(Note – This entire article is filled with conjecture. I often refer to “people saying something” without direct citations, since the “people” in question are often random Youtube/Reddit/forum commenters. I did my best to capture the public sentiments on both sides of the issue, but if you feel I have misrepresented anything, feel free to correct me.)
I’ve already written a brief overview of my take on No Man’s Sky and have spent a good portion of the last few days scouring the Internet for the various criticisms and defenses of the game.
Perhaps the most salient and convincing argument I’ve seen thus far on behalf of NMS is the game isn’t meant to be enjoyed by the standards of traditional mechanics, rather, it’s a game based on “pure exploration.” The argument goes something like this:
“Due to a combination of Hello Games making vague comments about the potential content of No Man’s Sky and Sony pouring a truck load of money into marketing to fuel the game’s hype machine, a lot of players were misled into believing that NMS was a standard AAA game with wide appeal. In reality, NMS is basically an indie game with an indie-sized development team (15 individuals), working on a barely larger than indie budget, with indie ambitions to fill the niche indie market of pure exploration games. Yes, NMS is lacking a lot of expected features, feels bare bones in parts, and doesn’t have a very compelling core gameplay loop by the standards of traditional big budget open world games, but that doesn’t matter because that was never the point of NMS. The game is really just about exploring cool worlds in an enormous universe and seeing everything that there is to see. It’s all about exploration.”
While I completely sympathize with the idea that an indie developer got caught up in a hype machine, and I’m totally on board with seeing small indie games try wildly experimental gameplay techniques… I don’t buy this argument on behalf of NMS.
No Man’s Sky is not only entirely based around exploration, but with its 18 quintillion planets it offers up the largest explorable game world of all time by an incalculable magnitude. Yet I and other players are apparently unconvinced of the apparent value of this exploration due to the perceived repetition of procedurally generated planets and a lack of compelling motivation for the exploration.
This is especially odd given that exploration is already a deeply entrenched component of big budget AAA games. Ever since (arguably) Grand Theft Auto III, open world design has been a staple of major studio releases. While open worlds have many advantages over traditional linear progression or hub-based systems, they also offer the allure of exploration as a component of gameplay. The player isn’t just dumped into a video game environment to complete missions or fight enemies, but also to explore a creative world which only exists inside a given game.
Hence open world design with exploration-based mechanics have been a crucial component of many of the biggest commercial and critical hits of at least the last seven or eight years. Over the last two years alone, we’ve seen games like Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed Unity/Syndicate, Destiny, Grand Theft Auto V, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, and Metal Gear Solid V achieve high degrees of commercial success, critical acclaim, or both. Add on to that long standing titles with legions of diehard fans like Minecraft, Eve Online, and World of Warcraft, and it should be obvious that modern gamers not only have nothing against exploration, but are apparently enthusiastically love it.
So why doesn’t everyone love the exploration in No Man’s Sky? Especially since the game can supposedly offer a quantitatively greater level of freedom and discovery than game ever made.
Defenders of NMS retort that the game is based on a form of exploration that most players (especially a stereotypical Call of Duty fan) are neither inclined to, nor prepared for.
NMS is about “pure exploration,” or exploration for its own sake. The game does not need the baubles and distractions of classic AAA games, like side quests, cities, an endless crafting list, multiplayer, or online rankings. NMS is just about going into the great big open universe and looking at whatever you want to look at. There are no compromises. There is no fluff. NMS players don’t want to be coddled or led along by the shallow gratification of magic Skinner Boxes. NMS players want and get exploration in the fullest, purest sense.
Thus the majority of players don’t not like NMS not because of any inherent deficiency in its design, but because most players don’t care for the unique sensibilities of an indie game with a quieter, more low-key design approach which rewards the more high-brow thirst for exploration for its own sake, rather than the immediate feedback loops seen in most $60 games.
I don’t buy this argument either.
The main problem with No Man’s Sky is the idea that “exploration” is a valid standalone mechanic around which to base an entire game. Exploration isn’t even really a game mechanic, it’s a theme.
Other game developers recognize that exploration isn’t an activity in of itself. Rather it is a theme which is evoked by supporting mechanics. So to design a game around “exploration,” a developer must create mechanics which encourage a “sense” of exploration by properly motivating the player on both a thematic and gameplay level to engage in activities which conceptually evoke a sense of exploration.
Exploration is literally not a thing which can be done for its own sake. Even if you leave your house to physically hike as a means of “exploring” the local countryside, you will still have tangible extrinsic objectives in mind. Those objectives might be as simple as visual stimuli, like seeing a beautiful sight or spotting an animal. Or the objective could be more conceptual, like gaining an understanding of the local topography. The overall process of the hike could be described as a form of “exploration,” but the minute-by minute “mechanics” of the hike have specific objectives which are not literally just “exploration.”
So when NMS fans praise the game’s sense of “pure” exploration (or use some related descriptor), what they are really praising is thematic exploration supported by weak or non-existent mechanics.
Like so many players, I spent dozens of hours exploring the game world in The Witcher 3. I did so by going to marked location on an open world map to discover a variety of quests, caves, monster layers, or other random points of interest. Though at any given moment I may have been riding a horse, walking, sword fighting, using spells, crafting, speaking to people, etc, I was always engaged in exploration in the thematic sense that I was experiencing things I had never experienced before within the confines of a particular game world.
The key difference between this process in The Witcher 3 and NMS, is that in the former, at any given instance I was engaging in mechanics which offered their own incentives and rewards, while in the latter there are no decent extrinsic incentives or rewards.
In The Witcher 3 I might explore a new location on the map because it has a clue as to the whereabouts of the protagonist’s surrogate daughter, and therefore continues the primary narrative of the game. Or maybe I will explore a spot to continue a smaller, self-contained story (ie. side quests). Or maybe I’m searching for rare materials which can be used to craft better equipment to make me stronger. Or maybe I want to learn about the local culture, geography, or ecology, all of which feeds into a larger understanding of the game’s various narratives and lore. Or maybe I just want to enjoy the challenge of fighting a particularly powerful enemy which resides at this corner of the map. Or maybe I just hope there will be a beautiful site produced by the game’s graphics, animators, and map designers at a given location.
All of these mechanics and the motivations which incentivize them feed into each other via numerous feedback loops, all of which intertwines to form the thematic sense of exploration which is so crucial to the value of a big open world game like The Witcher 3.
For instance, in The Witcher 3 a player might get a side quest which requires him to fight a particular beast. But that beast’s weakness is a blade oil which can only be crafted from a particular plant. And that particular plant is only found in a couple of caves in one corner of the game world. This incentivizes the player to explore those caves to find the plant, but to get to those caves, the player will have to travel on roads through towns in which he has never been. And in those towns the player might encounter more quests, or characters associated with different factions, or new crafting schematics which effect his combat ability.
Thus on the whole, this simple task of fighting a single monster might cause the player to have to explore not just a chunk of the game world’s geography, but also a greater portion of The Witcher 3’s biology, ecology, crafting, politics, and narrative, amongst other elements of the larger game.
Contrary to its defenders’ claims, No Man’s Sky does not eschew this design philosophy of thematic exploration based on numerous intertwining sub-mechanics in favor some sort of “pure exploration” approach. Rather, NMS simply doesn’t adequately fill the game with compelling supportive mechanics while largely failing to execute on what mechanics it does include.
I listed a whole lot of motivations for a player in The Witcher 3 to explore; what motivations does a NMS player have? With 18 quintillion procedurally generated planets in the game, why should a player bothering roaming around any of them?
How about an over-arching narrative or objective?
Well, there are basically two of those: the path of Atlas and travelling to the center of the galaxy. Both are functionally the same in terms of mechanics; the player just continues hopping between planetary clusters. Neither offer much in terms of plot or world building beyond the occasional (very light) vague flavor texts. Most importantly, neither incentivize exploration beyond barreling farther into galaxy to see more nearly identical looking (at least from space) planetary clusters, while only stopping on planets for brief resource-gathering excursions.
What about side-quests?
There are none.
What about learning about the alien species, the factions, the lore, etc.?
The lore is interesting at first, but the world building is quickly revealed to be bare-bones. The galaxy doesn’t feel like a place that anyone actually lives in. There are no cities. The player never sees more than two aliens in a room (and even two is quite rare). There are no evolving politics, economies, settlements, etc. The aliens are always in the same places, in the same buildings, and have a low limit of potential encounter situations. They can’t be conversed with beyond a single exchange, and rarely say anything relevant to their cultures, beliefs, etc. There is a faction system but it seems to have no tangible effect on anything, and any semi-competent player will reach max relations with all factions within a few hours anyway. Learning the alien language is a cool idea, but the speed at which words are learned, the number of languages, the extent of their vocabularies, and the mostly vapid content of the dialogue renders it close to useless.
What about combat?
It’s terrible, needlessly difficult, and you’ll probably want to avoid it at all costs. At most the player can marginally increase their ship’s offensive and defensive capabilities via minimal resource collection.
What about upgrading your ship and gear?
This is about the most coherent mechanic in NMS, though it’s also underwhelming and far too shallow for a 40+ hour game.
Yes, the player can explore planets to find resources to build upgrades for his suit or to buy new ships, and there is a certain amount of satisfaction to be found in that simple process of increasing one’s capabilities. But that enjoyment is pretty much limited to acknowledging the effort that went into any particular upgrade rather than the actual effect of the upgrade. In The Witcher 3 the player will want better weapons and armor to fight more powerful creatures and to complete more difficult quests. But in NMS upgrades aren’t really necessary since resource gathering and interstellar travelling aren’t challenging or complicated to begin with. At best the player can mine slightly faster and travel to slightly farther clusters. Even the wide variety of ships the player can acquire are identical in all but external appearance and cargo size. None of the ships travel at different speeds, have different weapon capacities, have connections to different factions, handle differently, etc.
And on top of all of that, the developers made the awful decision to have upgrades take up extremely scarce inventory slots. So the incentive to build upgrades, let alone to explore planets to find resources to build them, is close to non-existent.
How about just seeing the beauty of the procedurally generated worlds?
Sadly, this seems to be the single greatest motivation to explore the 18 quintillion planets of No Man’s Sky. Not that I think there is anything wrong with wanting to see digital worlds, but it seems wasteful to reduce the splendor of the largest video game universe ever conceived to a walking simulator.
Ironically it is precisely this particular motivation which ultimately undermines the overall value of NMS’s famed procedural generation. If NMS’s 18 quintillion planets served as the backdrop for pretty much any other functional game, even a generic FPS or WRPG, it would work fantastically. The variety of topography, colors, shapes, plants, animals, etc. would provide a staggering degree of environmental variety (at least on a purely aesthetic level) which would surely be the high point of almost any game.
But since NMS has so few mechanics, let alone effective ones, and since there are no other decent incentives for exploration, the game ends up leaning too heavily on the value of its procedurally generated planets. It doesn’t take long for players to notice that the 18 quintillion planets all seem to feel rather similar. They all have the same jagged hills, occasional cliffs, and pervasive caves, while lacking any uniquely notable features (no mountains, no plains, no jungles, no crazy sci-fi geography, etc.). Even the much vaunted flora and fauna looks like a mess of stapled together assets without biological coherency.
The planets of NMS are gorgeous and very much worth seeing. Players might even occasionally be stopped dead in their tracks by a particularly beautiful vista or swirl of pastel colors. But the planets simply aren’t different enough to make their exploration on purely sight-seeing grounds worthwhile for long. I, for one, always felt like I never needed to explore beyond my immediate vicinity after landing on a particular planet because I would never see any new geography or ecology of note. Furthermore, I felt like I had basically seen all I needed to see of the entire procedurally generated system after 15-20 planets (or five to six hours of gameplay).
To sum up, No Man’s Sky is worth exploring for about 5-10 hours. By exploring I mean just drifting around a few planets to see the full splendor of the game’s procedurally generated universe. I get that appeal, and I would definitely encourage anyone who hasn’t played the game to try it out (via a friend’s copy, don’t buy it yourself).
But that appeal does not make No Man’s Sky a good game. That appeal means NMS has a really cool environment worth seeing. That’s it. A video game is a fusion of some degree of mechanical and narrative elements on a progression system. Walking around NMS to see its planets is no more a “game” then walking around the Lourve to see old paintings is a “game.”
NMS‘s gorgeous visuals, assets, and universe are all certainly components of a game. They are even original, interesting, and potentially revolutionary components of a theoretical game. But in this game, those components are wasted on empty gameplay built on boring, flawed, and/or nonexistent mechanics.
I was really rooting for No Man’s Sky to succeed, but in its current form, and especially at its current price, I can’t see the game as anything other than a failure. The worst part is that the game’s ultimate folly doesn’t appear to be due to any cut crucial features or technical limitations, but to fundamentally flawed game design. I suppose NMS could become a better game through extensive content-based DLCs, but nothing short of a massive overhaul of the core gameplay will make the game play better than a collection of random, half-hearted mechanics based around a revolutionary technical platform in need of a better game.