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In attempting to explain the world to my two and a half year-old son, I have come to realise that human artifacts are divided into two very simple categories: “Tools” and “Toys.” It all seems rather obvious when you consider that things are either designed to enable one to complete a task, or simply to be played with for the sake of pleasure. These categories are by no means exclusive and, if one were to create a Venn diagram representing human artifacts, there would be a great number of items which shared the space where the circles overlapped; at least with regard to how they are employed.

The Oxford English dictionary defines a tool as “a device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function.” This seems a pretty sound definition, although we shouldn’t be too swayed by the use of “especially” into thinking that things not held in the hand are not actually tools. After all, considering this more broadly, we might categorise a table or chair as a tool, in that they allow one to carry out a particular function – whether it be sitting and eating dinner or standing upon either of them to change a light-bulb. Approaching the problem from this perspective brings almost anything that is useful under the same very large golfing umbrella. A car is a tool for carrying things, including oneself, between places; a book is a tool for conveying information; a towel is a tool for drying oneself, and so on. If it isn’t designed purely for pleasure and serves a functional purpose, then surely we might consider it to be a tool.

Toys, on the other hand, are defined as “an object for a child to play with, typically a model or miniature replica of something.” While the definition of a toy as something to play with seems right enough, I strongly dispute the rather limiting idea that they are merely for children. Irrespective of this, a toy ought to have no functional purpose beyond pleasure and play. A toy car, for example, isn’t much use for anything beyond the recreational, although I’m certain it could be used in a more functional manner under the right circumstances. Equally, one might say that a teddy bear cannot be classified as a tool, unless we wish to be very open-minded in our consideration of all possible situations and imagine that it might serve as a pillow, insulation, or, under extreme circumstances, a weapon. We might also define a teddy bear as a tool for helping get a child to sleep, but this does seem rather to push the reasonable boundaries of the definition. Either way, if we apply these broad definitions to such artifacts, then one can see that pretty well all objects are either tools or toys.

Of course it is possible to play with almost anything at all, whatever its original purpose, which is precisely why I have come to this realisation in the first place. My son far prefers to play with things that aren’t toys most of the time; screwdrivers, knives, kitchen sprays, drills, lighters, scissors, shampoo bottles and the like. Of course, it is the dangerous things that are most attractive to him, largely because they are interesting objects, but mostly, I suspect, because we constantly tell him that he shouldn’t be playing with these things and frequently confiscate them from his hot little hands. I have now become so boring about this whole business that he even repeats the mantra of “it’s not a toy, it’s a tool”, without in any way changing his behaviour. Yet, in being forced to define things in this way, the world has become quite sharply divided, not so much into things which are tools or toys, but into things which ought to be played with and which ought not to be played with. The degree of subjectivity one might bring to this is mindboggling, and I do harbour more than a little reluctance in suggesting, for example, that one can’t have a good time with a hammer. For my son’s sake however, perhaps I should be pleased that while he is successfully learning the categorical boundaries, this is not in any way limiting his desire to play with things that are not toys. It’s a tough one; I don’t want to stifle his creativity, but, as the Easter Road Toll song says “Fingers don’t grow back,” and I’d like him to reach adulthood physically intact.

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Ice-cream van, Hong Kong, 19th July, 2009

Whether or not the people who created the “Mister Softee” brand name did so with a sense of irony is anyone’s guess, but there is something intrinsically amusing about the name. It is refreshingly un-masculine, as is the use of the formal, written “mister” in place of the more common contraction, which is bolder, and achieves this through a kind of playful emasculation that may or may not be intended. Ice-cream itself is hardly a very masculine food; decadent rather than stoic, it has connotations of indulgence, relaxation, innocent and guilty pleasure. Perhaps the title is rather alluding to this; its softness as a substance fits the softness of ice-cream as a pastime or treat.

To be soft also suggests lenience, kindness and generosity; so the man who sells the ice-cream is kind, gentle, friendly, and those who indulge in it are perhaps more soft in how they seek happiness; eschewing the savoury and the harder-edged in favour of the syrupy sweet. The soft lighting in this image seems to fit with the gifted title, while the ice-cream man with the hair-band has an air of kindness and dedication in his meditative approach to pouring a cone. He seems to have an affinity with the young customer who stands, watching closely, united through their love of ice-cream.

Considering his fascination with monsters, tunnels and dark places, I imagine that if we left our son Magnus to his own devices he’d probably develop a rich mythology, even a religion, within a few years. It is impossible to truly grasp what it is that he is thinking when he talks of these things, but the reverence, awe and fear with which he regards them exhibits the attribution of agency to natural phenomena that underlies our rather sorry invention of religion and superstition.

Recently his focus has shifted significantly to an obsession with tools and machines, which are his favourite objects and, more often than not, playthings. He certainly enjoys playing with toy cars, trucks and animals, but these are almost invariably trumped by a desire to play with or impersonate screw-drivers, Allen keys, drills, saws, scrapers, trowels, air blowers, chainsaws and whipper-snippers. Every day he begs us repeatedly to play with my tools, of which I own but a few and which, if such a wish is granted, leads to him making a buzzing, whirring, sawing or grinding noise, while pretending to fix things about the house.

His favourite “book” at the moment is a hardware catalogue from Mitre 10, which he flips through repeatedly while naming all the tools. On a recent morning, I took him for a walk through the wonderfully overgrown Newtown Cemetery before proceeding to the hardware store to look at tools, and now, having associated these two things, he asks me daily if I will take him “to the cemetery to look at the tools.” On a second visit to the hardware store, we were approached by a member of staff who quizzed him about the names of things, and Magnus was able to answer every question with impressive accuracy. I was especially proud of his response “that’s a measuring tape” when presented with arguably the most challenging question of them all; his use of the more formal title seemed to surprise his questioner considerably.

At the moment our house is undergoing renovations and we have been fortunate in staying at a friend’s house which is presently vacant. Initially Magnus was desperate to return home – as one might expect – but now he only really wants to go there to see the huge array of tools being used by the builders. “That’s an electric saw. That’s an electric drill…” It is almost impossible to stop him from trying to pick them up and examine them or play with them, and hence something of a concern with regards to his safety. At home, he likes to play with knives at every opportunity, which he sees as just another tool, and so these must all be kept high up out of his reach in the cupboards above the stove. His obsession with tools is such that he gets upset if we don’t stop outside the window of the crappy pawn shop on the corner of King Street, where a rather moribund collection of dusty and rusty screw-drivers is on offer. For him it is like visiting a shrine and, having made his obeisance, he is content to move on.

Were he to elevate his obsession into a religion, then I suspect that the chief deity in his pantheon would be a vacuum cleaner. Whenever he hears one, sees one, hears something that sounds like one, or sees anything remotely vacuum-cleaner shaped, he becomes immensely excited. Once, watching a TV show, in which a vacuum cleaner appeared very briefly, he spent the entire next ten minutes asking “Where is the vacuum cleaner? Where is the vacuum cleaner?” With his limited understanding of narrative, it might as well have been the protagonist. Nothing else mattered.

While vacuum cleaners might sit at the top of the pantheon, any kind of machine that cuts, digs, chops, sands or hammers comes close in status and respect. Recently the whipper-snipper came into vogue after a trip to a public park in Marrickville where the council were maintaining the lawns. Magnus uses the verb “need” in place of “use,” and, consequently, after witnessing the whipper snipper in action, he kept repeating: “Man is needing whipper-snipper. Man needs whipper-snipper.” From that day forth the whipper-snipper has featured regularly in his games. He will pick up anything, however unlike a whipper snipper it may appear, and walk around making a sawing sound whilst intoning “I cutting the walls” and “I cleaning the leaves.” He refers to my mother’s travel hairbrush as a  “whipper-snipper” and asks her for it almost immediately when she visits.

One very positive upshot of his obsession is that he loves the idea of cleaning things. Despite being far better at making a mess than cleaning up after himself, whenever any liquid is spilled on the ground, he heads for the bottom drawer in the kitchen to grab a tea-towel or swab and tries to join in the efforts to dry the floor. Upon every visit we make to the local supermarket, he wriggles out of my arms and runs towards the aisle with all the cleaning products, grabbing either a “sprinker” (his word for a cleaning spray) or one of the mops and brooms hanging from the rack. He will then proceed to clean the floor in the supermarket, leaving me little choice but to humour him or else risk a meltdown and tantrum that is best avoided. We can only hope that this obsession with and willingness to clean carries on throughout his youth, not merely because we’d like him to help around the house, but because recent studies have shown a close correlation between doing household chores during childhood and being successful in life. If his behaviour so far is anything to go on, then it looks as though he will be a very successful person indeed.

My son Magnus is obsessed with “storm thunder”. Ever since he was first really conscious of thunderstorms, they have seemed fascinating and intimidating to him.

In the early days of his flowering awareness of the world, we went through a spell without any thunderstorms at all. It was not until he was already a relatively advanced little being that a particularly violent one struck. Quite naturally, he was terrified.

We were putting him to bed when the storm began. The low rumbles on the horizon hadn’t yet caught his attention, but when a very loud and much closer crack resounded, he was terribly startled and began to whimper.

“It’s okay, mate, it’s just a thunderstorm. That’s the sound of thunder.”

His face was distorted in a frozen cry of fear. Then, slowly, in a frightened staccato plea, he said, “No. More. Storm. Thunder.”

“No. More. Storm. Thunder.”

He repeated this several times, standing at the side of his wooden cot, arms resting on the frame, hands held by his parents. The poor little bugger was shaking and tears welled in the corners of his eyes.

“It can’t hurt you, little mate. You’re safe in here.”

His mouth curled in despair. It seemed as though all was lost.

“No more storm thunder.”

Since that night storm thunder has almost perennially been in his thoughts. Every day, when a plane flies over, he says: “Sounds like storm thunder.” When a heavy truck bangs its weight in a pothole, he says: “Sounds like storm thunder.”

At some point, on a daily basis, when he is walking around the house, or running around the play park, he will say “Don’t be scared storm thunder. Don’t be scared storm thunder.” He is reassuring himself; a personal reminder that loud noises are not necessarily a problem. On account of his pronunciation, however, it comes out rather more like “Donkey scared storm thunder,” giving his mild anxiety a humorous note.

At night our kitchen is ruled by slugs. They start coming in around ten PM and spread out across the rooms downstairs. They come in droves; twenty, thirty, maybe forty slugs or more, some bigger than a middle finger, others smaller than a pinkie. One must tread very carefully when using the downstairs bathroom or foraging for a midnight snack. In the darkened loungeroom, if something is needed, it is best left until morning or risk the nauseating squishiness of a slug exploding underfoot.

In the early morning the slugs make their way home and by sunrise most have left. A few stragglers cruise slowly around the skirting boards and slide under the door during breakfast, late night revellers after a long and fruitful crawl.

Their principal food source is my two-year old son, Magnus. Since he was big enough to start dropping food everywhere, the slug population has exploded. Of course, we sweep and wipe pick things up all day long, but with the sheer volume of stuff that gets distributed around the house, sufficient makes it through to keep the slugs coming.

Magnus, with his flourishing vocabulary, though still unable to pronounce Ls, calls them “Sgusting shugs”. He is excited by their presence and comments often on their size:

“Ooh that’s a big one!”

“Just a baby shug.”

He is sensible about not touching the slugs, though he often hovers over them with mischievous intent. Those that are particularly in danger of being stepped on, we pick up carefully and put outside. Keen to help on this front, Magnus often goes straight to the cutlery drawer and grabs a teaspoon when he spots a stray one in the middle of the floor.

The slugs have clearly made a big impression on Magnus, as have most of the local fauna. Whether it is beetles, spiders, butterflies, moths or “hiding lizards” he is overcome with excitement at any sighting. Just a week ago, in the wake of great storms, we found a frog in the rain-filled inflatable pool in the garden. When I prodded gently it to see if it was alive, it darted off through the water, running circles round the rim of the pool. Magnus was so excited that I had to take him back into the house. In his enthusiasm to make it swim, he nearly whacked the frog with a stick. Fortunately, for its own sake, by the following morning, the frog had moved on.

Magnus especially loves butterflies and has a poster from the Australian Museum on his wall filled with green, blue, orange, red, yellow and black butterflies. He frequently stands and studies this, and, as with the slugs, remarks upon their size or colour.

“That’s a blue one!”

“Very big butterfly.”

One night recently, when Magnus awoke crying, his mother went in to see what was the matter. Sitting up in his cot, reaching out for a comforting hug, he cried “Sgusting butterfly!”

While he had seemed in distress in initially, now that his mama was present, he shifted into a more enthusiastic mood. “Sgusting butterfly,” he repeated, unable or unwilling to articulate more. “Sgusting butterfly.”

The idea that Magnus should find butterflies disgusting seems at odds with his love of them, and he must have had a nightmare of sorts. The following day he mentioned the “sgusting butterfly” several times and has continued to talk about it since. Just last night he awoke in the early hours, clearly distressed. When we entered his room, he was standing in his cot saying “sgusting, sgusting!” No doubt the lingering impression of another such dream.

Though Magnus is naturally upset at this recurring nightmare, V and I are also excited about getting this rare glimpse into his imagination. His thoughts are certainly on display much of the time as, like most children, he offers a running commentary on all his play activities. Most of the time, however, his imaginations on this score seem more mundane.

“Car car going the shops get milky.”

“Horsey fall down in the water.”

The sgusting butterfly is something else altogether.

Lying on the couch one morning, I tried to visualise this dream of his and found myself imagining a giant slug with butterfly wings. Perhaps this is what he saw that night, some strange agglomeration of these two very different creatures that are ever-present in his life. Did the Sgusting Butterfly monster him? Did it chase him? Did it speak? Did it take him by the hand and lead him to the promised land? Who knows. Yet we will forever cherish this unique, if somewhat unsettling window into his young mind.

Tunnel Dark

All toddlers have their own highly idiomatic and original way of speaking, and my son Magnus is no exception. From the very first time he said “dog” – his first word – we have eagerly watched every slow but sure step in the process of language acquisition. When he first began to learn the names of things, however mispronounced they were, it opened the door to many rewarding, if still frustrating exchanges. “Milky,” “Mama,” “Dadda,” “Miaow miaow,” “Car car,” “Bottle,” “Bathy,” “Beddy” – his vocabulary inevitably reflected his context and the daily needs and simple pleasures around which his life revolved. Being able to name things meant he could request them, just as we could more easily offer them and gain his enthusiasm for the thing.

It was curious to note how, without prompting, Magnus developed the common tendency of saying the name of each thing twice in a row or adding an “ie / y” ending to words, particularly if the word only had one syllable. It took until he was perhaps eighteen months old before he really began to string two different words together to link nouns with verbs, for example, or to attach adjectives: “Mama gone,” “Dadda running shoes,” “Big building,” “Yummy dinner,” – as modest as this progress might seem, having doing the hard slog with a complete linguistic newbie, this conceptual leap was extraordinary to behold and it is nigh impossible to convey the excitement we felt at his expanding ability to interact with us and the world.

In many ways the advancement of his language has moved in close relation to his increasing mobility and dexterity. As one might expect, the greater his ability to negotiate and navigate the world, the greater his sense of ownership and mastery over it, the greater his capacity to handle, manipulate, reach and examine objects, so his vocabulary has grown. In recent weeks, being taller and longer legged and able to step up whole stairs without leaning on the walls or holding the bannister, being able to run with real speed and accuracy in his strides, his language has taken even greater leaps forward. It was perhaps only four or five months ago, in the weeks before his second birthday, that he began to construct entire sentences which again opened a whole new level of communication. “Where is it?” “What are we doing?” “Where mama gone?” “Going to beachie?” “Many big buildings down the city,” (he always says “down the city”). The satisfaction from these exchanges seems almost exponentially greater than that which came before, because it meant that at last I could really explain things to him. Now I can say such things as, “Today dadda has to go to work, so Granny-ma is coming over after your sleep and she will take you to see the boys ,” and he will understand me. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he likes what I tell him! He hates it when I go to work, for example, which is funny considering I feel exactly the same way about it. Indeed, his sense of separation anxiety seemed to increase with his ability to communicate his dissatisfaction.

One of his favourite expressions is “tunnel dark”, which, as you might imagine, is pretty contextual. Whenever we go through a tunnel in the car; whenever he sees one, either in life or on television; when he looks under the coffee table or couch; when he crawls under pillows or beneath the bedsheets, and whenever we are in the bath and my legs are arched so that a sort of cove has formed in the dark, bath-sloshed space beneath, he says “Tunnel dark.”

In many ways these two seemingly simple words are both a story and a poem. For him the words are rich in connotations and narrative elements. From the nature of his play and the things he says in relation to “tunnel dark”, it is clear that he imagines being afraid; that he feels the presence of monsters (or “mosters”, as he says); that he considers being lost, or something else being lost, and he often talks a lot about “hiding”. Most of these ideas are derived from play we have engaged in, though his mother and I were initially baffled as to where he got the idea of monsters, as we had deliberately avoided creating any unnecessary fears in him by mentioning such things. Yet, of course, he spends time with others and watches some television, though most of the shows contain few scary elements. Either way, “Tunnel Dark” is the most evocative window into his vivid imagination and it feels like a privilege to witness this kind of nascent, raw escapism.

The Search

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I eased out of hyperdrive with mild pangs of space-sickness. Too many dizzying rides through the waves of stretched starlight; too many juddering descents onto unknown worlds. My eyes, tired from scanning the systems for habitable planets, from gazing at landscapes both fertile and barren, from staring through the atmospheric haze of a hundred disappointments, now longed to rest once more on the soft, green grasses and gentle skies of Leura Falls.

Looming before me was a familiar sight – the unloved furnace of Fustung. Through the gaseous blur of this reddish sphere, I spied my destination – a massive waterworld, a super-Earth with ninety percent of its surface covered in blue ocean. It was here, on one of the many green islands which dotted the briny waters, that I was determined to make my home.

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Leura Falls – or so I thought

I pointed the nose around the apex of Fustung and punched in the pulse drive. One more bumpy skip through the asteroid belts and I would be home. As the planet lined up in my sights, the targeting computer locked on and planetary data began its read-out on the screen. At first I paid little attention to this, so that I was already familiar with this information. Then, taking another glance, I saw the planet’s name, and blinked: Injamiaogul.

I was shocked. Wasn’t this Leura Falls? Was I not in the right system? I checked the galactic charts to confirm my whereabouts, and there was no mistaking it: I was unquestionably in the Faren Sav system – a system in which I had discovered every planet and landed on their surface. What then was this other planet? There had been another water-world in the system – Three Sisters – was I mistaking the two? If so, why would its name have changed?

I pulled up abruptly, cutting the engine and bringing my ship to a barely perceptible drift. Turning in a circle, I visually scanned the system to see if my would-be home was elsewhere. Perhaps there been another planet here all along, hidden from line of sight by one of the others. I looked closely into the seemingly endless sphere of space that surrounded me, yet there was nothing; indeed, I could not see another water world at all. Leura Falls had somehow changed, yet Three Sisters had been erased from existence altogether.

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As I hoped to find it…

I turned back to Injamiaogul, taking a closer look. Perhaps merely the name had changed, or the planet had reverted to its pre-discovery place-holder, which I could no longer recall. Perhaps if I flew down to the surface I would find things much as they been before and be free, once again, to name and claim the planet.

I kicked in the engine again and sped towards the surface. Upon closer approach, it was immediately clear that this was a different planet altogether. The colour of the islands had changed as well as that of the oceans, and my worst fears were confirmed when I broke through the upper atmosphere. Gone was the green grass and the swishing trees, gone were the docile grazing beasts I had spent some time studying. In its place was a lurid nightmare; a reddy, yellowy mess that felt wholly uninviting. I was, to say the least, gutted.

Such was my fate when I logged back into No Man’s Sky after its first major update – Foundation. The update has made significant changes to the algorithms that procedurally generate the planets, and, as a consequence, some have been re-generated from scratch altogether. The Foundation update had taken me by surprise – I was totally unaware of its release the day before I published my review of the original game, and was both shocked and excited upon discovering it.

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Reading through the notes, it was clear that much had been altered, making the bulk of what I had written about game strategies worthless. This was, admittedly, a little frustrating, but such was the promise of the swathes of changes to the game, that I was keen to get stuck in. Having just written about the game, and thus being on something of a roll, it made sense to play through the new material and review it as quickly as possible. The update has introduced the ability to claim planets as a home-world and build bases on them, and so it was that, upon logging in, I warped hundreds of light years across space, back to my favourite planet, in order to begin laying the foundations of a galactic empire.

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I could not find this planet at all, or was it perhaps Leura Falls that had disappeared? Confusing

 

The loss of Leura Falls seemed a pretty rough fate. It never occurred to me that it might not be there anymore and thought I would always be free to return here. After all, weren’t our discoveries in No Man’s Sky supposed to have the integrity of a real discovery? That what we found would be there as long as the game’s servers continued to run? I felt so deflated that I was ready to give up there and then. How many other planets? Did the same fate await me in all the systems I had explored? It seemed logical to assume that this was the case. Why some and not others? The missing planets were still showing in my records; still listed as part of the Faren Sav system, yet they were no longer in the game world itself, certainly not as they were. It was only later that I noticed that all my discoveries on the surface – flora, fauna and mineral – had been erased from the planetary data.

"What happened to Buzz-Saw ?" "He had to split."

“What happened to Buzz-Saw ?” “He had to split.”

My first thought was that this was only going to piss more people off. No Man’s Sky has, since its release, become a favourite whipping boy of gamers with accusations of fraud, dishonesty and deception circulating alongside a general anger at the lack of communication from the studio. Was this potentially going to cause another public relations nightmare for Sean Murray and Hello Games? As a fan of the game, I certainly hoped it wouldn’t, though I did feel let down on this score. I took a deep breath and put things into perspective. Okay, losing my favourite planet sucks, but if this is the price of having a much better game, I’ll be willing to wear it. There was, after all, a huge amount of new material and changes waiting to be explored. It was time to get stuck in.

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Time to get started again

Fortunately, the deletion of Leura Falls turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The tragedy of its destruction gave me pause. I didn’t want to found a base just anywhere, so I would need to find a suitable planet and this would take time. And anyway, what was the hurry? What was the rush to found a base? I had already learned to love No Man’s Sky for what it was – a game of exploration and discovery, of the freedom to visit quintillions of worlds, of the chance to sustain a restless, endless wandering. Settling down immediately might put an end to the joy of discovery. Could there possibly be anywhere near as much pleasure in construction and crafting as there was in discovering wholly new planets? Perhaps more importantly, I now at last had a real purpose to my quest; a real reason for this endless journey: to find a planet so utterly beautiful that I would actually want to live on it.

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How many worlds would it take to find a new home?

Thus began what can only be described as an epic journey across the cosmos. In three days I warped through more than thirty star-systems, flew through three black holes, caused the birth of a new star, visited more than a hundred planets, took part in numerous local conflicts, mined and traded millions of credits in minerals, and all the while I burned with a restless energy to find the perfect planet.

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In retrospect, I can say this much; there is no such thing as the perfect planet. Yet there are many planets which are remarkable, indeed, jaw-droppingly beautiful, along with many that are, in their own sweet way, appalling. The new algorithms and the new designs in flora and fauna have expanded the richness and diversity of worlds in a welcome way. Water is more interestingly distributed on surfaces and can even be found in dry places, such as the squelchy floor of a rocky canyon on an otherwise parched planet. It pools in the lowlands in a wider range of depths; some lakes are so shallow they never even bother your knees.

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All told, when it comes to planetary generation, the Foundation update is a huge improvement. In every other regard, it is practically a new game, very different in what it asks strategically and considerably better balanced. Nearly everything said before about mining and resources is now redundant, such is the manner in which they have been reworked: their frequency dramatically nerfed; the ability to mine them now contingent on technology; the range of elements significantly expanded; their distribution and appearance on the surface radically altered. They are also needed in new and more specific ways, along with being less interchangeable, as a source of recharging for example. Thus resources such as Plutonium and Thamium 9 become immensely valuable for survival, if not monetarily.

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There is much more to be said, but I’ll save that for a review. This post is really a travelogue; a photographic journal of my desperate quest across time and space before settling on the planet Sollomyth. One of the great pleasures of No Man’s Sky is that it offers an immersive experience of travel at a time when, on account of having a two-year old son, I can’t easily go travelling. As a photographer, this game lets me shoot scenes I could never dream of framing, outside of being a citizen of some intergalactic empire. The gorgeous rendering of these incredible places is nostalgic in tone, born of a love of the dreamy visions that adorned the covers of space-race science fiction. Often, everywhere you look is a potential book-cover, a fine example of art by algorithm. And, while it ain’t exactly the real thing, this simulation is almost as good as a holiday, a key sign of which is that the photographs fill me with a similar, if less potent, form of nostalgia.

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Home at last

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