Bored by RandomnessPosted: October 14, 2016
The PlayStation game No Man’s Sky promised a revolution for its medium before its release two months ago, getting attention from gamers and non-gamers alike for its “procedurally-generated universe” in which a single 64-bit seed number could randomly create 18 quintillion distinct planets via algorithmic logic, each replete with its own weird flora and fauna. The space explorers playing the game would effectively create each planet upon discovery: Arriving somewhere undisovered would spur the procedural generation of a random, new, and hopefully fascinating world. It was going to be a major step toward humans getting out of computers’ way in yet another domain, after giving the machines sufficient instructions to make 18 quintillion of something that other people would actually want.
Not surprisingly, No Man’s Sky was boring. Its beautiful graphics couldn’t overcome the fact that, on one planet randomly selected from the infinite possibilities in the procedurally generated universe, nothing was happening. The variety among these planets was shallow and nominal, the 99.999% virgin territory untouched by any hand that could form it into something interesting. As one reviewer wrote, “There are no grand civilizations sequestered somewhere in this galaxy with Turing Test-passable aliens waiting to wow us with riveting conversation.” The procedural generation process, additionally, means the only parts of the universe that exist are the ones you see—a solipsistic vision of reality that is, again, boring.
Maybe some of the No Man’s Sky planets did end up with compelling advanced civilizations and weird creatures, but they’re too hard to find. Every baseball season has roughly 24,000 games and if you watch a random handful of these you’ll find them boring as well (unless you go to the games and sit in the sun and eat hot dogs and do everything but watch). Each baseball game is somewhere on a bell curve of expected outcomes so a single randomly chosen game probably won’t yield a no-hitter or two grand slams by one player in the same inning.
The randomness of baseball is more interesting than that of No Man’s Sky though, because it’s wrapped in the context of an existing culture and infused with meaning from that culture. There are also other ways to make baseball (slightly) more interesting for yourself: Become a fan of one team whose 162 games will excite you more than the other 2,268. The 70 to 90 games that your team wins will especially excite you, and the ones with lots of home runs even more so. Or you could adopt a different strategy and only watch the postseason, in which every game matters and is inherently nonrandom.
What a procedurally generated planet looks like
What a random universe really needs is editing, in other words. 18 quintillion of something is great for advertising copy but terrible for experience. Some work by other people is still required to make a massive procedurally-generated universe interesting, to put some meaning into it—a map or search mechanism to guide players toward the best parts; a cultural context that imposes meaning on the existing randomness; or a few planets created by human hands. Most games that painstakingly create one world are better than this game with its quintillions of mass-produced worlds.
The 55 snapshots of imaginary cities in Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities are the opposite of the ennui in No Man’s Sky. Each fantastical city that Calvino’s Marco Polo recalls from his world travels, while also invented (and generated by Calvino’s “rules”), is rich with the meaning and magic that No Man’s Sky promised but couldn’t produce. Calvino’s own work—the brilliant imagination that enabled him to craft each city’s description as well as the editing that removed the meaningless noise in between those vignettes—is why his 55 worlds will outlive the 18 quintillion in No Man’s Sky. 55, it turns out, is plenty.