There’s a game out there, at least in our imaginations. It’s the No Man’s Sky that Hello Games trotted out for big shows like The Game Awards and E3: a game about exploration in discovery in a vast, mysterious universe, where the player shot through uncharted territory discovering galaxies and planets awash with strange, beautiful things, no two moments ever the same. What we got tried to emulate this, but never on a scale to make it truly manageable: it was a game about zapping rocks and samey plants while occasionally documenting one of a limited number of variants on the same janky animal. The video game world did not judge it well.
Today, we get a new update with some cool new stuff in it. It focuses on base-building that allows the player to make a home out in the stars by farming resources, recruiting helpers and building advanced structures. There are also freighters that can carry large amounts of resources as well as some general quality of life improvements and new game modes (survival does seem genuinely interesting). Paul Tassi thinks its great, and generally it seems like this does a lot to make this more like a Minecraft in the stars, with more player agency than the base game ever offered.
I like the update, and I like the idea. But I get the feeling that Hello is still building a different game from the one we all wanted to play: the real hard stuff in this game would be making planets feel genuinely different, allowing for real discovery with active ecosystems, abundant life and a sense of wonder that’s able to sustain itself for hours and weeks, rather than just the first few moments of play. There is little in the update that addresses the gaming world’s myriad problems with the game, and little to encourage that sense of loneliness, exploration and awe that we were sold however many moons ago. The base requires constant fast travel back to a single location — to me, this erodes the very core of what makes this game special. A game with a fast travel system like that just doesn’t have scale: there’s never a sense of being far from home if you can get back there in a quick jump.
That doesn’t mean No Man’s Sky can’t still be a great game. It’s just that I don’t think we were ever going to get that game we all wanted, and it may well seem more and more impossible as Hello builds out stuff like this. We’re going to get a different game instead, which is fine, I suppose. I’m excited to play it, but I still wonder what that game would have been like.