No Man's Sky is a Captain Cook simulator
In June 1768, Lieutenant James Cook unsealed his secret orders. It was a slim letter with the Admiralty seal, given to him on instructions that it remain unopened until he’d completed his mission to anchor in Tahiti and observe the transit of Venus across the sun. He was to sail south. Rumors of a vast southern continent -- Terra Australis -- ran rampant among geographical circles. Cook was to find this unseen land, chart it, catalogue its wildlife, and make contact with its inhabitants. Terra Australis turned out to be a drawing-room fantasy, but in that Pacific voyage -- the first of three -- Cook really would visit lands no European had seen, catalogue exotic species, and encounter cultures vastly different from his own.
It’s this story I always come back to while playing No Man’s Sky: Cook and his crew, striking off into the unknown and reporting back to England. While Cook’s voyages began as an effort to discover, they quickly morphed into an effort to observe -- which is the primary action of No Man’s Sky. While most space games are about conquest and colonization, Hello Games has given us a game where the player primarily discovers, witnesses, and attempts to catalogue the galaxy. Meeting aliens never devolves to outright warfare, but instead becomes a process of learning enough of their language to trade and resupply -- and when things go wrong, it’s through misunderstanding rather than malice.
Captain’s Log: Cook’s Influence on Sci-Fi
Within the span of a decade, Cook made three of the most significant voyages in European navigational history, filling in a third of the globe. He’d cured scurvy by forcing his men to eat vitamin C-rich sauerkraut, and published accounts of his travels that served as some of the earliest examples of ethnography. But his violent death during his third voyage made him a legend, allowing writers to shape him into an ideal of the romantic scientist-explorer. While the real Cook was cracking under pressure during his final voyage, the symbolic Cook went on to influence our very image of explorers.
The most direct cultural descendant was his TV name-alike, Captain James Kirk. The similarity is no accident. While developing Star Trek, Roddenberry envisioned Kirk as a sort of spacefaring Cook. Apart from the name, Roddenberry also used the idea of the captain’s log and adapted the show’s motto -- To boldly go where no man has gone before -- from a quote in Cook’s journal. The Prime Directive also shows influence from Cook, who tried to avoid entangling himself in local disputes, and Kirk’s tomcatting with alien women recalls the famous sexual exploits of Cook’s crew in Tahiti (which Cook personally avoided). Even if Hello Games didn’t have an office one hour’s drive from Her Majesty’s Naval Base Portsmouth, there would be plenty of Cook influence in No Man’s Sky just from the transitive property of Star Trek -- and it shows.
Scientific Glimpses of Another World
Players in No Man’s Sky are, at heart, naturalists. They spend hours chasing strange animals and cataloguing odd plants, then uploading discoveries to the mainframe. It’s a type of scientific exploration that was not only favored -- but essentially created -- by Cook.
Cook’s first voyage was a cartographic expedition rather than a scientific one. Cook had no formal education. His mission was to find the Empire new lands and trade routes, not push the bounds of human understanding. In fact, the expedition wouldn’t have had a scientific contingent at all were it not for Joseph Banks, a nature-obsessed aristocrat who paid £10,000 to fund a natural history team aboard Cook’s ship Endeavour.
Banks hit the jackpot when the Endeavour anchored on the east coast of Australia, an area so rich in specimens Cook named it Botany Bay. Australian flora and fauna caused a sensation when the expedition returned to Britain. Animals like the kangaroo and platypus seemed as bizarre and unlikely to 18th century Europeans as anything players come across in No Man’s Sky. The discovery upended mammalian taxonomy in the west.
The information Banks collected proved so popular Cook would take scientists and artists on all his subsequent voyages. When Cook pressed into the Antarctic on his second voyage -- to try and sail as far south as possible -- they brought back unearthly drawings of a frozen landscape, with huge icebergs towering over their ship. On his third voyage, Cook’s artists drew the longhouses of the First Nations people in Yuquot, Canada, the mountains of Prince William Sound, and the geography and society of the Hawaiian Islands. At times, they even collected ethnographic artifacts from the places they visited (Gek Charm, anyone?) that would later end up in museums.
To the British public, these were alien worlds as strange and unexpected as anything from No Man’s Sky. And just like players do in the game, Cook’s crew immediately set about documenting, cataloguing, putting names to, and sharing images of what they’d seen. The lasting goal in No Man’s Sky isn’t to get to the center of the galaxy -- much like Cook’s legacy wasn’t finding Terra Australis or the Northwest Passage -- but in seeing things no other person has seen, and reporting back. The central mechanic in No Man’s Sky ultimately lies in entering the unknown, then bringing that unique experience to others.
Breakdowns and Missed Opportunities
But when the player lands on a new world, cataloguing species isn’t their only object -- they have to refit and resupply, while constantly worrying that the biggest discovery lies beyond the horizon.
Refits were a familiar seafaring problem in Cook’s age. Ships could only carry so much food and water, and certain components (such as the mast) were too massive to carry spares onboard. When something gave out, there was no choice but to limp to the first available land, beach the vessel, and search for materials to make repairs. These onshore stints could prove costly. On Cook’s second voyage, a party of ten men sent to gather greens in New Zealand died after (what was likely) a quarrel with the Maori. Even when relations were friendly, contact with indigenous populations frequently put a strain on trade goods, spurred desertion, and caused crews to turn to theft (once sailors realized they could trade iron nails for sex with Tahitian women, they’d literally start prying the ship apart).
However dangerous, refits and resupply had to be done if the voyage was to continue -- and that’s a key point. Like Cook, players in No Man’s Sky aren’t putting down roots and building colonies, they’re extracting enough resources to continue their journey. It’s still exploitation, but exploitation with limitations.
And sometimes those annoying breakdowns lead to serendipitous discoveries. If I hadn’t foolishly sold my first ship with a full hyperdrive, I wouldn’t have had to scour my beginning system looking for antimatter -- and finding any number of weird animals instead. Likewise, had Cook not slammed the Endeavour into the Great Barrier Reef (in his defense, the chart was literally blank), his men wouldn’t have sighted a kangaroo when they went ashore for repairs.
But along with the lucky sightings come the missed opportunities. Cook circumnavigated Antarctica, but the sea ice proved too thick for him to find the continent. He missed Sydney Harbor -- one of the great ports of Oceana. He couldn’t find Bouvet Island and never saw the most interesting features of Hawaii. And that’s the tantalizing, anxiety-inducing feeling I get from No Man’s Sky. Whenever I take off from a planet, I have a tendency to circle in case I’ve missed something. It’s maddening to think there could be an alien ruin or new species sitting just beyond the horizon.
But that’s the nature of Cook-style exploration. You’re always on your way somewhere else. You arrive, collect what you need, collect samples of local wildlife, and go. Players have neither the resources nor the impetus to settle or double back. You’re just here to discover.
Or rather, “discover,” since there are already sentient alien colonists on every planet -- but that’s probably the game’s deftest trick.
Mistranslation and Misunderstanding
In the beginning of his career, Cook went out of his way not to pick fights. When a party of Maori warriors confronted him in New Zealand, Cook lost control of the situation and killed a man. Cook felt so bad about the incident, he left a Royal Marine’s cloak draped across the body in a gesture of apology. For the rest of the voyage, he tried to adjust to local customs and avoid conflict. He took Tahitian navigators aboard to lend their knowledge of the region, and serve as translators. He learned a bit of Tahitian. Stepping into cultures he didn’t understand, he realized, opened a potential for violent misunderstanding.
But by the third voyage, he was a different man. Whether from disease, depression, or the strain of a decade in constant command, Cook’s whole manner changed. He was unfair to his men and cruel to islanders, cutting off ears and burning a village when they stole from the ship -- a problem he used to solve through diplomacy. The James Cook that Hawaiians met was a far less understanding man than the humanist figure we remember -- and that lack of understanding killed him.
On Cook’s second visit to the islands, he went ashore to kidnap Kalaniʻōpuʻu, the ruling chief of the island of Hawaii, planning to hold him hostage until the villagers returned a stolen life boat. It was a massive miscalculation. The first time Cook anchored at Hawaii island -- mere days before -- it was during the harvest festival of Makahiki, when conflict was forbidden. His second visit coincided with the season for war, and the Hawaiians could act in a less restrained manner. Cook was not a good enough linguist, or listener, to understand the difference.
Hawaiian warriors began to surround the shore party. When the British opened fire, the warriors attacked, killing Cook and four of his Marines. The Hawaiians gave Cook chiefly funeral rights, which the crew, watching through a spyglass, misinterpreted as cannibalism.
No Man’s Sky takes the danger and uncertainty in cultural misunderstanding and makes it a major part of the game.
Despite the hype surrounding its procedurally generated worlds, I’d argue that No Man’s Sky shines in its language system. Like early explorers, the player has to learn alien languages word-by-word, turning NPC trading posts into linguistic guessing games based on body language and one or two translated phrases. This conceit can be especially difficult with ancient monoliths, since it means both language-guessing and understanding a foreign religious system. A pleading being trapped inside a monolith might be a sacrificial victim, or it could be a demon trying to break free. In contrast, following the instructions on a particularly evil monolith might make the player lose standing with modern aliens, whose culture no longer practices the bloody rituals they did in antiquity. Monoliths are a multi-layered cultural puzzle, and guessing wrong means sustaining damage.
And that’s not the only time cultural confusion breaks into violence. The Sentinels patrolling colonial outposts can’t read the player’s intentions, and go on alert at the slightest provocation. I could be blasting open a facility door to stop a core meltdown, and they’ll attack me as if I’m there to ransack the place. (Full disclosure: I am.) There’s no way to bridge that cultural gap, even if you want to.
In the world of No Man’s Sky, misunderstandings lead to violence and reputation loss, both of which lower the player’s chance of survival. It’s a risk-averse game system that encourages the player to deal squarely with the sentient life forms that colonized these worlds before the player arrived, and think carefully about their responses.
No Man’s Sky can pull that off because it’s an exploration game -- the unseen stage that happens before a colonization game begins. Cook could afford to be humane and take only what he needed because he was the first wave, a guy who operated under his own direction and charted new lands. But once those dots were on the map, others came too. Cook’s account of wildlife in the southern hemisphere drew whalers and seal hunters into the Antarctic. Naval vessels, and eventually missionaries, came to Hawaii. British penal colonies popped up in Australia barely a decade after Cook landed there. Diseases -- including syphilis -- ate away at the indigenous population wherever he landed, even though he tried to prevent it. This was not an unintended consequence, but the logical next step in the process.
No Man’s Sky is a beautiful game about exploration and discovery, but its sequel looks more like Starcraft.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp