[thought piece] No Man’s Sky, Puddleglum, and Our Existential Need for Narrative

Vox, believe it or not, made a pretty good point about No Man’s Sky in its article, No Man’s Sky is an existential crisis simulator disguised as a space exploration game:


Okay, so the universe in No Man’s Sky is really, really big. But what, exactly, do you do in it? […] Even when the game finally became available, that uncertainty lingered. On the day it hit stores, creator Sean Murray published a defensive-seeming blog post with the question — “What do you do in No Man’s Sky?”as the title. The honest answer is, “Not much.”

Suderman, Vox

However, Suderman also goes on to say:

And yet — aren’t most video games ultimately pointless? They send you out to complete virtual tasks in a virtual world, to repetitively collect items and combat imaginary opponents, to solve puzzles or manage systems that have no bearing on the real world. They are all just elegant time wasters, designed to distract you from the real world, to let you pretend, for a moment, that it is not messy and frustrating with no certain payoff, but clear and contained and knowable, with a reward guaranteed at the end.

The difference is that No Man’s Sky does not attempt to disguise its nature. Instead, by refusing to provide you with a purpose, it forces you to reconcile with the essential emptiness of its universe, with the pointlessness of a game whose only reward is the opportunity to continue playing the game. It is cold and lonely and empty and unsatisfying — and that may be the point. It is an existential crisis simulator, an infinite, interactive reflection on mortal ennui.

[bolded by me] Suderman, Vox

Suderman of Vox quotes and aligns himself with Musk’s very materialistic view of the universe, but I would argue that the players’ criticism regarding ‘lack of content’, another term for ‘lack of story’, is telling, especially when considering other games that are coming under flak for similar reasons (YongYea’s video on the lack of story for solo players in Fallout 76).

What is this need for narrative? Why are quest lines and plot so important for games and novels? Perhaps this need within people for narrative shows an existential need for meaning and mythology within their life on either a conscious or subconscious levels.

Campbell, The Masks of God

In his seminal work, Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell wrote:

A fascinating psychological, as well as historical, problem is thus presented. Man, apparently, cannot maintain himself in the universe without belief in some arrangement of the general inheritance of myth. In fact, the fullness of his life would even seem to stand in a direct ratio to the depth and range of his rational thought but of his local mythology. […] For it is a fact that the myths of our several cultures work upon us, whether consciously or unconsciously, as energy-releasing, life-motivating and -directing agents; so that even though our rational minds may be in agreement, the myths by which we are living – or by which our fathers lived – can be driving us, at that very moment, diametrically apart.

Primitive Mythology, p 4

In short, Campbell suggests that mythology not only addresses our issues and concerns about aspects of life but in the process of creation lends meaning to life – and mythology, Campbell argues, is tied close to spirituality, faith, and religion. Belief, and the awareness of meaning in life, lends to a happier life, for some reason. It certainly improves video game play.

Lord of the Rings: Two Towers – the Seige at the Hornburg is broken

Kenneth Davis, in his book Don’t Know Much About Mythology, links faith and religion to the “consumption” (or interaction) with (modern) mythologies. Recounting his experiences watching Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in theatre, Davis recalls how the rowdy crowd quieted as soon as the film start and sat spellbound until the end (3). He notes:

Chances are, a good many people in that audience were not church-goers, and sitting in this darkened theater may have been as close to some form of collective spiritual encounter as any they might have ever have experienced. And I thought further that this experience probably connected this twenty-first-century collection of strangers back to something much deeper, the act of sitting around a campfire three thousand years ago as someone recounted timeless exploits of heroes and monsters, Good versus Evil.

Don’t Know Much About Mythology, p.3-4

He also suggests that myth has somehow been separated in definition from being a kind of discourse about an absolute truth about humanity, life, or the cosmos, to being more popularly known as superstition, basically untruth (25).

Davis defines myth from a variety of viewpoints (24-25):

  • American Heritage: “a traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the world view of a people, as explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society”
  • “explaining aspects of the world” – the purview of mythology, science, and religion
  • “existed to convey essential truths”
  • comparable to “gospels”
  • Leeming: “a myth is a… projection of a… group’s sense of its sacred past and its significant relationship with the deeper powers of the surrounding world and universe. A myth is a projection of… a culture’s soul.”
  • Coomaraswamy: “Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be expressed in words.”
  • “myths are about what makes us tick”

With these definitions in mind, we can see how – whether they are great literature or not – some modern tales have become mythologies, or have taken on mythological qualities by borrowing from or grounding themselves within not only the public conscious but also within older tales or unconscious trends:

Star Wars: A New Hope – Luke staring into the binary sunset
  • Star Wars
    • Based on a variety of mythological tropes, Star Wars has become a cultural product that has challenged modern people about spirituality, heroism, and destiny.
  • Lord of the Rings
    • Also based on a variety of northern myths, Lord of the Rings has become a British export to North America, embedding itself (and the movies as well) into the public unconscious, drawing on similar themes as Star Wars.
  • The X-Files
    • Very much a modern myth, like The Matrix, The X-Files asks questions about and addresses the anxieties of the modern individual, particularly about spirituality, the unknown, the cosmos, aliens, progress, and technology.
  • Marvel & DC comics/cinematic universes
    • Loosely based on the classical humanist ideals, Judeo-Christian mythology, and other sources, superhero narratives, addressed and appeased the need for updated narratives surrounding heroism, destiny, personal and social responsibility, as well as good vs evil.
  • The Simpsons
    • Like folktales, The Simpsons draws on the everyday concerns of the modern and postmodern individual, mythologizing the customs and behaviors of American society as it revolves around the local community and the family.

These examples, though carrying modern sensibilities surrounding psychological truth and progressive characterization (to varying degrees), are more focused on answering ‘big’ or ‘pressing’ questions. Other novels and tales, such as Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, have the potential to form mythological significance; but time will tell. Often stories with higher psychological complexities or more culturally contextualized commentary are less likely to maintain long-term significance as they reach their “due date”, so to speak. As memories fade regarding events or current issues, the significance of the stories may also fade.

Thor (MCU) – Thor, Loki, and Odin

There is some overlap of course. I do believe that not all superhero films or tales may last the test of time. Some may fail to mythologize entirely. Yet, I would argue that mythology is not dead, but continues on in many shapes and forms. In some cases, like the Norse myths, they are reborn in new shapes (the Thor and Loki of the MCU).

Why is this important?

Darwin’s theory, referred to as a “psychic wound” by my sci-fi prof, became part of a movement to displace faith with science, leading faith into a supposed space of redundancy. This led to movement sometimes called scientific materialism, which reduced all of life to scientifically explainable phenomena. Also known as scientism, this position suggests that the human experience is the result of the machine of the cosmos, potentially without real consciousness or metaphysical meaning. Alex Tsakiris, whose book I reviewed, discusses this on his website, Skeptico, in a variety of articles.

In a recent article, Tsakiris interviewed Dr. Bernardo Kastrup. Kastrup explains the impact of scientific materialism on scientific inquiry, academia, and life in general:


Consciousness is the only carrier of reality and existence that we can know. Everything else is abstraction; [they] are inferences we make from consciousness. But our culture is driven by this notion that the real reality is outside consciousness. It’s a material universe fundamentally independent of consciousness, and that our inner lives, our subjective experiences arise from specific arrangements of material in this abstract world outside mind. That’s the philosophy of materialism that underlies most academic work and underlies most of science as you know it today. But it also underlies the value system of our culture, our economic system…For instance, if matter is the only real reality, consciousness being just a transient, temporary side effect, then what meaning can there be to life but to accumulate material goods? That feeds right into the economic system and feeds right into loops of reinforcement of existing power structures. So this metaphysical view of the world entailed by the philosophy of materialism determines not only what happens in academia, and what your kids learn in school, but largely determines everything: The culture around your relationships at work; the way we deal with the environment; the meaning of our lives or at least how we see the meaning of our lives; how we spend our time; how we spend our money; how we see our relationships; and who we maintain in power.

Kastrup, skeptico.com

With the idea that human experience is the result of the machine of the cosmos, that existence is without metaphysical meaning, and that our very consciousness and emotions are simply the mechanics of the universe – chemicals firing in our brain – comes the additional recognition that the creation and belief in any kind of metanarrative is nothing more than the mechanic movements of humankind. In this space, the word ‘myth’ moved from being something linked to truth or reality to being nothing more than superstition.

Joseph Campbell and others would argue that mythology can still be respected within the paradigm of evolution and scientism, yet more often than not, the atheistic reflex of removing God from the important spheres of life also affected the status of mythology in culture as well since mythology, to a certain extent, requires belief.

However, scientism cannot win the day entirely, as people, playing games like No Man’s Sky, recognize subconsciously the need for narrative. There must be a reason to go from planet to planet, harvesting resources for one’s protection and one’s ship. There must be a reason to build a base, explore a planet, and catalogue species. There must be a sense of something greater to give meaning to the hum-drum mechanical routine of life. This micro-realization within a secondary world (a video game or book) has the capacity to make us stop and apply this to the macro – to our lives.

The Silver Chair – Puddleglum

For as Puddleglum said in response to the Lady of the Green Kirtle, in C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair:

One word, Ma’am. […] One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. […] We’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.

The Silver Chair, p.144-145

Puddleglum’s embrace of mythology as a link to faith and meaning, I believe, is a wonderful reminder that our desires to seek, as Davis noted above, meaning, mythology, and a quest are natural and should not be hidden or forgotten. Neither should it be reduced to materialist or political conclusions as the proponents of scientism and cultural Marxism would have it.

These stories are the maps of our ancestors’ navigation of a metaphysical reality that scientism would have us forget. It is time for us to carry forward the old and create the new as we continue conversations about faith and spirituality, creating and perpetuating mythologies for our tomorrow.

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