disempowerment, but it condenses the empowerment into one simple choice: Fight.
When that man grabbed my arm, I had a million options, and every single one was awful. I picked one of the worst. When No Man’s Sky removes alternative options – running or paying up – it increases the value of the player’s remaining avenue of response. When successfully repelling an enemy attack is our only avenue for success, it becomes far more satisfying than any real-life solution to muggings.
It’s a bit narrow for my taste. I think good games are built around multiple options. But it’s still satisfying. I feel worse losing resources in NMS than I do in real life. I feel better protecting them as well. It’s not perfect, but it’s…
It’s feeling. And that’s what I come to games for.
No Man’s Sky isn’t what we all thought it would be, but it’s pretty close. It’s a product, but it’s also a piece. It’s art. It makes me feel.
I hope it makes you feel too.
 Hey y’all. It’s your boy, Tom Loughney, here to tell you that I know this probably isn’t the exact text. I can’t remember what it is verbatim, and I have no interest in flying around trying to provoke another attack. Sorry. You got the point though, I’m sure.