And gazing on thee, sullen tree,
Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.
--Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H.
I'm standing in vacuum atop a dead ravine, idly counting the delicate protrusions of ice that run along the opposite slope. This tiny world surrendered the last of its formative heat to the void eons ago, and the rocks that surround me have not shifted an inch in a billion years. The rapidity of my pulse seems a rude disruption of this most solemn and still of tombs.
But just a few minutes prior, I waded into azure pools beneath a cinnamon sky, while twin stars jostled for attention overhead. And before that, I jet-packed across teeming valleys, watching from high above as birds flitted among trees of crystal. And when I started playing Noctis IV about thirty minutes ago, the first world I set upon was racked by earthquakes and seas of lava, and a hostile atmosphere of pressurized acid sought entry through the joints of my space suit. Taken as a conglomerate, these myriad and disparate worlds are enough to make Rutger Hauer cry all over again; to make Keir Dullea turn away in astonishment and head for home.
Noctis IV is a freeware space simulator created by Alessandro (Alex) Ghignola. Noctis' first iteration appeared in 1996, but Alex's release of the game's source code in 2003 has fueled a growing player base and an active mod community. Noctis shares little in common with most games, as there is almost no story of which to speak; no enemies, no levels and no end in sight. The player's sole goal is to explore a galaxy of some 70 billion star systems, each with its own array of planets and moons. Noctis is a convincing and evocative mirror of a true-to-science galaxy and an ambitious distillation of our reality into an executable less than one megabyte in size. It is empirical enterprise given artistic form in a way that only the interactive medium of games can accommodate.
Each of Noctis' worlds is geographically unique. They run the gamut from verdant paradises to blasted wastelands and range in size from gas giants to mere hunks of rock. Noctis exhibits a lifetime's variety of terrain, and even a single planet's conditions can differ drastically, depending on latitude. The only thing that all of Noctis' variegated worlds have in common is an overwhelming and pervasive sense of loneliness. In this game, there are no living cities or societies to be found; no friends to embrace, nor foes to thwart; no messages to receive or send; no voices to contrast with the endless vacuum.
There is an air of tragedy about Noctis - even (and especially) on the worlds with no atmosphere. There is something inexpressibly sad about an entire planet bereft of life, and in Noctis, even those planets that seethe with life lack the all-important characteristic of sentience. As I peer upon world after world from the narrow confines of my helmet, my natural excitement at gazing upon features that nobody has ever seen before is always muted by the knowledge that nobody ever will see them, except for me. Even considering all the other Noctis players out there, there is only a miniscule chance that any of them will ever stumble upon the same lonely corners of the universe as I. How wasteful it seems that so much should exist, and yet so precious few to experience it! What good is nigh-endless variety if there is nobody to catalogue it? What good is beauty if no one is around to appreciate it? The very concepts of "variety" and "beauty" are inextricably bound to the concept of the perceptive mind; in the absence of the latter, the former cannot persist.
Noctis, therefore, presents certain paradoxes. It is beautiful from the player's perspective, but ultimately hollow from the player-character's. Its worlds speak to the permanence of matter, but its sole sentient being is characterized by transience. To play Noctis is to be torn in every direction in a desperate attempt to reconcile these profound contrarieties.