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'No Man's Sky' Isn't What You Wanted. Thank God

I’m cruising through amaranth-tinged vacuum in a dangerously vulnerable starship. Asteroids phase in and out of view, each a lumpen mass my photon cannons can smash into space fuel. A pack of capital ships warps into view like some cosmic rabbit-from-a-hat trick. In the distance, a “distress signal” beckons as pirates needle a flock of lumbering freighters like interstellar bees. Should I join the fray? On whose side? Should I make for a nearby moon instead to scavenge resources? Or the distant “space anomaly” that’s been vying for my attention?

This is Hello Games’ audacious No Man’s Sky, out for PlayStation 4 August 9 and PC August 12. Whether it measures up to years of anticipation depends how much you recall of Hello Games’ original promise: a kind of Zen zoology simulator framed by freeform exploration of psychedelic planet-scapes and bouts of interstellar combat. It is definitely not, to derail the hype train for the umpteenth time, a Space Sim to Rule All Space Sims. And that’s okay, because it turns out “freeform zoology thingy with gorgeous vistas” may be enough.

Here’s how it works: Everyone starts at the edge of the universe on a unique planet beside a crashed spaceship. This is the part where you’re learning how to survive. To get the spaceship working, you have to probe for resources using a jetpack (to get yourself out of holes and soften falls) and a “multi-tool”—a sort of space-age Swiss Army Knife that doubles as a blaster. Potentially lethal variables like temperature and radiation prod you to do this faster depending on the biosphere you’ve lucked into. Your spacesuit mitigates the worst of these, but needs infusions of elements with real or made-up names like Carbon, Plutonium or Thamium9.

Repair your ship by alchemizing the right materials and you can lift off through the clouds and into space, which is the part where you get to see how seamless everything is (as teased in these early videos). From orbit you can leap to other planets or their moons, or dock at space stations to trade with other species or access terminals that connect to a galactic market. Your suit and ship have limited storage slots, so inventory management and supply-demand savvy are crucial. Along the way you’ll unlock “recipes” that let you craft upgrades to your suit, ship or multi-tool, occasionally chancing on cosmic artifacts that tease multi-path backstories or teach you new words in alien vocabularies. It’s pretty much the classic extract-barter-upgrade loop.

But—and this is where the game’s virtues becomes more abstract—it’s also about reveling in the outlandish things Hello Games’ universe-generation algorithm throws at you. Like creepy, towering creatures with lobster eye-stalks and skittering spider legs, or a cavern full of exotic multi-hued flora and dancing luminescent motes, or a sunset so psychedelic and stirring you can’t help but stop to watch. If Minecraft is a procedural game about refining and reorganizing distributed bits of information—all those cubes of dirt and rock and ore into recognizable objects and structures and mechanisms—then No Man’s Sky is a procedural game about instead cataloguing all that procedural output while enjoying the five-star views.

A game this unstructured just goes to show you no two or 10 (or who knows how many) players are going to approach it the same way, or for the same reasons. Someone landed a copy a week early, then decided to race as fast as possible to the center (there’s a mystery there, if you’re up to it) as way of testing claims about the game’s capaciousness. That’s one way to do it, like speed-reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, or winning a hot dog eating contest. Another might be what I’ve been up to during my first day with the game, just ambling around a handful of planets—discovered and named after my children—in nearby solar systems. When you think about how technically vast this game is, that’s like saying you spent a day in contemplation of two or three grains of sand.

But we’ve known all along that No Man’s Sky mathematical grandeur masks a universe that’s nearly as monotonous. There are no grand civilizations sequestered somewhere in this galaxy with Turing Test-passable aliens waiting to wow us with riveting conversation. You’ll never get to square off against other players in tactically elaborate dogfights, or even meet up with friends for an adventure. That No Man’s Sky only gins up content when you’re paying attention to it is almost poetically solipsistic: It’s literally all about you.

The point, if Hello Games has done its job well, is that we’ll only notice all this sameness in relatively small ways, because all we’ll ever see is a microscopic fraction of the game’s vastness. Increase my few grains of sand planetary analogy to a handful (out of all the sand on earth, trebled), and even to that trivial amount of perhaps half a million grains, no player will come close. So in playing No Man’s Sky, you’re thinking less about its theoretical size than what it’s like to move from planet to planet and system to system and galaxy to galaxy, whether following the tendrils of optional narratives, or exploring for the pleasure of exploration itself.

That said, I can see No Man’s Sky potentially losing me for the inverse of all the reasons a game like Minecraft has yet to bore me. Yes, the universe isn’t random, and yes, it’s all extrapolated from a nucleus of elegant mathematics in a way that boggles the mind. But randomness was never the issue with these games. The problem with exploration-driven gameplay at this scale of algorithmic generation is over-generalization, and you’ll start to see it early in No Man’s Sky: Alien outposts laid out the same on every planet; diplomatic chitchats that draw from a shallow pool of conversational possibilities; geometrically unique but interactively homogenous creatures that wander about in all the same aimless ways.

But I’m still coming to grips with what I’m playing. A lot of people bounce off Minecraft because they’re looking for a game it’s not trying to be. Just because hunks of half-chopped trees hang in the air defying gravity, for instance, doesn’t mean Minecraft has a gravity problem. Likewise, just because I’m seeing the stitch lines of the algorithmic generator doesn’t mean I’m not having a blast putting these systems through their paces and seeing all there’s been to see so far.

What would finishing a game like this look like? Collect enough space bucks to buy the coolest ship or spacesuit? Unlock every achievement? Unearth some Ambrose Bierce twist, where it turns out the whole thing’s an elaborate simulation? (Which, technically speaking, a procedurally generated universe already is, right?)

Who knows. I’ve poured hundreds of hours into Minecraft and I’ve yet to visit The End or slay the Ender Dragon. Our idea as gamers about what it means to play much less “finish” these experiences continues to diverge, helped along by intrepid studios reaching higher. Even if No Man’s Sky eventually wears out its welcome, my hat’s off to Hello Games for trying.

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