Today is probably the last time I will play No Man’s Sky.
That should in no way be taken as me having become bored by the space exploration sim. Quite the opposite, I love No Man’s Sky, but today the game triggered a series of stressful obsessive events that threw my work schedule off, caused me hours of hyperventilation, and left me incredibly stressed out.
Around a decade ago, in my mid teens, I was diagnosed with a condition called Asperger’s Syndrome. An Autistic Spectrum Disorder, the condition shares a wide variety of symptoms with a typical autism diagnosis, differing mainly in regards to verbal communication in early development.
The condition varies from person to person, but in myself manifests as obsessive tendencies, stress surrounding routines, sensory over- or under-sensitivity, and repetitive movements (“stimming”) to calm down.
If stress relating to these get too strong, I tend to hyperventilate, stim, and, in extreme cases, can resort to self-destructive behaviours including hair-pulling and hitting at my own head.
I’ve so far put around sixty hours into No Man’s Sky, and one of the aspects of the game I initially found most interesting is the way I found its core gameplay loop simultaneously calming and stressful for myself as a person prone to these obsessive traits.
On one hand it was a beautiful playground in which to complete repeatable tasks in new settings, making small but steady progress due my dedication to repeating the same actions over and over again. On the other, it was a frustrating time sink where I never felt like I had completed enough to justify walking away from any individual play session. It was always too easy to just repeat the cycle one more time. While that cycle of back and forth wasn’t free of stress, it was manageable and could be worked into daily routines when needed.
Today however, something got in the way of that cycle and ate up my entire day.
Today, I sat down to play No Man’s Sky with a two-hour time limit, and a simple goal set for myself: fly to the nearest Atlas Interface, interact successfully with it, shut the game off, edit the LPVG podcast, do some writing.
The problem is, the simple mission I had set myself very quickly got more complicated, with time to complete it growing exponentially due to the procedural elements at play.
Because I did not have some resources I needed, I had to go and grind huge amounts of money to purchase a spare item. When I returned, I learned because I had walked away that I could now not interface with the Atlas as I had planned, and was not going to be given a map to a replacement interface point in space. Being unaware of where I now needed to go, I was left to craft large numbers of warp cells, and aimlessly explore with no concept of how long my mission would take.
At this point I was roughly three hours late on my initial schedule for when I would stop playing NMS and start podcast editing. I began stressing about how far behind schedule I was, but was also acutely aware that quitting NMS before reaching my objective would stress me out even more. The concept of skipping a job I had planned to do stresses me out greatly, even when I logically know that jumping to the next job is the most sensible thing to do.
I found myself hyperventilating, getting light-headed, and making mistakes. The fact I was making mistakes in these repetitive routines, and not doing them correctly as I had before made me even more stressed. The more stressed I became, the more invested I became in the idea of completing the quest ahead of me in order to relieve it. The procedural nature of No Man’s Sky meant there were no guides or walkthroughs available to help me progress, and no indicator of how much longer my quest would last.
Ultimately, my two-hour play session ended up lasting almost ten. One of my colleagues had to do my podcast editing work for me. It ultimately took self-destructive behaviours to shift me out of the obsessive loop I managed to get myself into.
None of this is ultimately the fault of No Man’s Sky. It’s designed to have an addictive gameplay loop, and it succeeds at that very clearly.
The problem is that, for me, that loop can turn problematically obsessive without too much difficulty. A change to the expected length of a goal can be tough to deal with. Pair that with procedural elements that are tough to predict and a compelling repetition of tasks, and it becomes my kryptonite.
I have decided to walk away from No Man’s Sky because it triggered the first considerable Asperger’s meltdown I have had in over a year. I love this game, but I can’t afford to lose work days to hyperventilation, self-abusive behaviours, and obsession.