No Man’s Sky is, to many, a disappointment. The planet exploration game has been deemed tedious, boring and repetitive in stark contrast to its pre-release hype as an endlessly exciting adventure across a randomly-generated galaxy. Luckily, its tedium is exactly the quality that’s made it perfect fodder for the ASMR community.
On a frontier planet blanketed with red grass, The ASMR Nerd described his surroundings in whispers to his binaural microphone: “You can see these lush fields of waving grass and these funny trees,” he said. He walked slowly across the planet’s landscape, making tiny observations and mining resources. “I love the way the grass pulses with color on this moon. Is it the wind rippling the grass?”
The ASMR Nerd’s voice, hushed and deliberate, overlaid on an relaxing video game, to many inspires a magical, calming quality known as ASMR: “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.” Sometimes referred to as “head orgasms,” ASMR is the tingling sensation that accompanies a Bob Ross trance. It’s a quality of “flow”: a “state of intense focus and diminished awareness of the passage of time that is often associated with optimal performance in several activities,” according to one of the few studies on it. On YouTube, an enormous community has formed around ASMR, with ASMR celebrities amassing millions of views per video.
Streamers of ambient games have carved out their own niche in the ASMR YouTube community, I reported in June.
Nick, The ASMR Nerd, has mostly focused his whisperings on Skyrim. In his videos, he traverses the Elder Scrolls landscape, describing forest panoramas and rocky cliff sides to his 40,000 YouTube subscribers. “Skyrim. . . is a fully immersive fantasy universe,” he explained to me. “There are huge natural areas and gorgeous visuals.” But Nick had to turn off the enemies in Skyrim, erasing much of the game’s drama.
Now, there’s a new game where drama isn’t a problem: No Man’s Sky. On YouTube, 14,000 videos show up in a search for “No Man’s Sky” and “ASMR.”
Since No Man’s Sky’s release last month, it’s received a tepid 2.5 stars on Steam, where nearly 43,000 negative reviews have written it off as, well, meh— especially compared to its pre-release hype. Some players have demanded refunds. In his review of No Man’s Sky, Kotaku writer Kirk Hamilton described his experience 24 hours into the game:
“I couldn’t have been more over No Man’s Sky if it had been in a mine. The narrative, such as it was, had become a hazy blur of overwritten philosophical rambling. The planets had become a hazy blur of crusty monsters and samey sunsets. I was bored.”
Perhaps unsatisfying as a video game experience, No Man’s Sky’s “samey sunsets” and “rambling” are what make it work for ASMR videos.
“Many of the qualities that people criticize about No Man’s Sky make it perfect for ASMR,” Nick told me over e-mail. “It’s slow-paced. It lacks multiplayer. It’s largely aimless. These things aren’t normally considered positives in a game, but ,in an ASMR video, it means you can slow down and smell the space roses without fear of jarring interruptions that rouse you from your zen state.” Nick added that being able to turn off “that stupid suit voice” would benefit his videos.
“There’s a giant mushroom. What do you think it is?” Miss Fushi says in a No Man’s Sky ASMR video, pointing her laser at an enormous fungus. It’s nighttime, and cold. Plants glow in the distance. “It’s carbon!” she whispers excitedly.
Miss Fushi has repurposed No Man’s Sky for her ASMR videos. Its limited action, sound and direction, combined with its infinite world, is the perfect cocktail for tingly relaxation. “No Man’s Sky is an endless expanse of a game,” she told me over e-mail. “You can create your own adventure as you explore, which really is the true spirit of ASMR gaming.”
Expectations for games shape our experiences of them. No Man’s Sky defied expectations, provoking feelings of disappointment and anger. Yet, recontextualized, No Man’s Sky succeeds in a community where its worst qualities are its merits.
“My only regret,” Miss Fushi added, “is that it wouldn’t run as clearly on my PC as I’d hoped.”