The Population Paradox: When Is Less More?

One of the hardest things about being a writer is differentiating between what your writing is like for you, and what it’s like for your readers. This is the source of the oft-repeated wisdom, “kill your darlings.” If you’ve put that much effort into making something exciting, it is likely to come across as overwrought and tedious.

Nothing reinforced this truth for me recently more than my own experience with two similar video games: No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous. Both games are about 2-3 years old. Both are sandbox open-world games with no clear plotline. You’re supposed to make your own up as you travel through a galaxy that is literally too big to be explored fully, improving your ship and your capabilities. You mine asteroids, explore planets, and fight enemy ships.

The visual contrast could not be more striking, however. In No Man’s Sky, a solar system is full of huge planets, like something out of a science-fiction film. In Elite: Dangerous, it is full of, at best, tiny points of light. In No Man’s Sky, planets teem with life more often than not, with huge mineral outcroppings waiting to be harvested everywhere. Elite: Dangerous confines itself to barren worlds of rock and ice, with tiny mineral deposits that must be hunted down with radar.

And yet, somehow, those big worlds that fill No Man’s Sky seem smaller and less impressive the closer you get to them. All the mountains are low and flat. The lakes are shallow. There are almost no seas or oceans. The lifeforms quickly start to resemble a mix-n-match set of notable Earth-life features: “Hey, look: it’s that same bear-like creature as on the last planet, only now it has a wasp’s head instead of a rabbit’s.”

By contrast, Elite: Dangerous‘s worlds are tiny, and seem extremely similar, and yet as one approaches, they are full of canyons and craters that are, seen close to, huge. On one unremarkable moon, I flew down a canyon visible form space and landed at the edge of a tiny crater. And yet, when I drove my lunar rover over the lip of the same crater, it was big enough to take my breath away in a sensation I can only relate to the best horror games. It was like reading what Lovecraft kept trying to describe: a monstrous coldness, alien to humanity, that was terrifying in its sheer size and closeness.

I am far from an expert on understanding why this effect works, and yet I am struck by the fact that so many of the classic works of F/SF (and literature itself) are not the mega-series that are churned out in multi-volume sets, but are small, (and often single) works: The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe. A Wrinkle In Time. The Metamorphosis. 2001: A Space Odyssey. While most of these did spawn sequels, none are as well known as the originals, and all would have been classics without those sequels. There is perhaps a lesson here to bear in mind, but as simple as it is, it may take a lifetime for me to explore all its nuances.

 

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