I forgot to post this. Oops!
Due to the runaway hype train No Man’s Sky has both benefitted immeasurably and suffered immensely from, it’s probably important to make it clear what this video isn’t before we begin. It isn’t a list of grievances comparing the advertisements and the finished product – plenty of people are already cataloguing those elsewhere. And honestly, talking about concepts like where the line is between a lie to your audience and being open about a game that is still in development and evolving with features that might not make it in the final build could fill its own video. It also isn’t a technical criticism – yes, the game has crashed on me ( a lot ) and yes I’ve seen weird bugs but I’m not one of those rah rah 60 FPS where’s-the-field-of-view-sldier consumer rights guys, and I’m not really interested in looking at the game from that angle.
What I am interested in is how the final game we have in our hands comes together. Not a bundle of promises, not a pile of extrapolated hype, but a real game running real code with solidly defined systems that we can sit down and play with. How do those systems come together, and do they add up to anything? What makes No Man’s Sky work or not?
Well the “what makes it work?” part is actually easy to get to. The game’s at its best when it evokes the Captain Hoek and Cadet Stimpy episodes of Ren and Stimpy or the first episode of Rick and Morty. Exploring strange, alien worlds is kind of this game’s whole raison d’etre, and it manages to procedurally generate some fantastic landscapes, flora, fauna, and vistas. I’ve had to hide in a cave when a thermal storm settled over my location and I was out of fuel for my life support systems. I’ve been to a frigid, snowy world with gold nuggets the size of houses, but I couldn’t find anyone to sell it to on-world. I’ve seen coral venting gas on the jagged coastline of a world where the ocean was super radioactive. I’ve mined calcium from spherical fruits on a planet where poaching was rigidly enforced by sentinels. I’ve seen worlds that look like Planet Namek, LV-426, the world of Dr. Seuss, and CGI Trapper Keeper covers from the 90’s It’s not the full spectrum of biomes or planet types – there are no gas giants or purely water worlds or rolling deserts here – but each location feels sufficiently different that it takes several hours of play and a few dozen planets before you get a true sense of the limits of the algorithms being used. And in those moments when you’re exploring a new world you don’t fully understand and are trying to come to grips with what life forms are friendly or deadly, what plants provide you which resources, and what local weather and hazards are like the game really shines. Each time you land on an undiscovered planet you feel like you’re an explorer, a scientist, a documenter of new worlds. Those first five to ten minutes on each planet is the high that keeps me playing this game, the fuel that keeps this experience together.
But once you have the lay of the land you run into the game proper, and it’s there that things take a sharp decline. First of all, the UI is a usability nightmare across the board. Normally I’d consider this a petty complaint, but it’s everywhere. Crafting and character upgrades are done from the same screen because they both consume inventory slots, which means you’re constantly hitting the wrong button for whatever it is you’re trying to do there. This is exacerbated by the fact that, at least on the PC, the less comon activity, upgrading, is the left mouse button, while the more common activity, crafting, is the “E” key. There’s also this weird thing where personal inventory slots and ship inventory slots are the same size on the scene, but personal inventory slots can only hold half as many stacked resources as a ship slot. Meanwhile, character and ship upgrades can’t be moved from where they’re created for no real reason other than the game hates you for wanting to have a clean inventory screen. The game only saves in two ways – when you get to a save point at a base, or when you leave your ship. This means a lot of the time you’ll go to end your play session by selling all of your junk at a space station and will need to get in your ship, then get out of your ship to save. Then once you’ve needlessly hiked to and hopped in and out of your ship, you can quit. Multiple people have reported that the ending of the game can be bugged if you reach the final Atlas shrine without enough Atlas stones – there’s no way to find your way back to the final shrine after getting more and shrines seem to stop spawning in the universe afterwards. And if you reach that bad state there’s no way in-game to start over and not sell the stones this time! The preorder bonus ship forces you to skip large parts of the tutorial in a way that can be confusing to new players. There are a million little things things like this – if you accidentally hit the land button there’s no way to cancel the landing sequence and launching off again requires a lot of plutonium, so you’re always carrying more than you need. There’s no way to submit all found planets and systems at once, so you end up clicking through all of them and generating “Units Received” over and over. Again, I could keep going, and I hate bringing it up at all because each one of these is a somewhat petty complaint or minor usability issue but in aggregate it makes the act of actually playing the game really, really frustrating.
However, one-off awkward design and usability decisions can theoretically be patched. No Man’s Sky has a bigger, more fundamental problem. It doesn’t have any meaningful direction, systems-wise. It feels like a game that had this really cool terrain generation tech developed and then tried to fill the game with “stuff to do” for fear that there wouldn’t be enough. Very little of No Man’s Sky’s systems interact meaningfully or have sufficient depth onto themselves, and the result is that the game feels confused about what it even wants to be. It’s not really a flying game – landing is automated, docking is automated, flying in-atmo is severely curtailed to prevent collisions with the ground or buildings, and most in-space flight is just… waiting to arrive. It has social systems, like naming planets and animals and scanning for the discoveries of others… in a universe so vast you’re unlikely to ever find anything by another player. There’s combat, but on-foot fighting feels like playing those shoot-the-water-in-the-clown-to-explode-a-balloon games at the carnival and the space combat requires investing in precious inventory slots to bother engaging with. It’s a trade game insofar as there are things to collect and things to sell, but because most of the game is about getting the fuel to move between star systems exploiting local supply and demand isn’t really an option – really, it ends up just being a randomized sale and purchase price because finding any other trade post is such a pain. There are survival-game like mechanics that require you to constantly harvest resources lest you run out of oxygen, but because they’re so easy to come by and because death has virtually no consequence other than having to pick up your inventory it can’t rightly be called a survival game proper. And there’s nothing that says the game has to fit neatly into any one of those genres, but it clearly gestures vaguely in those directions and then doesn’t commit to exploring any of them. It doesn’t dig deeply into space flight, it doesn’t dig deeply into trading, it doesn’t dig deeply into survival. It just sort of borrows the core loops of other games that execute on those ideas with more depth, energy, and interest.
If it’s anything, No Man’s Sky is an exploration game of a sort. Like I said earlier, each new planet really is a treat; a surprise of colors and texture, flora and fauna, weather and geography. They are a reward to the player in and of themselves. And the game’s attempts to get you to explore what’s going on on the next hill over, the next planet over, the next star over, and beyond really seem like the game’s only real directed design element. It’s a game about finding things because they’re there to be found. Unfortunately this theme of discovery is somewhat undercut when you can’t mark location on a globe or mark a star system for a return journey. Your discoveries of amazing alien life and radioactive purple sunsets, however cool they may be, are of a transitory nature. Even simple exploration rewards, like knowing where a trading post is on the surface of the planet, become lost once they are no longer on your radar. You can’t go back. Philippa War pointed out on Rock Paper Shotgun that No Man’s Sky is less a game about discovery than it is a game about nomadism. If the game has any theme it’s that – you are a stranger in strange lands forever looking for a home that doesn’t exist. You are a creature that doesn’t speak any of the languages of the universe’s three dominant species. You don’t know why you’re here, and you’re pretty sure you don’t belong. No Man’s Sky is about homelessness and the need for purpose in a world where home and purpose don’t exist. In its own weird way it’s kind of an absurdist game without as much of the humor as one would expect. Here’s a vast, complicated world in which you mean very little. You’ll never fully understand it – just recently there was the kerfluffle about whether named animals stay in the system – and so trying to divine meaning from it is pointless. You can cling to Atlas’ promises or try to reach the center of the galaxy or just continue exploring ad infinitum – the game doesn’t really care and none of those really matter. Good luck finding purpose and meaning out there! In a sense it’s a much better experiment in absurdism than Only If. But the game is just so clumsy with its… well, its everything that it feels accidental. It’s like it bumbled into this theme by omission of any point rather than being a game about a universe that doesn’t have a point. And Phillipa War pointed out over at Rock Paper Shotgun, Hello Games has noted a desire to include base building in future releases which kinda ruins the idea of a nomad forever seeking a home or a point. There’s no coherence to any of its systems, no clear idea or experience that it really wants to sell other than those procedurally generated horizons. Much like Spore it’s a content generation engine first, and a bunch of game systems layered on top afterwards. And like Spore, it feels like a hodgepodge of other people’s games because it uses those games to give context to its generated content.
If No Man’s Sky works at all, it works best as a zen game. If you try to engage with it as a more active game it will let you down – you’ll run into a million interface quirks and after you best those you’ll find the shallowness of the game’s systems make trying to play it deep or seriously an unrewarding experience. But those shallow systems are actually a draw for the sort of zone-out vegging that zen games excel in. I could do a separate video on zen games a concept (there’s a really good piece by Ian Bogost on Gamasutra I’ll link below), but basically I mean a game that is less actively played than it is meditative. No Man’s Sky provides just enough systemic rigging to give your hands and mind something to do in the background while you process other stuff, and rewards you for these casual interactions in amazing views, words of new languages, and fuel to keep you moving through the stars. People joke about smoking some weed and playing the game, and while I’ve never tried that in particular approach I think there’s a reason that idea has sort of caught on. It’s a great game to lose yourself in for a while – not in the immersive separate reality sense like so many people seemed to want, but in a more useful sense of turning off your brain to relax after a hard day or quietly collecting your thoughts as you collect plutonium. Like everything else in the game I kind of feel like this was arrived at by accident – this isn’t the designed, intentional zen game of Animal Crossing or fl0wer. But it is why the game stays on my harddrive. It’s a fantastic game to zone out to. There’s something soothing about just retreating into your own head for a while while collecting mental postcards of sunsets on alien worlds. There may not be a profound purpose or higher calling in the universe of No Man’s Sky, but that doesn’t mean No Man’s Sky can’t provide some solace to people in this one.
The tragedy of No Man’s Sky isn’t that it failed to deliver on some absurd hype, or that the game that was promised in ads wasn’t the game we got. The tragedy of No Man’s Sky is that it never got the chance to be received for what it is – a flawed game made by a small team that still manages to achieve at least a few exciting, worthwhile things. Just tonight when I went to get some pickup footage I befriended a mushroom thing that gave me a present (that weed thing continues to make more and more sense). Then I went to a world with floating discs covered in moss above a rocky surface. Then I visited a gorgeous planet with space pumpkins and red palm trees and a ton of alien ruins and… this thing. All of that was one star system among billions and in maybe a half-hour of play. I can’t think of a single game that can continue to surprise me visually like that. What other games do very well it does incredibly poorly, but what No Man’s Sky does well it does well all by itself. It may have a terrible interface and a haphazard design, but there really is nothing else like it out there right now. And I think in the middle of all these conversations about what No Man’s Sky could have been or what should have been we ought to take a moment to recognize what it is, and really try to find the value in that rather than just lament what it isn’t.