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The Virtual Life – Long-Distance Relationships And Reaching Across The Void In No Man’s Sky

by Javy Gwaltney on Aug 24, 2016 at 10:00 AM

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Have you ever been in love with someone far away? It’s a strange experience. I would like to tell you about it. Well, I’d like to try and tell you about it but sometimes the words fail.

We’ll make a go of it anyway.

If it’s a day where I’m feeling numbers-oriented, I would discuss how it’s best to order airline tickets early to save money even if that means spending a few hours in another airport while you wait for a connecting flight. I would explain the clock stashed somewhere in the back of the mindspace that’s always ticking loudly, always making me aware of just how long it is until I see my partner again.

If, for some reason, I'm feeling lyrical, I would probably talk about the anxieties and doubts that descend on the mind in the evening. I would tell you about longing that doesn’t go away — that exists most of the time as a dull ache but also has a hair-trigger habit of bursting forth as a sharp pain.

However, most days go like this: me idling somewhere between those two extremes, sitting at my desk, drinking copious amounts of coffee. I write words about video games. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re rotten. Sometimes I lean back in my chair and I think of faraway places. I think of being with Laura, who lives on the west coast. I fantasize about mundane things, like walking down sidewalks next to each other, like reading books together or eating takeout on the same couch while watching bad movies. These are the things I want every day. They are often literally beyond my reach.

I’d like to think the point of this column, The Virtual Life, is this: video games are magic. Video games –like movies, books, and other artistic mediums – have the power to leave lasting impressions, shape our culture, and make a difference in our day-to-day lives in both a practical and emotional sense. Even video games we might not even like.

No Man’s Sky is a game I do not care for that much. As an objective-driven experience, it does not have enough to do to make it an enthralling time. As the “niche” and “very very chill game” that developer Hello Games asserts No Man’s Sky is, there are too many obstacles preventing players from taking advantage of the supposed relaxing experience that’s there from the get-go. The game's flaws are deep and irksome enough that I bounce off it pretty hard after about half an hour. That said, I’m still thankful No Man’s Sky exists. Not just because I appreciate divisive games for challenging the medium. My reasons are more selfish than that.

Laura is writing about No Man’s Sky too. She has an idea. Per usual, it’s a good one: we’ll get on Skype and both play our copies of No Man’s Sky at the same time, so we can spend time together while she gets some work done. It ends up being a pretty simple set up. We place our laptops next to us, load up Skype, and aim our respective web cameras toward ourselves before we start playing our PS4s.

She’s starting a new game. I’m a few hours ahead, zooming around the galaxy while she’s hunting supplies to fix her ship on the planet she’s stranded on. Laura pulls out her small notebook and waves it at me before she starts playing for real.

“Somebody’s ready,” I say. “Very profesh over there.”

“Mm-hmm,” she replies.

Soon we settle into the rhythm we’ve established when we’re playing games, particularly single-player titles, on the couch or online together: mostly contented quietness with occasional bouts of commentary or questions. However, No Man’s Sky proves to be a slightly different experience due to its procedural generation and enigmatic systems, which result in both of us learning different lessons and secrets in the game at different times. Initially, there’s more of a back and forth between the two of us. Laura learns early on about a recipe for Suspension Fluid, a device necessary to create batteries to fuel your warp drive. Until then I thought you just had to buy it from merchants and terminals, so it’s valuable information for me. I give her small advice from time to time to help her speed past the worst of the opening hour of cryptic-for-the-sake-of-being-cryptic nonsense.

“Have you found the sprint button yet?”

“There’s a sprint button?”

“Oh yeah, are you ready for this? It’s mapped to R3…and you cannot unmap it.”

A moment passes. Laura clicks the button. I see her raise an eyebrow, a hint of a smile.

“Well,” she says dryly, “that’s certainly a design decision someone made.”

Ultimately this isn’t cooperative play in the typical sense. We’re not actively engaging the same obstacle and trying to overcome it, or discussing the best upgrades to take on a boss in Lovers In A Dangerous Space, or mapping out where we need to place portals to solve a puzzle in Portal 2’s co-cop campaign. However, we’re still playing what is essentially the same game in real time and sharing our experiences. I’m mining valuable resources, saving up cash for ship upgrades and helping aliens solve their online dating problems (no, really) while she’s zooming from planet to planet, giving them cat-oriented names like KittenTown, USA. This is a very Laura thing to do.

There is of course a personal context that’s hard to ignore here. I am playing a game about exploring the void of space, alongside someone I care about very much whom I don’t see as often as I want to. I cannot see her in my game. As far as we know, we cannot land on the same planet and categorize flora or explore jagged caves. We are galaxies apart. But I can hear her voice through my earbuds, telling me about this wacky mushroom creature she just found. I can turn to the computer at my side to see her smiling in mild amusement at a discovery or grimacing as annoying robots zap her character. This is… surprisingly comforting. No Man’s Sky paradoxically works not just as something that draws attention to just how far away I am from her, but also to create a powerful illusion that we inhabit the same space. It’s a nice rare sensation. I am calm. I feel the best I have in weeks. I push back a theater showing my roommate and I were supposed to go to until later in the evening. I refill my coffee. I zoom from planet to planet, aimlessly wandering, listening to Laura make audible notes to herself.

I don’t want these moments to end. I want to cling to them, but I can’t. Time marches on, steadily and cruelly picking up speed, just as it does when we’re actually together. She has words to write and so do I. When the moment comes I’m sad but I can’t complain. The two of us spent five hours roaming galaxies together; most days we chat an hour or two at most so I shouldn’t allow myself to be greedy.

We make plans to talk about an upcoming vacation we’re taking together. We say goodbye. Skype makes an obnoxious sound when it disconnects us. Suddenly, I am alone in my living room. I was alone the entire time but I’m feeling it now, that familiar pressure between my lungs and behind my eyes. I sit, I wait.

The moment passes and I can be functional once more. I can write words again. I can tell you about how great video games are.

I can tell you about how they condemn us, how they celebrate us, and let us find some measure of solace in trying times, like on a regular Saturday afternoon, when the person you love is a thousand miles away and all you have to cope is a video chat screen and a game you don’t even like that much. But maybe, just maybe, that’s more than enough to get by on.

Repeat after me:

Video games are magic.