In a perfect world, I’d have a robot butler to make me an Old Fashioned at the end of every day’s work. He’d have a metallic moustache, and a stannic stovepipe hat. Occasionally the hat would emit bursts of steam and toot out the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth because if I’m going to have a robot butler I might as well go the whole hog and have an absolutely ridiculous robot butler.
I think the dapper chap would have a single wheel to trundle around on rather than anything resembling legs, because I imagine robotic limbs to be either spindly and kind of terrifying, or chunky enough to crush my throat. It’d be very important to ensure that no aspect of Andre Martin 3000 could be weaponised. Unless he’s preparing drinks, he has no place in the kitchen. He can’t handle a knife and, heck, I might not even give him hands hands because hands can strangle and ‘Throttled by my own robot butler’ is third on my list of debilitating fears.
Even though I balk at the idea of a knife-wielding robot and the bionic butchery that might ensue, I’d like my butler to be a clever creation. In fact, I’d like it to be a creative creation, able to compose music for quartet and paint the imagery from his electric dreams. I look for something similar in a certain kind of game – the genre that you might think of as open world crafting, I think of as a sort of machine, serving up new worlds on a plate. I’m as likely to spend time building a complex castle in Minecraft as I am to spend the time, money and effort it takes to make a really good Old Fashioned. I’m more likely to build a one-room shack or, to carry the analogy far beyond breaking point, crack open a can of cheap lager.
All of this came to mind as I installed Starbound for the umpteenth time a couple of weeks ago. Every time I read update notes for the game or watch a video of somebody playing, I find myself powerfully attracted to it. The appeal is obvious – its procedural everything promises infinite planets packed with STUFF. Aliens, loot, dungeons, villages, flora – it should be a fantastic tourist simulator.
As with every other time I’ve taken to the stars, it didn’t take me long to realise Starbound doesn’t provide what I’m looking for. All of the ingredients are there but they’re laid out on the countertop and I’m expected to put them together myself. There’s plenty to see, as I gad about a new planet’s surface, but I find myself growing weary of the crafting routine before the basics of the tutorial are done.
I want the game to offer its worlds to me, full of mystery and wonder, and I’m interested in establishing real estate on many of the planets I discover, but the actual processes of hunting, gathering and building fail to hold my attention.
Starbound isn’t the only game that I’ve responded to in this way. The obvious precursor, Terraria, fascinated me but left me cold, and I’ve never built anything of note in Minecraft. With the latter game in particular, my lack of interest in the crafting hasn’t prevented me from spending countless hours playing. I wander from place to place, seeing the sights and reaching for the horizon.
I’ve trekked through deserts, slept beneath the stars on oceanside clifftops and tunnelled through mountain ranges. Deep in the blocky bowels of the land, I’ve fought horrors and chipped through gem-encrusted veins to discover vast caverns that resemble the antechamber to hell. In dense jungle, I’ve struggled and sweltered, desperate to find a river that leads to the freedom of the open sea.
These journeys have mostly been solitary affairs but when I have had a companion, the wanderlust has been more happily sated. But companions bring problems because no matter how itchy my feet might be, it doesn’t take long for my partner to suggest that we think about settling down. I’m content to have all of my belongings on my back but eventually my habit of leaving precious metals and stones in the dirt where I find them becomes an issue.
“If we had a house, we could take all of this stuff back there. We’d be rich.”
And so it is. We build a house, a simple thing with a bedroom, a basement full of storage chests, and a stove by the window that overlooks the bay. The design is crude but it’s home and it becomes a base that we return to after each expedition.
Now the process has begun though and there’s no turning back. We’re a mile deep and I suggest digging through the night, eventually breaking the surface in some new, unknown land.
“Sure. You do that. I’ll take this haul back the way we came and see you tomorrow.”
I dig for what seems like hours and when I emerge, the moon is shining on a desolate plain, a bleached bone beacon in a melancholy sky. It’s beautiful but it’d be even more beautiful if I had somebody to share it with. I let the families of skeletons and spiders feast on my flesh so that I can wake at home, where we can sit around the fire and tell our tales.
“I took the fireplace out. I’m thinking of building a conservatory.”
We’ll need plenty of glass. There’s an unusually large, curved beach beyond the picturesque forests to the south. I’ll head there and gather the resources we need.
“It’s ok. While you were wasting time in that tunnel I grabbed everything from the bay just there. That’s the great thing about this house – everything we need is within spitting distance.”
I hate spitting distance. I want to stride far and wide. If we’re going to build a world where everything is within reach, we might as well be gardeners rather than adventurers.
“Good idea. I’ll plant a garden tomorrow.”
As the days roll by, our humble home becomes a convenience store, crowned with impressive fortifications and an elaborate chimney. I haven’t contributed a thing and I hardly spend any time inside, always working late in the mines or on distant mountain tops. My secretary is a creeper.
We’ve grown apart and eventually the promise of the infinite landscape seduces me completely. One day I head out to dig up some redstone and never return.
I’m incapable of staying in one place for long when the promise of fresh procedural content is hanging in the air. Minecraft’s day/night cycle provides an incentive to push on and to rest and hunker down from time to time, but there’s always something new to see. With Starbound, I find the limits of each world too soon and feel like the game isn’t willing to indulge my itinerant instincts.
More than likely, that’s because I’m in the wrong, refusing to engage with the game on its own terms. No Man’s Sky might be the game I’m waiting for. Whatever else it might be – and I’m still not sure what the experience of playing will be from moment to moment – I hope it will serve up fresh sights for a humble space tourist with no intention of settling down or putting in the work to bring the best out of any given plot of land.
No home, no hearth. When I do find my butler, I hope he’s a positronic Passepartout, catering to my needs as I play out the rules of my own arbitrary games.
Pictures by people who can actually craft are from the following places:
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