The Poetry of No Man’s Sky

The concept behind the video game No Man’s Sky is reflective of many of the principles outlined in Shelley’s piece A Defense of Poetry. In No Man’s Sky, players engage with a self-generating cosmos ultimately governed by a single, random “numerical seed”: the phone number of one of the programmers. A series of algorithms generate new seeds through mathematical mutations, which determine the characteristics of the game. Ironically, this configuration synthesizes the debate concerning the nature of the universe, uniting the dichotomy of determinism versus randomness. A programmer comments that his immersion in designing the game has transformed his view of nature: “”When I go out in nature, I don’t even see terrain anymore… All I see are mathematical functions and graphs.”

In A Defense of Poetry, Shelley distinguishes the two classes of mental actions: Reason and Imagination. Shelley’s definition of reason – “mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another” – recalls the self-generating quality of the cosmos features in No Man’s Sky. The relations are drawn among the seeds, which can serve to represent thoughts. Alternatively, the notion of imagination – “mind, acting upon those thoughts so as to colour them with its own light” – reflects the role of the designers in providing the foundational polychromatic graphic imagery for these equations. For example, in the article “World Without End,” the writer’s foray into a virtual cave reveals an interior rendered in scintillating blues, greens, purples, and browns.

Shelley posits that poets enact both Reason and Imagination – a dualism that parallels determinism and randomness, respectively. Poets establish poetic structure, setting up the framework for linguistic and conceptual relations, and color and fill this structure with imagery, figurative language, etc, which are arguably random despite their calculation, representing the (cosmic) chaos of creativity. Shelley declares a poem “the very image of life expressed in its internal truth. Altogether, this perspective compels me to regard No Man’s Land as a kind of poetic conception and its programmers as poets, whose virtual rendering of a vast, self-determining galaxy aligns with its indomitable infiniteness and embodies the interplay of Reason and Imagination, of determinism and randomness.

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