How Live Games Are Making Players Act Like Ancient Astronomers

A comet, blood red and burning bright enough to be visible in the high noon sky, has appeared over the land.

The continent is at war, with six would-be rulers vying for control. The hurtling scarlet rock is visible to all of them, and they are all desperate for a sign that their cause is just. The peasants in the capital name it for the ruling king. The queen across the sea follows the comet into the desert, where her armies slowly waste away, wandering. A priest believes that it signals the end of a long, hot summer. A hot-headed bannerman believes that its hue symbolizes the blood of his murdered lord. And the old woman who cares for a young king’s brothers believes that the comet signals the arrival of dragons.

No one agrees. And, as with all signs in the sky, no one has the authority to divine its meaning for certain.

A Brief History of Interpreting the Firmament

This specific example of meaning-making comes from A Clash of Kings, the George R.R. Martin novel that served as the basis for the second season of Game of Thrones. But this tradition, of looking to the sky for answers, has been recorded in literature long before Martin began his epic fantasy series.

In the Old Testament, humankind’s attempts to probe the secrets of the sky have disastrous results. The story of the Tower of Babel begins with the people of Babylonia saying, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.” Until then, the Old Testament states that the people of Earth had one language. But at Babel, God brought confusion to their ranks, causing the people to be unable to understand each other and scattering them across the earth.

The story of Noah and the Arc gives meaning to the rainbow, a symbol of God’s intention to never flood the Earth again. Moses went to the top of a mountain to receive the 10 Commandments. Jacob received his blessing from God in the form of a dream of angels descending a ladder from heaven.

In the mythology of the Tsimshian, an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, the Earth was perpetually dark until a Giant, wearing raven’s skin, flew through a hole in the sky, stealing a container of fire and returning to the Earth. When he dropped the container, it broke, and brought daylight to the world.

And in the New Testament, the three wise men who presented the infant Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, followed a star that somehow, mysteriously, led them to the stable where the gospels of Luke and Matthew record that Christ was born.

For millennia, our ancestors interpreted various astrological phenomena as meaningful to their lives. And, thanks to game developers, players are re-learning this ancient skill. 

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Look to the Skybox

Last year, thousands of Fortnite fans gathered on stairways to heaven to watch the battle royale game’s first one-time-only in-game event: the launch of a rocket ship that flew into the great blue yonder before turning, abruptly, and piercing the sky box. It left blue rips in its wake, tears in what appeared to be a dome around the murder island. That rocket launch came one month after a slowly approaching meteor was the subject of truckloads of theorizing — sound familiar? — before wiping out Dusty Depot, transforming it into Dusty Divot

Then, earlier this year, Anthem, BioWare’s beleaguered live game, borrowed this move from the Fortnite playbook. In the run-up to the public release of the game’s long-anticipated (and long-delayed) Cataclysm event, mysterious signs began to appear in the sky. First, three floating buildings. Then streaks of light and darkness. The event these signs foreshadowed turned out to be a bit of a letdown: a timed arcade mode where players could earn seasonal currency on a new swath of map. But, in an era when nearly every AAA game is released with the assumption that months, or even years, of post-launch content will follow, mystery is a fantastic way to keep players invested in the future of the game. Even when that game is, otherwise, falling apart. 

Placing those mysteries in the sky is practical: it’s the one area of the game world that all players can easily see at all times, like Daenerys, Great Jon Umber and Old Nan seeing the red comet, despite being thousands of miles apart. You could see the cracks in Fortnite’s sky from the Battle Bus, before the match even began. But, in addition to being practical, this technique taps into millennia of storytelling. As long as there have been human beings (and maybe even before), we have looked to the sky and been confounded by its mysteries.

Fortnite makes plenty of other changes outside of the sky, though. Recently, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27, Epic reskinned Tilted Towers, the game’s popular urban block, as a chunk of recognizable Gotham City landmarks. Remember that rift in the sky caused by the rocket ship? That produced a giant, mysterious purple cube that the community referred to as “Kevin.” Fortnite’s storytelling has even gone beyond the confines of the game, as when the Durr Burger sign disappeared from the virtual world before showing up in the real one, resting, tongue lolling, on the sands of the Mojave Desert

That ARG-ish moment with the burger also followed the tear appearing in the sky. So, Fortnite’s storytelling doesn’t always occur in the sky; but it is often the result of the strange happenings above our heads.

Practical Magic

Placing its unexplained phenomena in the sky is also a handy way for Epic to keep it out of the hands of players. In Fortnite, nearly everything — buildings, trees, bridges, cars, the Durr Burger sign — is subject to the destructive whims of its players. It’s hard to keep something mysterious when players can quickly and easily break it open. Jack and John Locke in Lost could have saved quite a bit of time if they could simply break the Hatch open with pickaxes. But, when phenomena are arrayed across the expanse of the sky, Fortnite players understand that it is beyond their reach. They can’t break it down and study the component parts. It’s out of their grasp.

This is why lights, signals, patterns, phenomena in the sky have inspired meaning-making in humanity for so long. The Ancient Greeks explained the rising and setting of the sun as a god pulling our solar system’s star across the sky. The Old Testament explains the rainbow as a promise from God. Arthur Conan Doyle imagined a “jungle” in the clouds in the short story “The Horror of the Heights,” a space in the atmosphere where ethereal, dangerous creatures floated beyond our sight. We turn to mythmaking to explain the aspects of our world that we can’t explain.

That’s why now, in an era during which commercial flights criss-cross the airspace above our heads everyday, writers rarely write horror stories about what could be in the sky above us. We know. We have thoroughly explored the space between earth and space. The sky is no longer beyond our grasp. For the millions of people who fly commercial every day, traveling through the sky is even mundane.

Not so in video games. While game worlds have grown exponentially to give us the illusion of unlimited access, the sky has typically remained inaccessible. We once had to imagine how much fun it would be to visit the backgrounds of our games. As we guided the Blue Blur through Casino Zone in 1992’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2, we were forced to imagine what it was like in the brightly lit cityscape that parallax scrolled along in the background. In 2001, Rockstar placed players in a fully explorable city in Grand Theft Auto 3, the open-world game that has influenced nearly two decades of game design.

Open-world games have evolved since, branching out in a variety of different directions. But, the promise that The Witcher 3, Skyrim, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Assassin’s Creed 2, Days Gone and many of Rockstar’s subsequent games have in common is: See that mountain? You can go there. You can go anywhere.

Except, that is, the sky. Open-world games have often been criticized as being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” This is especially true when it comes to the world above our heads. Expansive open worlds spread out in all directions — except up. Even in a game like Anthem, that makes the ability to fly and explore vertically key to the action, the sky is beyond players’ reach. At a fairly low altitude, powerful wind currents push the player back down toward the earth.

Of course, this is by necessity. A game world has to end and, with the exception of flight sims like the Ace Combat series or games like No Man’s Sky that procedurally generate near-infinite universes, the sky typically becomes the limit. If the core gameplay doesn’t work in the sky, or isn’t interesting off the ground, there’s little reason for game developers to spare precious time and money to make the sky mechanically interesting. But, the result is that the dynamic that our ancestors experienced with the firmament in the real world has been extended to our game worlds. 

When something strange appears in the sky above Fortnite, we have no way of discovering what it is. Intrepid modders may break the game, delve into its code, explore outside the boundaries of the map, but they’re the Chuck Yeagers and Amelia Earhearts of the virtual skies; the exception, not the rule. The rest of us have assumed the role of ancient peoples, searching the sky for purpose, even where it may not exist.

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