In 1969, the world followed Apollo 11 as it ascended into our atmosphere and transcended our perceived notions of American achievement.
Despite the eventual success of that mission, President Nixon was not aloof to the potential for tragedy. In a speech titled, “In the Event of a Moon Disaster,” Nixon’s speechwriter Bill Safire penned the following lines:
In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
Which brings me to Hello Games’ most recent video game, No Man’s Sky.
There are no boxes into which one can put No Man’s Sky (NMS). A mixture of survival and adventure, NMS is fun and frustrating in ways that I’ve never really experienced before.
One of NMS’s most hyped features, the procedural generation of the game world, works as advertised, and you are able to travel from planet surface to space and back without any loading screens. It’s not just open world, it’s open universe, and I’d love to see other games take advantage of this type of technology.
Yet, the luster of procedurally-generated worlds quickly wears off after a few hours. As you explore planet after planet, you realize that the gameplay becomes incredibly repetitive and mundane. There are a quintillion miles of worlds to explore, but the experience on each is only an inch deep.
In short: You will marvel at parts of NMS, but you will enjoy them much less at its current $60 price.
When you launch the game, you’re greeted with
NO MAN’S SKY in black against a white background. What I love most about this title is the capital
S letterform, where the bottom tail of the spine is shorter than the top. Typically, when creating a typeface, the designer will attempt to instill a sense of symmetry, of balance. But this
S, should it be rendered into a physical form, would most surly topple over.
All that to say: I think this letter represents a large part of the NMS experience: unbalanced, yet unique.
After making your way through the title sequence, you’re presented with a white screen and prompt to
Initialize... by holding down
Square. After a few more seconds of blank screens, you’re thrown into the game.
With no backstory, you awake next to your damaged ship, and you’re tasked with finding the materials needed to make repairs. This process doesn’t take long, but it does give you an opportunity to become accustomed to the somewhat unintuitive control scheme.
Brief interpolation on menu UI — The interface of NMS isn’t great. Although you adjust to the menus and the convoluted way they have you managing inventory, the whole system leaves a lot to be desired. I also can’t ignore the blatant similarity of NMS’s user interface to the one Bungie designed for Destiny. Both use a freely moving cursor for navigating menus, but Destiny’s implementation is far more usable and typography conscious. I don’t mean to bash an indie studio, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with copying Destiny’s approach, but if you’re going to copy an interface that won an AIGA Cased 2015 award, make sure you copy the right parts. — End interpolation
Whatever preconceived notions you have regarding pace of play, forget them immediately. After 15 minutes of NMS, the most common complaint will undoubtedly be the severe case of whiplash that occurs when you play a game that gives a damn about time and space.
As you navigate the planet surface, you’re allowed limited use of sprinting and a jet pack, but it almost doesn’t matter. These planets are to scale, and everything takes a couple of minutes to reach. It’s not as annoying as it sounds, and once you adjust to the speed, it becomes relaxing. Strange, yet enjoyable and cathartic.
To me, the most undersold feature of NMS was the element of survival. Leaning how to keep your gear and ship maintained is critical to any form of success. Can we even call it success? You survive because you have to survive. There are no bonuses, better gear, or awards, other than you getting to continue on living. Survival, in this way, feels alien. Alien because survival games rarely make the survival process feel as nonchalant and deadly as NMS does.
Even though keeping yourself alive requires somewhat constant maintenance and monitoring (a process that is significantly lessened by what can only be the most annoying and overprotective personal notification system ever), staying alive and managing resources becomes key influencers in where you go and when.
Planets, although numbering in the billions, begin to feel the same after a while. Go to a planet, strip mine it for resources, and then leave. The game tries to provide incentives for sticking around, like achievements for finding all the species on that planet or learning all of the current alien dialect, but the payoff for accomplishing those things pales when compared to grabbing resources and leaving.
The planet design is varied, but often only slightly so. I’ve visited a dozen or so planets, and they’ve all been similarly barren and bleak. They’re not the sort of worlds you want to stick around, and I’m thankful I could leave.
But one planet was beautiful. So large that it was perpetually night, the faded neon colors and lush landscape around me were calming. Small particles drifted through the air, and reflected the light coming from two different white moons. I found it hard to believe this was generated by an algorithm and not painstakingly drawn up by a designer. I spent a good five minutes just walking around, looking at things.
I wish I could have stayed there. I wish the game gave me a reason to stay there.
However, this style of play is not meant to be. In this game, you’re perpetually a visitor, never a resident, and it’s this sort of superficial gameplay that leads to mundane repetition. Look, touch, leave. Now do it again for every planet in the universe.
Additionally, NMS feels constantly at odds with itself and what it wants you to focus on. First go collect these two elements, now travel a few million miles to another system, now visit this small, abandoned outpost, only to immediately leave the entire planet and go to the next. This cadence of play would occasionally leave me in a state of continual low-grade anxiety.
About an hour into my journey with NMS, I was given access to the galactic map, which you can use to plan out jumps between star systems. However, by gently pulling back on the left stick, your field of view will begin to expand, and galaxy after galaxy will zoom past. Two minutes later, should you continue holding down the left stick, you would still be hurtling through space as an unfathomable amount of galaxies, planets, and species you will never see fly by.
This is NMS at its best. A seemingly limitless potential for exploration and never knowing what lies ahead all culminate in one emotion: wonder. Unfortunately, this wonder never gets fully realized.
At $60, I can’t recommend NMS. Although, we’ve finally been given the endless, no rules sandbox gamers have been waiting for, it’s evident the number of galaxies don’t matter if the actual gameplay isn’t compelling for more than a few hours.
NMS is an incredible tech demo from a small indie studio, and it would have been a great $20-30 digital title. It’s not a bad game, just overpriced and overhyped.
It’s rare to find a game with no villains to hunt down, people to save, or leaderboards. It’s just the universe and you. And yet, despite this banishment to a seemingly unescapable oblivion of relentless, forced discovery, I feel a small sense of pride whenever I open the galactic map and see the planets I’ve visited.
A small corner of the universe, now forever mankind.