What’s in a Name? Everything.

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  • Back in April I wrote about “xeno-colonialism” and what it means to “boldly go to the stars and plant one’s flag there.” Back then I hadn’t even considered how these things might play out in No Man’s Sky. Instead, I was worried about a franchise I love bathing itself in rhetoric I find reprehensible. Now, I’m worried that we’re all overlooking two crucial things at play in No Man’s Sky, naming and gaze.

    In 1917 the US government officially named the highest mountain in North America Mount McKinley, legitimizing an unofficial name established in 1896. Except that the mountain already had a name, in fact in had had several. Before 1896 it was Densmore’s Mountain, before 1889 the Russians called it Bolshaya Gore. And before that it was Tenada by way of a German working for the Russians. But long before any Europeans had even laid eyes on the mountain it was known to the native Koyukon people as “Deenaalee” which lead to its current name, Denali.

    In No Man’s Sky there really isn’t anything that hasn’t been discovered or previously tread upon. Each planet is dotted with the remains of civilizations long gone and the outposts of civilizations. But landing upon these planets the game lets you know that you have “discovered” it, as if for the first time. Then it lets you name it and upload that name to The Atlas, what I imagine is No Man’s Sky’s version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

    Just like with Denali, at the heart of No Man’s Sky is the ability to stop and rename something according to your whims. Even worse, there are occupied, operational space stations hovering above each of these planets. The planets are obviously not only discovered but are currently under observation. How do any of the species which running these stations feel about the fact I just named their whole solar system Wolf-359?

    Sure, the names are not consequential to the game, but they are evidence of the casualness of colonialism, of the power that has come be known as “post-colonial gaze.” I renamed dozens of things before even stopping to think about it. In fact, because the game offers so few opportunities for the player to contextualize and understand themselves they are only ever able to do so through the acts of discovering already discovered planets and pillaging their resources.

    By othering the Gek, Korvax, and Vy’keen, the game allows and encourages players to create a subject-object relationship with their universe. You see it, you covet it, you make it yours. Instead of existing within an ecosystem and discovering one’s place in it the universe is yours to gallivant across in search of a literal center or to just get rich off of.

    So sure, the skies themselves in No Man’s Sky belong to no man, but the planets, rocks, flora, fauna and even systems certainly can.

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