We want to start out by saying that this is not a review for No Man’s Sky, the hotly anticipated game by Hello Studios. If anything, this is just us thinking aloud about what this game is and what it means for gaming going forward. The game we released for Playstation 4 on Tuesday and is being launched on PC through Steam today, and there are plenty of reviews already out there. We have poured over all those reviews from both professional and amateur game reviewers and one theme has emerged among them, most people still don’t know what to make of No Man’s Sky.
An Atlas to a Larger Universe
Here is what we know so far with reading reviews and playing through the beginning of the game. First, No Man’s Sky, is -at its core- a game of discovery, but it is also a survival game. Gathering resources to fuel and repair your ship, to power up your exosuit, and even to upgrade and arm yourself are essential gameplay mechanics. Unfortunately, this means that -especially at the beginning- you are going to be spending a lot of time gathering resources just to stay ahead of dying. Thankfully, this is not a hard thing to do and all indications seems to point to the fact that once you upgrade your tools and exosuit a little the task will become easier to accomplish. However, we doubt it will disappear entirely, but that may not be a bad thing.
Being forced to mine also means being forced to explore and if there is one thing that No Man’s Sky gets high marks for it is the sheer scale and wonder of the galaxy it inhabits. While searching for minerals or just trying to survive you can find yourself coming across the most amazing sights. This includes animals of all shape, sizes, and temperaments; plants as big as houses; subterranean caves of fire or ice; or almost anything you can imagine. The galaxy of No Man’s Sky is generated completely by complex mathematical algorithms, and has literally quintillions of worlds to see. That means that whenever you step on a planet or see an alien creature -or run for your life from an alien creature- you are almost certainly the first person ever to do those things. You might be the first person to feed a pink giraffe, or the first person to set foot on a world with floating forests.
Exploration might be the stated goal of the game, but real truth is that there is no goal of this game. You can choose to be guided by an artificial intelligence named Atlas, but even this computer’s instructions are only limited to the most basic of hints. For the most part, players must figure the game out on their own, and that is good. Too often modern games hold our hands and tell us where we need to go and what we need to collect or destroy. No Man’s Sky seems to religiously avoid any hint of having linear goals or quests. This will turn some people off, because it means you may never find that sense of satisfaction you might get from completing a game or beating a final boss. However, there is also a marvelous sense of freedom that comes with literally being your own person. It is just you, your ship, and the ‘black.’ This will probably be the most divisive aspect of the game, but it is also its core principal.
As your own person you can choose to continue exploring or even try your hand at space piracy, but be warned there are consequences. Combat in the game is possible and even sometimes necessary, but thanks to automated sentinels and over-aggressive space police choosing the route of violence has serious consequences. Being a pirate means garnering a vast amount of resources quickly, but it also means having to fight your way past an ever increasing number of galactic police that make the cops in GTA seem tame. It is the kind of thing that would be easier if you had a partner, but that actually leads us to the biggest oversight of No Man’s Sky.
Alone in the Void
There is no multiplayer, and that needs to be stated clearly and unequivocally. You will never be able to find your friends or meet up with another human in the game, and in our opinion, that is the biggest missed opportunity of this franchise. No Man’s Sky could have been like DayZ, but in space. We’re not sure how that would work with the procedural generation of the galaxy, or the astronomical mathematical impossibilities it might take for two players to actually find each other among quintillions of planets and stars, but just knowing that it would be possible would have been a great addition. Multiplayer has been one of the biggest mysteries of this game. Even we were fooled initially by the early reports of what No Man’s Sky would and wouldn’t be. Perhaps, Hello Games never saw this as a multiplayer endeavor, but a game about surviving alone in space. Unfortunately, we believe it may take away some of the replay value for some people. When that initial awe of exploration wears off, what are the vast majority of people going to do?
We are going to use DayZ as a comparison. Similar to its younger space-based brother it is a survival game. There are no goals but to collect items and loot corpses to give yourself a better chance at surviving another day in a zombie-based world. However, the survival and even the zombies do not give the game its main appeal. It is the interactions between players, the weird and crazy things that happen when people are allowed to roam free with no clear objectives. People form survival groups, become fire-extinguisher wielding superheroes, play in a Hunger Games like contest, and generally just get to experience the mean, generous, sadistic, crazy, caring, insane world of a game driven by the players. Now can you imagine all that, but in in an infinite galaxy of worlds and stars? How long would it take before a group of players become a galactic empire, or started a Federation? How long would it take for people to form a Firefly-esque crew of smugglers and outlaws, or an Enterprise-esque crew of explorers? Maybe that would take away the initial lonely space survival feel that Hello Games was looking to achieve, but it is an appealing idea.
To Infinity and Beyond
So what does the future hold for No Man’s Sky? Hello Games has already stated that they will be continuing to support the game with new patches and features going forward. They talked about things like player-owned freighters and even space stations. Maybe they might even choose to add in multiplayer one day, but that is pure speculation on our part. After all, the game is selling like hotcakes -which makes us wonder how well hotcakes actually sell these days- and with today’s release of the PC version there seems to be no indication of it slowing down. It will be interesting to see what the game looks like in a month or six. Will people still be enthralled by its endless wonder or will they have moved back to Call of Duty?
As much as it feel sanctimonious to suggest this, maybe No Man’s Sky is not quite the game we have been waiting for all our lives. Do not get us wrong. We love it and we will be playing for a long time to come, but it is not quite there, at least not yet. More and more online games are trending toward the idea of directionless-player-driven content, and maybe this game is just another large step in the direction we want to go. All it means is that we have not yet reached the Ready Player One aspect of gaming, where players can travel, explore, conquer, and completely shape the game they inhabit. It may take 20 years but we believe that is coming.
So maybe it is unfair to judge No Man’s Sky based upon our astronomical expectations, because let’s face it, if this game had only half the hype that surrounded this past week’s launch then by any metric it would have been a mind blowing success. Over the past few years the game became a magnet for everyone’s unrealistic presumptions, and yet even with all the inflated hype it still manages deliver a beautiful and immersive experience. Perhaps that is why most people and most reviewers -including us- still don’t know how to classify this game. Is it a space-sim, a survival game, some sort of genteel zoological study? Then again, maybe going forward those types of labels are going to be less and less applicable. With the increase of computing power and more open and infinite world simulations, we might find it harder and harder each year to be able to label exactly what games are and what they aren’t.
As for the freshman game by Hello Studios, most of us still aren’t even sure what or if this game will evolve into something completely different later on down the line. The developers have been very tight-lipped about the surprises, Easter eggs, and other content that players are going to find and discover as they progress. Maybe there is still amazing things to uncover that we cannot even fathom yet. What we do know is that No Man’s Sky is about exploring, but real exploring. Truly surviving in space would be a tedious and sometimes incredibly dangerous endeavor and this game does not shy away from those aspects. Yet, even those annoyances are overshadowed by the sense of scale in No Man’s Sky. It is truly mind-blowing.
Living on Earth we might have the academic or existential understanding that we are small specks floating on a small speck in one corner of a small galaxy in a near-infinite universe of stars and planets. However, when you are playing No Man’s Sky that understanding is not just academic, it is driven home with almost every action you take. You could walk for hours on a planet and not even experience a fraction of all it has to offer, and yet you can get into your ship and rocket into space watching as that singular and unique world becomes nothing more than a mote of dust below you, as if it never mattered at all. If there is one thing we can say that this game succeeds wildly at, it is making us feel very very very tiny.