(Author’s Note: Lyrics credit to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” for the headline of this piece. All photography by the author and taken inside of the video game No Man’s Sky by Hello Games.)
My roommate isn’t home.
Joe Manchin is in Morgantown, and my roommate is at the townhall. I wish I was there. I want to let West Virginia’s nominally Democratic Senator know how I feel about him selling my home state out to Big Coal. How angry I am that he’s the latest in a long line of West Virginia politicians exploiting the bigotry and hatred that still infest Appalachia to line carpetbaggers’ pockets. But I’m not like my roommate. I’m not downtown giving Joe hell.
I’m at home.
I’m at home, and I’m playing No Man’s Sky. I feel worthless. I have a rationale for not being out and engaging in local politics. I understand all too well that local politics have to be the epicenter of any real change, but I have an essay I want to write. In order to write it, I have to play No Man’s Sky. However, it’s only 2 PM, and I am already decidedly not sober. I have an article somebody might be interested in reading, but that’s not why I’m home.
I boot up the game. Its procedurally generated cosmos is born around me , and it hits me that No Man’s Sky was released seven months ago. Seven months ago when everybody — myself included — was so sure Hillary Clinton would be President. Seven months ago when the left thought that the political fight of 2017 would be about a $15 minimum wage, not a desperate fight against racially and religiously motivated oppression. I want to emphasize I know I’m not living in a different world in 2017. It took things getting this bad for me to realize that. But, last year, I wasn’t prepared for how bad things could get. Few of us were.
I was an early and vocal defender of No Man’s Sky. I found mystery in its mathematical patterns as well as its cold emptiness. It was a challenge to find the wonder in the procedural… to think about wonder as an emotion people will go out of their way to manufacture. Creating reasons to feel awe is something hard-grained into us as a species. There’s something beautiful about that.
I spawn on a lush planet. Tree branches like blood red cotton balls pulsating across a smoldering brush fire of a horizon. People-sized fungi standing prostate in exultation to an unseen God. Glittering waves of grass crashing across hillsides. I see all this and after about ten seconds of letting the image indent itself into my chemically altered brain, I start to weep. It’s going to be one of those days. It’s not like I haven’t had them before.
Recognizing the severity of my social anxiety was the first and biggest struggle. My father’s a textbook depressive. Depression and anxiety run on his mother’s side of the family, but I discovered the family history too late. We didn’t talk about mental health in our house… at least not until my little sister was diagnosed with severe anxiety. By then, I was already in my mid-20s. Years later, I finally accepted that I too had an anxiety disorder. I wasn’t just shy or quiet. But, then, I was in my late 20s. I was too old to still be on my parents’ health insurance, and I was too poor for insurance of my own.
On a late summer night in 2015 in Central Park, my anxiety leapt out of the shadows and refused to be ignored. I was covering a concert for the band Chvrches. I love Chvrches… like, I love Chvrches. But thirty minutes into Chvrches’ set, I had to flee Central Park’s Summer Stage. I couldn’t breathe. I was having difficulty staying on my feet. A churning nor’easter of synthpop loving millennials swam in front of me in disconnected time. Mercifully, there was a sudden light rain. I took the drizzle as an excuse to leave.
At the subway station on my journey home, I realized that Chvrches’ set was the first show I’d been to sober in months. I started out smoking lightly before the occasional show. I thought it would help me dig the vibes more. I quickly began to smoke heavily before every show. I was realizing the alternative — sobriety — had always meant a suffocating disconnect from everyone around me. I was going to concerts one or two times a week for work. Sometimes more than that. I was developing a drug habit just to survive my job.
Transgender folks struggle with drug dependency at a higher rate than nearly any other subset of American society.Realizing I had become part of that statistic was crushing. It was crushing because I realized why so many people suffer this particular way. People self-medicating to the point of the oblivion because they fear how isolating the truth is. We mask the constant confusions and contradictions because we live in a world that denies us our humanity and our truth. It should never get to that. But it does. For so many people, it does.
I spend an hour intermittently wandering my home planet in No Man’s Sky, snapping some photos, and crying. I’m almost glad my roommate isn’t home. He’d think that I was suffering a breakdown. Maybe I need a breakdown. I’m ready to build something else. To be something else. But before I can take that line of thought any further, I realize that my galactic explorer is running out of life support. They’re dying on an alien world. I can’t find the material to repair their suit. I try to make them sprint to their ship but I realize I’ve taken them too far. They die at the bottom of foothills, an orange sun creeping over dwarf peaks.
I don’t mind my character’s death. Like almost any interaction with No Man’s Sky, it’s an invitation to ponder. What if humanity really achieves the fantasy of interstellar travel? What if another sentient species in the impossible vastness of the universe has already done it? How many lives — full of all the pleasure and heartbreak that word implies — are going to end on hostile, floating rocks thousands of light years away from their homes and anyone that cares for them. This isn’t The Martian. Ingenuity can not save you. You were there and then you were consumed by an infinite, almost totally empty abyss. How lonely will those final few moments be?
I respawn. I make a mental note to take basic maintenance of this iteration of my intrepid traveler more seriously. There’s a certain appeal to No Man’s Sky‘s labor. The game often prods you to think about whether you’re working towards a goal in the game because it interests you or because an authority figure is telling you to do it. It wonders if the only satisfying labor is labor we control ourselves. I wonder if I’m not starting to read Marx into way too much shit lately. I think I might have started to become one of those people.
I start working towards big goals. I need to fix my ship. Getting off my home planet is more time-consuming than I remember. I get lost in the game’s labor and my mind wanders. I think about Moonlight. I’ve been thinking about it almost nonstop.
Barry Jenkins did a lot of things with that movie. A host of great writing has been dedicated to examining its nuances. But I can’t stop thinking about how violent it is. How true its violence is. How I thought that the crux of the movie was that the essence of contemporary masculinity is brutality and how so much of our society upholds, encourages, and transmits this social education of manhood as domination and violence. How affection and warmth are physically beaten out of young boys when social/psychological torture doesn’t do the trick. How all of that violence grinds the decency in young boys to dust. How alluring it is to accept and internalize that violence. How acceptance lets you be a person. How if you’re a woman or a male or anyone else who strays too far from the traditional mold of the cisgender man, you aren’t treated like a person. You know Moonlight‘s various forms of violence are true because their Appalachian variety terrorized you your entire life.
It isn’t just men that perpetrate that violence. Like many others trans folks, I’m a survivor of sexual assault. I was assaulted by my first real intimate partner when I was 19. Growing up trans in rural Appalachia, I didn’t (and still don’t) date much. How could I? Nobody around me had the vocabulary or history to handle my gender. I hadn’t even heard the term nonbinary til I was in my mid-2os. I couldn’t articulate that I was genderqueer when I was with this woman but even then I knew she filled the masculine, dominant role in our relationship. When I was assaulted, we were being physically intimate. We were both naked. I said I wasn’t ready to go further yet. She didn’t stop. She used force.
I didn’t leave her immediately. I was terrified nobody else would want me. In high school, the only sexual attention I received was sexual harassment and less dramatic assault. Intimate touching that I didn’t consent to from girls who played it off as “teasing” but who were just reflecting the violence they’d likely experienced/witnessed from men onto me. Even today, I can’t bring myself to be angry with any of these women. These were the values and ideas of acceptable behavior that our society instilled in them. I didn’t have my first semi-healthy sexual relationship til I was 23 but my inability to comprehend my own genderqueerness led to that partner leaving me when she realized I wasn’t the “man” she was looking for.
I’m playing video games instead of protesting Joe Manchin because the thought of being around more than a handful of strangers at once can keep me from getting out of bed in the morning. It’s what kept me from finishing college for so long. It’s what keeps me from maintaining any long-term friendship or relationship. Two fears always overwhelm me: a return of the violence that plagued my youth and the overwhelming dread that I’ll be abandoned when someone discovers my true self. My social anxiety and depression are inseparable from my gender dysphoria.
And I know why I escaped into No Man’s Sky specifically. It trades in cruelty and pain for quiet wonder. It gave me an afternoon locking down the most surreal landscape shots I could muster. Unlike Horizon: Zero Dawn, you can try to capture something other than beauty with these shots. I think about the header photo of this piece. It’s technically just a black & white photo of a landmass. But to me, it’s a face with eyes but no mouth. It stares at me in puzzled wonder. In the top right corner, there’s a crater. But it’s another face. It’s screaming in agony. That image exists because of an elegant mathematical formula, my imagination, and lots of tweaking of the game’s “contrast” filter. No Man’s Sky is creation run wild, and it’s devoid of any of the exhausting rituals of gender and life. That’s lonely. It’s a lonely game, but sometimes loneliness is easier to bear.
This is a call to arms. It isn’t a cry for help. I know that if I can’t say how bad things are, then I’ll never convince others how urgent action is. I’m still scared to talk about any of this because I’m afraid that if I’m this honest, it will effect my career. I’ve seen too many gifted trans writers pushed out of games spaces but you can’t talk about what it means to be trans in America without talking about shit that’s going to make cis folks uncomfortable. And I’m also scared because I know how much part of me wants to throw in the towel. I’m so weary all the time. But I can’t stop.
There’s too much of the cosmos left to explore.