What “is” No Man’s Sky?
I ask this question because nearly every defense I’ve read of the game, from errant Youtube comments to early pundit analyses, contains some variation on the statement, “I enjoyed No Man’s Sky for what it is.”
As far as I can tell after twelve hours of gameplay, NMS “is” best described as a road trip. Or at least, the core gameplay feels a lot like driving a car for an extremely long time in one direction while stopping every ten minutes for gas. Because like a road trip NMS is empty, boring, and basically intolerable without music, podcasts, friends to talk to, or all of the above.
But NMS isn’t just any road trip. It’s certainly not like driving the entire length of America’s famous Interstate-80, which takes drivers on a beautiful tour of nearly every geographic wonder in the country, from California’s quasi-Mediterranean beaches to New Jersey’s… underrated farmland. Instead, NMS’s road trip is more like driving the length of Siberia, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostock, in the sense that no matter how far you drive you’re pretty much always going to see the same thing out the window, with very minor variations.
Ok, maybe that’s not fair. Because the player doesn’t actually spend most of his time travelling in NMS, and what travelling is done is either local, or accomplished via a loading screen hidden by a kaleidoscope which is supposed to simulate interstellar travel. Rather the player spends most of his time gathering materials which will either be used to craft fuel which can be used to continue interstellar travelling, or which can be sold to merchants to buy other materials which can be used to craft fuel to continue interstellar travelling. And by “materials,” I mean the same four or five chemical elements which are found in roughly the same locations on every planet. And by “merchants,” I mean one of the three types of alien beings which always stand in the same exact place in the same three or four identical structures on every planet and space station.
So NMS is basically like taking a road trip across Siberia where the driver runs out of gas every fifty miles and must scavenge the local countryside for raw petroleum (which might not be that hard to find in Russia) and bits of valuable rocks, like gold and silver, so that he can sell the valuable rocks to reticent, immobile Russians (who exclusively speak Russian) and then buy chemicals to refine his raw petroleum so the driver can refill his car and continue on the road trip.
I know I sound bitter, but I’m not. I just want to honestly communicate what NMS is. It is, as one random Youtube commenter said, “100 trillion miles wide, and one inch deep.”
We all saw the trailers. We all saw the gameplay footage. We were all told about the amazing technology behind the game and its ginormous size. But prior to its release, we were all told so precious little about what players actually do in NMS, let alone why they do it. And now I know why those questions were never really addressed.
Because the answers seem to be, respectively, “not much” and “for basically no reason.”
To be as clear as possible, the point of NMS is to pilot a ship from the outskirts of the game’s incomprehensibly gargantuan galaxy to its center. Doing so apparently takes between thirty to forty hours, though the developers previously claimed it could take up to 100 hours, and arguably what amounts to a “completiontist” play style could take 200 hours. Either way I honestly I find it baffling that anyone is actually willing to complete the game, unless they are doing so as part of some sort of Desert Bus-style charity event.
The overall objective of getting to the center of the galaxy is fine. The problem is that there is nothing else in the game besides travelling and collecting resources to continuing travelling. And the travelling and resource collecting mechanics are nowhere near close to deep enough to constitute a full-lengthed game, let along 200, or 100, or 30, or really even 10 hours of gameplay.
That’s a real shame for a lot of reasons, the most important of which is that NMS is famously built upon a revolutionary level-generation technology which seems as outlandishly sci-fi to those uneducated in the ways of computer science (like myself) as any of the space age technologies actually seen in the game.
But NMS’s true nature is also a disappointment because of the manner in which the game reveals itself to the player. I’m not sure if I’ve ever played a game which so quickly lifted my spirits before so rapidly crushing them under future expectations of limitless tedium.
When I was three hours into NMS, I was sold. You wake up on a gorgeous, seemingly endless planet filled to the brim with exotic plant life, incredible animals, and odd, but beautiful natural geographic phenomena begging to be explored. You’re tasked with gathering materials from the environment to fix numerous damaged components of your ship. So you set out into this wondrous world with nothing but an alien interface and some sort of beam gun which absorbs elements with a zap. Once the proper elements are collected and the ship is repaired, you launch into the sky (which is owned by no man) and soon blast out of the atmosphere and into outer space. A few resource collecting ventures later, and your ship is equipped to travel between planetary clusters, and the true scope of NMS’s seemingly impossible universe is revealed.
These first three hours are a true work of beauty. I was utterly hooked. I have never in my life played a game with such a sense of scale, and the game designers have done an unparalleled job of capturing it as they slowly introduce the player to larger and larger game spaces. The player starts on the planet with all of its hills, expansive caves, and eternal fields. Then the player leaves the surface and takes to the sky, thereby finding himself zooming over landscapes that may have taken hours to walk over in a matter of seconds. Then it’s on to space where the player can look back at the planet in its entirety as it slowly shrinks as the spaceship flies farther away. In the vicinity might be two or three more planets complete with their own moons, and suddenly that one tiny spot where your ship crashed and you gathered plutonium and iron for thirty minutes doesn’t seem too significant after all. And finally the player shoots out of his local planetary cluster and sees thousands more clusters in his immediate intergalactic vicinity. The scale isn’t just huge, or incomprehensible, it’s impossible.
During these first three hours my mind was lost in space, immersed in potential possibilities. What could a game do with so much? What was out there? What could be waiting in any cluster, on any planet, in any hemisphere, on any land mass, in any cave, in any crevice, that I could see?
Then came hours four and five: the turning point. That was when I stopped thinking “Holy shit! What can this game do?” and started thinking, “Holy Shit! Have I really seen the entire game, with it’s 5 billion years’ worth of content, in three hours?” The answer was, yeah, pretty much.
Yes, it is absolutely amazing that the developers built an engine which created 5 billion years’ worth of original planets, but functionally they’re all rather samey. The galaxy of NMS isn’t like the one in Interstellar where every planet is its own super cool sci-fi “what if” scenario (ie. what if the planet was one big ocean that had waves the size of mountains). Instead there seems to be three general types of planets: ones with lots of grass, barren ones, and ones with lots of lakes (which can be lush or barren). Geographically, every planet seems to have endless rolling hills and occasional caves. There are no colossal mountains, gaping canyons, lush jungles, snow, diamond rain, rivers, or really anything unusual aside from weird mushrooms with wacky colors (there seems to be a lot of purple for some reason). Yeah, there are animals too, and occasionally they are even interesting enough to stare at for five seconds, but aside from being attacked four times in twelve hours and taking pictures of them for petty cash, they are nothing more than moving scenery.
To be fair, the planets are genuinely beautiful, and offer some stunning organic scenery. But with so little to do in this game besides land on planets and collect resources, NMS leans too heavily on the value of this beauty. If these planets acted as the setting for even an adequately serviceable FPS, they would elevate the game and constitute a major success. But in a game this empty, they serve as nothing more than screensaver fodder. Honestly, you’re better off just Googling pictures if you’re thinking about buying NMS purely for the visuals.
For two hours I held onto hope that what was happening wasn’t actually happening. That this process of shooting between planetary clusters until I ran out of fuel, then going to the nearest planet to collect some resources to buy/build more fuel wasn’t actually the entire game. There must be more, right? There must be other goals and sub-quests, or I was only in the first stage of the game still, and things get way more interesting later on. Maybe by making this travel process so time-consuming and tedious, the developers were building anticipation for when something actually did happen. Right?
I valiantly held out hope as I played NMS for another seven hours. I even put on a podcast (Dan Carlin’s fantastic Hardcore History) so at least I could learn about the Persian Empire while I blankly stared into space for what seemed like an eternity. But nothing else happened. The last thing of interest I did was go through a black hole at about hour nine.
By hour twelve I was done. Up until this point I had respected the developers’ wishes to not look up anything about the game’s progression online, but if I was going to continue the mind-numbing interstellar hopping any longer, I needed to make sure I was actually going somewhere. After fifteen minutes of frustrating vague online guidance, I got fed up and just watched the ending on Youtube. I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that the ending is a comical magnification of what is wrong with the core game, and that if for some reason you are forcing yourself to continue the tiresome slog that is NMS, you absolutely should not continue doing so for the sake of the conclusion.
I don’t hate everything about No Man’s Sky. I do think it’s a complete failure as a game and that no one should buy it at its current ludicrous $60 price point, but I don’t hate it.
I have nothing against Sean Murray, Hello Games, or Sony. I don’t know the precise details behind NMS‘s development (no one does aside from the parties directly involved) and I have no means of evaluating who’s to blame for the final product or how much slack should be cut to an indie developer whose first game was over hyped or whether Murray was purposefully evasive about the true nature of the game’s core systems. I greatly anticipated NMS, but only on the basis of its incredibly technology and the vagueries of its open world gameplay. I didn’t have any expectations beyond that. I didn’t need the game to provide me with sprawling hub worlds, a grand narrative, or any of the genre staples seen in Mass Effect or FTL.
I evaluated the game on the basis of its nature as a coherent game. Not on its underlying technology, not on its hype, not on the grounds that some people might like aimlessly flying around environments to look at barely changing scenery for thirty hours, but based on how the game presented itself as an integrated narrative-mechanical system for me to play.
And I evaluated the game on the basis of its $60 price tag.
Whatever else can be said about No Man’s Sky, both the good and the bad, it fails as a video game, and especially fails to provide enough value to warrant its price.
But I don’t hate No Man’s Sky.
Actually I think NMS is fascinating. Both within the game and outside of it, NMS is an enormous confluence of dysfunctional factors which have come together to make what will likely be one of the most controversial and fiercely debated games in years. I won’t be surprised if we are still talking about NMS at Christmas, or if the game garners a diehard fanbase which declares it to be the single greatest leap forward in video game history, or if another big group of anti-fans declares it to be the most pretentious game since Dear Esther.
Over the next few months, video game websites and critiques will be swamped with discussions about the nature of video game hype, the distinction between indie and AAA titles, the merit of a game’s world being too large to comprehend, the value of a game without a decent goal-oriented purpose, how to integrate pure exploration into fun mechanics, whether Sony is at fault for what NMS became, or whether the developers Peter Molyneux-ed their way to disastrously high expectations. And NMS will be the driving force behind all of it.
NMS is a technical marvel. It’s a bad game. It’s a disastrous launch. It’s a beautiful universe. It’s something I kind of think I should hate, but it’s something I kind of think I can’t hate.
But above all else, No Man’s Sky “is” utterly fascinating.