It’s hard not to have a greater discussion about managing expectations when talking about No Man’s Sky, and for good reason too. No Man’s Sky is the fifth game from indie developer, Hello Games, but the first of theirs that doesn’t involve motorcycles and stunts.
To boil it down, you’re traveling to procedurally generated planets in a procedurally generated galaxy with all kind of procedurally generated creatures and plants for you to analyze and collect. At face value that sounds like a pretty compelling concept. Who wouldn’t want to be the Lewis and Clark of space? The problem is that No Man’s Sky feels more like a tech demo and less like a fleshed out game.
The “carrot on a stick” is the center of the universe, where some grand mystery allegedly lies. To get there however is a true test of patience. You collect the resources you need to power your hyper-drive which allows you to get to the next planet which has resources to power your hyper-drive, so on and so forth. That core loop isn’t inherently bad though. What is bad is how dreadfully dull each of these planets feel. They all contain the same series of core resources, landmarks, and outposts. The most diverse part about these planets is the flora and fauna you’ll find scattered around. Sure, it was cool to see a giant mushroom that hops around, but I’ve already seen a few variants of that already on other planets.
These things are mostly forgivable though. Some people will absolutely enjoy roaming these vast landscapes, which in all fairness are impressive in scope. My main umbrage with No Man’s Sky is that it doesn’t go far enough in it’s gameplay mechanics. It tries to be a survival game and an exploration game, and fails to deliver on both accounts. Sure, you’ll need to maintain your life support systems, gather fuel and manage your inventory, but these things quickly feel more like a nuisance and less like meaningful mechanics.
In a more hardcore survival version of No Man’s Sky, not only would you be hunting for resources for your ship and suit, but you’d also need to scavenge for food and assemble shelter. With the nigh infinite kinds of animals and vegetation in the game, it could be interesting to have to establish what plants are edible and not toxic, or what animal you can make the best steaks out of. Strand me on planets, challenge me with surviving in an unfamiliar and perhaps unforgiving place, cause as of now I have no incentive to not just buy every resource I need and fly to the center of the universe.
Alternatively, No Man’s Sky could have gone in the complete opposite direction and have been more exploration focused. Drop the resource and inventory management and give me a procedurally generated version of Pokemon Snap. In lieu of resources on the planet, give me more intricate and interesting plant and animal life for me to document and inspect. I’d love to see which of these groups of animals is the predator and which is the prey, or how the raise their young, or even interact with the world itself. As of now these animals just exist on a planet and move from one side of the landscape to the other.
But as it is, No Man’s Sky is a completely underwhelming experience that doesn’t scratch either itch for a survival or an exploration game. It sits somewhere in the middle of these two experiences and doesn’t add anything aside from making you feel isolated and alone in a gigantic universe. If you stop to think about your size and impact on the galaxy, you realize how very small and insignificant you really are. You’re just one person exploring a gigantic universe on your own, charting your discoveries along the way.
Except no you fucking aren’t, because on every planet you’ll find some aliens willing to sell you stuff, ships flying through the sky and occasionally trying to murder you, space stations in every star system and space cops on every planet just waiting for you to fuck up and try to cut a tree down. The whole wonder of exploring and naming things is all ripped from you when you realize there’s just some alien sitting in his office asking you for carbon or plutonium in exchange for a better mining gun or more inventory space.
Suddenly No Man’s Sky goes from being about exploring the unknown, to walking into someones house and renaming their kids to “Butt” and “Fart” because you can. You turn into this wandering vagrant who lands on already named planets, and renames them and it’s inhabitants to whatever insane things you feel like.
I never feel like I’m actually doing anything in No Man’s Sky. I never feel like I’m making any meaningful progress or discovering anything interesting or even discovering anything at all. I’m just Christopher Columbus, going around “discovering” things that were already found and pretending like I’m the most important being in the universe. Maybe that’s the secret meaning of No Man’s Sky, or maybe I’m giving the game too much credit. Either way, I’m not having fun with it anymore and it’s because worst of all, No Man’s Sky doesn’t value my time as a player. It’s a grind to do anything and the grind isn’t ever fun.
It’s all such a shame because there are some truly interesting ideas in this game that are easy to overlook. The dialogue and language systems in particular are some of the coolest concepts in No Man’s Sky, but just like everything else they don’t go far enough. As it stands, you go up to a terminal or find a strange monument in the wild, hold the “interact” button and learn a new word in an alien language. When you start talking to an alien vendor, you might have some words translated for you, thus making it easier to understand what this alien needs. Sometimes when you’re right, you get a new ship or a new gun. But if you answer inappropriately, you risk taking some damage or losing some money, which may as well be no punishment at all.
A system like that in the next Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls game could be fantastic and add a whole new layer to dialogue in games. In No Man’s Sky however, the system just feels wasted. “Oh no, I didn’t get a cool ship from you, I’ll just fly a minute east and try the next guy who lives in isolation on this planet”.
All things considered, despite my ranting and anger, it’s not impossible for someone to fall in love with this game. It has a calming tone to it both in visuals and soundtrack, and is an easy way to lose a few hours of your night. No Man’s Sky might be a fun experience for you, but for me it’s been a disappointing and repetitive game that I doubt I’ll touch again until it’s next major feature update.