Space is lonely. I mean, I’m not throwing out new information here. But if you think about it, the utter emptiness of the endless black, even with it’s countless stars and celestial bodies, is just staggering. No Man’s Sky, a game set in the vastness of space, captures the loneliness of it all, but not at all in the way I expected.
That last word, expected, is kind of key to this whole deal. It’s impossible to talk about Hello Games’ most anticipated outing without engaging with expectations. First announced back in 2013, the buildup to its eventual release, and the hype surrounding it, was driven by some truly beautiful trailers and a few huge promises, interconnected by huge swathes of radio silence. As a form of marketing, not saying anything looked to be just as if not more effective than the normal deluge of reveal trailers. It also left everyone with questions as to what exactly No Man’s Sky was.
After 30+ hours, I can answer that now.
No Man’s Sky is an exploration focused survival game. Starting on a randomly generated planet, your character, who is quite literally just an avatar for you, is asked to fix a ship in order to get off planet. You do so by using a mining laser to break down flora, fauna, and mineral into its basic parts, and use those to craft and repair the parts needed for your ship. Once you fix your ship, you can then fly off into space, find another planet, and begin crafting and upgrading your ship and laser until… well until you decide to stop. You see, there’s no real reason to do anything in No Man’s Sky besides explore. There’s some semblance of a narrative, with a mysterious force called Atlas beckoning to you, asking you to follow its call, but it’s of absolutely no consequence. It kills me to say that, as someone that kind find something to love in just about any kind of narrative experience, but the more I “progressed,” the less I cared to.
The reason for that is that progression in No Man’s Sky, at least by Atlas’s measure, involves movement through the galaxy, while the best parts of NMS are found by staying still, exploring each planet you find until you’ve exhausted its resources. I don’t mean that literally of course, but nearly everything, from plant types to animal species, are discoverable. Only once in my travels did I ever stumble upon a galaxy where someone else had been before, a fact which I was alerted to by a nice info window that pops up upon first entering a system, and even then, they took only enough time to stop on one planet before taking off to the stars again. Discovering new things with your scanner/binoculars fills out a species chart and also allows you to name and log your discovery. Flying around and discovering things while my son watched became a game unto itself, and he absolutely lit up whenever I called upon him to name something.
But the magic of discovery is offset by NMS’s unending repetitiveness. Each world, while technically different, a single number on a billions of combination seed generator, is empty of other explorers, and only slightly populated with other forms of intelligent alien life. You run into one of a handful of alien species at certain landmarks, like trading posts or manufacturing facilities (they don’t make anything, they’re just named that to give them some flavor). They are all variations on a theme, one species being robotic, another a race of snarling warriors, and never overlap, so the one alien type you find in a system is, at least in my experience, the only alien type you will meet on that system. Dotted across the landscape are small shelters, abandoned buildings, or larger security structures, each displaying as much or less, if possible, variance as the alien types.
Thinking about that last paragraph leaves me depressed. While the loop of taking off, finding a new point on a planet, searching that point for loot, and taking back off feels satisfying during the act, any attempt to think about that journey afterwards is like looking into a black hole, even the brief light of the experience is lost in the darkness. None of the aliens you meet with interact or acknowledge your presence besides maybe a grunt and a bit of canned dialog. In fact, when you break it down to its core, you aren’t even discovering anything, you’re just blindly stumbling around this galaxy, renaming things that were already given names by another culture, finding places that are already inhabited by another people, and destroying life to move forward. I know it’s reading way too much into the game to think about it this way, but the whole thing reads as “journey of human existence as told by a nihilist space hermit.”
The same kind of examination of the look of No Man’s Sky reveals the same kind of experience there too. Up close, the planets are varied and beautiful. While the draw distance is nothing to be proud of, especially when you first fly into a planet’s atmosphere and the ground appears like a solid mass of broken polygons, up close, the world appears colorful and alive. I touched down on planets covered in purple grass, planets covered in water, planets that looked as though they had been through the apocalypse.
But when you step back, the planets themselves were just a coating. They held no secrets that were unique, nothing that would ultimately set them apart from anything else we would see. There were no “giant red spots” like our very own Jupiter, or rings like Saturn. I found no planets covered in ice like Saturn’s moon Europa, and nothing like the volcanic Io. There were no valleys astride giant mountain formations, in fact, I’d be willing to say there were no actual mountains at all, just varying degrees of verticality created at random instead of the work of tectonic plates and erosion. In fact, No Man’s Sky’s greatest weakness is a lack of understanding of what makes a planet a world instead of just a random celestial body. Yes, the “ending” of the game, the big secret squirreled away at the center of the universe, kind of explains this, but no where near well enough to forgive it.
And that’s what we’re kind of left with. An explanation that fits the product released. No Man’s Sky is a missed opportunity to do something truly epic, and while the final game, when measured moment by moment, showed glimpses of something more than merely ordinary, the final result, was far less than. Promises aside, there’s just not enough to this universe to make it worth exploring.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!