Footprints in Moondust

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.

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As art, Noctis is heir to a history of ideas; it participates in and reflects upon a longstanding dialectic concerned with what place humans hold in the world, which has taken shape over centuries of human discourse. In order to understand the game’s full significance, we must provide a context to account for its role in that grand conversation. By placing Noctis within the context of history, we shall expose the role it plays in settling one of the greatest problems philosophy has ever produced. To do this – and since Noctis‘ chief concern is with depicting the real universe in a believable fashion – we need to examine how our views of the universe itself (and our station therein) have changed over time.

Enlightenment, Romanticism and the March of History
Coincident with the emergence of the Enlightenment in 18th-century Europe was an unprecedented explosion in scientific progress. Having built rapidly upon the rudiments of natural philosophy, scientists presented for the first time a testable picture of how the universe functions.

From Isaac Newton to Adam Smith, the trend across every intellectual sphere was to view the universe as a rational, deterministic system, circumscribed by inviolable rules. Humans, being a part of the universe like any other, were given the same treatment as everything else, and were asked to assume their proper role in a world described by reason.

But in the early decades of the 19th century, a vigorous countermovement to the Enlightenment arose, known as Romanticism. Romantics praised the human capacity for direct intuition of the facts of the world and reveled in intuitive – and even mystical – expressions of true ideas through poetry, art and other creative endeavors. They objected that there is no purely deterministic element at the core of human emotion; that there are no rules to govern aesthetic beauty. Beauty is real; love is real; free will is real; and the intellect alone cannot hope to encompass what can only attain truth through intuition. They claimed these unquantifiable realities existed contrary to the Enlightenment paradigm.

By 1830, the battle for the future course of human thought began, with the combatants on both sides straining for all their worth. But neither could achieve any significant advantage over its opponent. In the end, they both fell to a third, outside participant who pulled the mat out from beneath them. And so it was that in 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

The theory of evolution did not originate with Darwin, but what distinguished him from earlier evolutionists, and what cemented his status as among the most important scientists ever to have lived, was his unflagging emphasis on blind chance as the significant motivator for evolutionary change. Although he couldn’t explain how organisms evolved, Darwin noted that when succeeding generations exhibit physical changes, no natural laws determine which changes will propagate through the species, and which will die out. Science in the shadow of Darwin therefore became concerned not with prescribing rigid order to the universe, but rather with observing the intrinsically random behavior of natural systems. There is a principle of spontaneity at work in the universe, and Darwin touched his fingers to its pulse.

Darwin’s insights in the field of biology were soon followed by similar revolutions in the physical sciences. By the close of the 19th century, the illusion that science could present us with an infallible mirror-image of the real world had been thoroughly shattered – and science was stronger for the change. But the courses of science and art are wildly divergent; and whereas modern science must contradict the simple Enlightenment conception of the world, games like Noctis are free to embrace such notions and explore their consequences.

Noctis and Free Will
As people wrestled with Enlightenment and Romanticism, there lurked always beneath the surface a broader philosophical problem: the existence of free will. Are we free to choose our own actions, or are our acts determined in advance by preexisting conditions? Many Enlightenment thinkers were given to the mechanistic view that, in principle, if we knew the position and momentum of every particle in the universe, we could then predict the course of future events, including the behavior of living beings. Romantics, on the other hand, refused to believe that all the complexities of human life could reduce down to determinism, and insisted that the human will is prone to spontaneity in a way that no data could ever predict.

Noctis seems to come down in favor of hard determinism. Its galaxy is one in which planets ceaselessly orbit their parent stars; in which moons and rings revolve about their planets; dumb plants and animals grow and live without ambition; and rocks rest in total vacuum upon the edges of ravines, unmolested since the day of their formation. It is a galaxy very much like our own: vast, beautiful and almost totally devoid of consciousness (and therefore, free will). Aside from the player, Noctis has no sentient life – the only exception being some extremely rare ruins of a forgotten civilization (of which the player is ostensibly the last known survivor). But these ruins are only the remnants of buildings, and through their isolation only drive home the point that the galaxy is now empty of creative spirit.

The most ardent determinist could not have crafted a better exemplum of her theory than Noctis. Even the very worlds of Noctis – all trillion or so of them – are generated, not randomly or by design, but procedurally, in accord with rote mathematical algorithms.

Sentiency, Sanity and the Limits of Belief
The allure of determinism is utterly intoxicating to the human mind. I feel its pull on chill autumn nights as I scan the wide heavens with binoculars and ponder my own insignificance. I can sense the imponderable engine of the universe, pounding away at its own pace. Thought and emotion slip away, and all that’s left of the world are objects in motion and objects at rest. For a time, I exist outside myself. I am Tennyson, gazing at the tree.

Any who have never experienced this mystical mode that I describe, need only play Noctis to feel it arrive in force.

But it will only remain with you for a short time before fading away, leaving you to catch your breath. The thrill of the experience is like that of a rollercoaster: It is enjoyable precisely because it is terrifying, and we who partake of it must first overcome our better judgment otherwise. We harbor deep-set fears of our own mortality, transience and ultimate inconsequentiality, and sharp exposure to Noctis‘ determinism does nothing to assuage them. Indeed, for all the strength and perverse appeal of Noctis‘ universe, we must, in the end, recoil from it even more forcefully and seek desperately to achieve terms of peace with a universe that seems unremittingly inclined to wage war upon human sanity.

Any world that operates without free will, and in which sentience loses its distinction from mere matter, is insane. We cannot contemplate it while retaining any kind of grip on our own minds. We cannot believe it without entering into an alien state of mind, and even when the hallucinogenic power of Noctis convinces us to believe in a determinist universe, we cannot sustain that belief for long before returning to our normal way of thinking. Determinism, in the long run, is untenable, and anything we cannot believe, in the long run, cannot possibly be true.

With each new planet, Noctis reinforces in the player’s mind just how small and fragile humans are. But the inevitable consequence of that realization is a newfound appreciation of how precious we are, too; how starkly and beautifully we contrast with the overwhelming majority of stuff in the universe. Noctis encapsulates nearly everything that exists, but what little it omits is the most important stuff of all.

Phillip Scuderi writes for Gamers With Jobs, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of South Florida. Beyond this, his loyalties remain uncertain.

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