Synecdoche, Universe


No Man's Sky
In the delightfully quirky, postmodern film, Synecdoche, New York, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a movie director obsessed with creating a set that realistically represents New York City for an upcoming movie. But as he tries to incorporate more and more people and bits that represent the city, the set grows and grows into a micro-city itself. As Wikipedia describes it:

The plot follows an ailing theater director (Hoffman) as he works on an increasingly elaborate stage production whose extreme commitment to realism begins to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality. The film’s title is a play on Schenectady, New York, where much of the film is set, and the concept of synecdoche, wherein a part of something represents the whole, or vice versa.

I feel much the same thinking and obsession went into the creation of No Man’s Sky, a sandbox (“action-adventure survival,” plus trading, exploration, fighting, gathering, building, mining, refining, upgrading, flying, meeting aliens, and more) science fiction computer game of enormous size and scope that attempts to cram everything imaginable into one game.  Synecdoche, Universe might be a suitable nickname for this sprawling, all-encompassing game.* Again from Wikipedia:

Players are free to perform within the entirety of a procedurally generated deterministic open world universe, which includes over 18 quintillion planets… nearly all parts of the galaxy, including stars, planets, flora and fauna on these planets, and sentient alien encounters, are created through procedural generation…

Eighteen quintillions? That’s 18,000,000,000,000,000,000. Beyond comprehension. I can’t vouch for anything close to that number, since in about 25 hours of play, I’ve only been to five or six of them in No Man’s Sky (NMS).

My first four game starts (three on similarly difficult planets, one sandbox in a more habitable clime) were all just learning experiences that, after fumbling, failing, and even dying, I deleted having played only a few hours each. My currently-running game has more than half of my game time logged, spent entirely on one planet with a couple of short visits to a nearby orbital space station. Most of my time on this one planet has been running or walking around, exploring. I’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, I’m still poking about on one planet while the rest of the universe awaits.

Found a Lava Planet with blue lava and trees. No oranges yet though… from NoMansSkyTheGame

As my readers know, I still play computer games and have done so ever since I bought my first PC back in 1977 (TRS-80). Back in the 1980s, I wrote columns for several magazines reviewing computer games and even continued to review games among other software for a Canadian newspaper until around a decade ago. My Steam library has more than 100 games in it, plus I have dozens more logged via Epic and Origin, plus many stand-alone games on CD and DVD. I favour simulations (sims), 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate), and strategy games, but I have enjoyed many first-person shooters (FPS), and massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft.

I have been watching and reading about No Man’s Sky with interest ever since its much-hyped release, six years ago. It had many aspects that appealed to me, but the reviews were at best lukewarm. So I waited and watched while the company responded by fixing things and making players happier.

When a major update to NMS was announced this past fall, and the game went on sale on Steam, I bought it. This update showed me the designers had not abandoned the game despite poor reviews (as have other designers done with their games), but were still dedicated to its presence and community.  The most recent update was announced only this month, but it’s not so much a content upgrade as a visual one. Still, it shows the publishers care about a game that, by computer standards, is getting long in the tooth.

Of course, the age of a game isn’t what really matters: it’s whether it remains playable on newer systems and whether aspects like the graphics and controls are still acceptable. I sometimes still play Civ IV, which is 15 years old (admittedly there are better 4X games around these days, however). Some older games have been cleaned up graphically and remain playable today (like 1998’s Grim Fandango, resurrected with better graphics in 2015). but I digress.

From what limited planets I’ve seen, as well as images and discussions online, there is a wide and wild variety of planets to explore, once I leave the safety of my base world. Many are hostile, difficult, and challenging. The first several games I started while learning had planets that were survivable, barely, and far less welcoming than the planet I am on now. Most required I shelter in caves or return to my ship frequently to recover.

Your character doesn’t level up, although he/she/it can gain knowledge, tools, reputation, money, and so on. You can upgrade and expand technologies like your multitool, your base, weapons, and ship, or build new items. With enough resources, you can build massive bases and ships, sort of like you can in Minecraft, except with better (non-voxel) graphics.

Oh, and there is a sandbox mode where you can do everything without having to grind to get money, resources, and so on. I tried it briefly, but at the time I wasn’t really sure what I was doing, so I deleted that file. I might go back and start a new sandbox so I can better understand some of the upgrading and expanding features for my real game.

I’m enjoying NMS, but I have some issues with it. First of all: mapping. There isn’t any, not on a planetary scale. Hyperdrive, blasters, space travel all exist, but not even a simple ground-based map. The head’s-up display (HUD) on screen has a few important items marked, and a tiny compass mark pointing north, but you can’t tag more than one item in the scanner at a time. Very limiting; I’ve found myself walking in circles several times, getting lost in the vegetation. A simple 2D map would be a major improvement and reduce the frustrations of planetary exploration considerably.

Second: What am I doing? There is a quest-driven tutorial of sorts, but it doesn’t really explain why you should do some things. Sure, some of these are obvious (I need to obtain X to make Y which will upgrade Z…) but not all. And there are choices to be made in many locations. Should I get language help or knowledge of the past from a knowledge stone? And why? Should I ask for dialect help from a Gek or practise my language skills? Many of these are one-time opportunities. I can’t ask a Gek for a new word then try pronouncing it back at him. Why not? Why can I get into some parts of a massive shipwreck, but not others? Or can I? If so, how?

Third: inventory space is terribly limited. It’s easy to quickly fill all the inventory spaces in your suit and ship. Then what? What should I discard? What should I sell or trade? Or refine? The information about their uses and values is thin. Worse, there are slots for technology too, but they are equally limited, so you end up installing additional tech in your inventory, using up valuable spaces. And why can’t I remove technology, only move or dismantle it?

Fourth: many dangers are poorly marked. How do you know if a plant or animal is dangerous? Sometimes the scanners note a hostile being, but sometimes you don’t know until you’ve tried something like taking an item from them or shooting at something (one egg produced a killer swarm of nasty creatures that hunted me relentlessly even when I tried to flee, and quickly killed me).

Fifth: expensive. While I’ve only tinkered with trading so far, from what I’ve seen, even minor upgrades are egregiously expensive. I wanted to add cargo space on my ship, but it was way beyond my limited resources, and higher than I could imagine accumulating with the limited space I currently have for collecting saleable items. I’m not sure how the economy works, but it strikes me that accumulating money is a major grind in NMA.

Still, I won’t be discouraged. I plan to continue trekking around the planet until I have the resources to build an “exocraft” maker which will let me build small planetary-travel ships so I can expand my explorations and travel further and faster. And once I’ve done enough, have enough cash on hand, and feel like I really know what I’m doing in this game, I’ll head out to see what else is out there and turn my sights to the stars. Another 18 quintillion more planets — minus one — await me.


Synecdoche is a way to describe something by substituting a word or phrase that represents a larger whole. As the Literary Devices website tells us:

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that refers to a part of something is substituted to stand in for the whole, or vice versa. For example, the phrase “all hands on deck” is a demand for all of the crew to help, yet the word “hands”—just a part of the crew—stands in for the whole crew… Synecdoche can sometimes be described as a form of personification in the cases when it substitutes a human element for a non-human organization, such as referring to a weapon falling into “the wrong hands.” In this case, the human element of “hands” stands in for an opposing group… There are many common expressions that are examples of synecdoche. Here is a list of some of these examples:

    • Boots on the ground—refers to soldiers
    • New wheels—refers to a new car
    • Ask for her hand—refers to asking a woman to marry
    • Suits—can refer to businesspeople
    • Plastic—can refer to credit cards
    • The White House—can refer to statements made by individuals within the United States government

Got that? Synecdoche rhymes with Schenectady, which is where Hoffman’s film set is located, making the title somewhat of a pun, as well.

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