Like so many other gamers I watched with bated breath as the No Man’s Sky trailer played for the very first time. It was VGX 2013 and I was entirely captured by the game’s ideas and visual design. Of course, my optimism was cautious: I had been burned in the past on similar titles like Spore and even Minecraft. Open ended isn’t my thing – wacky creatures, though…
Flash forward nearly 3 years.
Not even a week since No Man’s Sky released and it’s already the bud of extreme controversy. What I saw as nothing more than a space ass-kicking simulator, others eagerly anticipated hours of dog fights and cooperative exploration. What looked to me like a game that had absolutely no game appeared to be the latest and greatest in game play experience to at least half of those lying in wait.
It took the game being leaked and the first update for me to actually decide to pick the title up. The weird “3 paths” concept offered direction and “hand of God” in what I considered to be a storyless exploration vehicle. I also found out the multiplayer was basically nonexistent: that more invested and skilled player would not be randomly showing up into my star system and destroying my ship. I picked it up on release.
Seconds into the game I was hooked.
One of the arguments made to me multiple times is that players are seeing this as just another survival game. The same formula, they claim, that’s been repeated over the past few years. Fans of the genre are burnt out and looking for something new.
The only thing I agree with is it is a familiar genre, but not survival: Sim. No Man’s Sky is a simulation game at its core.
Look at the Sims, our best example. There is no story progression or goals other than the loose end game (Lifetime Aspiration) and minor goals (Aspirations). The story is nonexistant with the only real narrative being the progression of the Goth family and other NPCs. During the game you “survive” by managing your needs and death is a possibility, yet no one argues the Maxis/EA franchise as a member of the survival genre.
No Man’s Sky offers a similar game play experience. You have to micromanage just enough to ensure your systems stay online and there’s enough fuel to get you where you want to go. There is a loose goal (get to the centre of the universe) and a story that unfolds through exploration. I would argue that No Man’s Sky is a lot more story driven than a traditional sim game, however, the second genre I would tack on is “walking simulator” or similar.
The game may be a modern marvel of procedural generation and coding but it is by no means a masterpiece. The repetitive nature even of the tiny story blurbs found on planets get to be taxing and systems not being well in place to find resources effectively can leave you wandering far longer than necessary. Several improvements could be made in more areas that I care to comment here, so just know that things should be better. Graphically it’s beautiful and finding new animals is exciting, even if some look oddly familiar to real world creature chimeras.
Even with all of its problems, No Man’s Sky has something going for it that other games just can’t provide: true escape. Dropped onto a planet with almost no direction, I truly felt emerged in the world before me. I was a spaceman, my memory lost, travelling presumably far from my home. I could be anyone! This wasn’t a character I created, this wasn’t some already written person I took control of, it was me. I was exploring space!
With each scanned flora and fauna my hype for No Man’s Sky grows. With each new discovery and silly name my love broadens. With each alien monolith and knowledge stone discovery my eyes widen with officiousness as I venture forth in my path to discovery. I need to know more. Now.
No Man’s Sky is not a game for someone who wants to shoot aliens or become a space pirate. It’s for the player who can be driven by their own desire to learn. For someone who is content in the journey to discovery and who is willing to make their own path and write their own stories. In a traditional video game you’re somehow inhibited: through story progression, player level, or some other barrier to lead you down an obvious directional path. That’s not to say No Man’s Sky doesn’t stop you from progressing through the need to build upgrades and find resources, per se, just that it does feel as if the game has blocked you in compulsion. Instead, it’s what you want.
For a few hours I can exist in a new world and live as me outside my own life. I can go anywhere, do anything, limited only by the work I’m willing to perform. I can find something, be somewhere, that not a sole has traced before me. Each discovery is mine, and mine alone. Perhaps in some ways it can capture the emotions of the first explorers as they probed our own corners of the Earth. I wonder if my personality, my heart, my soul, is with those men of bold regard who blazed a path of discovery against all odds and through arduous work. The same that drives me to travel, to learn, to grow as person beyond cheap thrills and violence.
The saddest part of No Man’s Sky is the game creators hid the 1950s sci-fi story under layers of resource gathering, ship upgrades, and space channel; isolating those who didn’t have enough inquisitiveness to continue their journey long enough to make those discoveries. It may not be game of the year, it might not even be game of the month, but after seeing what sort of adventure it really is I can safely say I have never experienced anything quite like No Man’s Sky. Sadly with the poor reviews and backlash it’s hard to say if I ever will again.