No Man’s Sky – A Game of Moments

My very first planet in No Man’s Sky was a frozen hellscape. During the day, it was too cold to venture outside my broken ship for long. The environmental protection in my exosuit ticked down at a steady rate. The night was even worse. This made the very first objective of the game–finding a specific resource five minutes away–unusually difficult. I was five minutes away from one of the resources I needed, which was a bit too long without finding some zinc along the way. There was enough, just enough, to make the run and return to my ship. Which made me feel like the section was scripted, even though that’s fundamentally impossible.

It’s impossible because the planets in No Man’s Sky are procedurally generated. No one crafted them. They are created by algorithm and seeded with outposts, life, and resources. From reading about the experiences of others, I had a particularly harsh go of it in the beginning. But everything turned out fine. I repaired my ship and departed the planet to explore new, more hospitable ones.

The next few planets I discovered were fairly dull. Very few animals, lots of plants, and a variety of harsh conditions that weren’t quite as brutal as my homeworld but still a hindrance to exploration. Then, in my second star system, I landed on a remarkable world. Every few minutes, it was battered with beautiful and toxic storms. The sky was full of long, dragon-like creatures and large insect-fish hybrids. Wherever I went, these creatures were dancing around in the clouds above me. I stayed on that planet for a long time, despite the toxic storms, finding seven separate exosuit upgrades (which were incredibly useful going forward) as well as some good deposits of Emeril that helped fund my first new ship purchase.

Finding that planet was a unique experience. It wasn’t just unique to the game, it was unique within the game. With billions of stars, very likely no one will ever find that planet again. And if they do, the dope flying creatures will all have the silly names I assigned them. Sure, there are countless planets like that one. That’s one of the big criticisms of No Man’s Sky–procedural generation is tethered by the resources it can draw upon. There’s a finite limit to the features of planets and animals, and those features can only be combined so many ways.

But while the worlds can (at times) become same-y, they are unique. When I was exploring that planet, I was exploring a completely uncharted environment. Even the creators of No Man’s Sky had never seen the geography. The game was allowing me to literally go where no man had gone before. That’s true even if there are lots of similar places that are being explored at the same time.

No Man’s Sky is, for better or worse, a video game that makes me think about how we talk about video games. On some level, it is flat out ridiculous to say that NMS belongs to a category that includes Zero Time Dilemma, a game that is all about a carefully scripted (but weirdly paced) story, and Street Fighter V, a multiplayer competitive fighter with matches lasting mere minutes. How can we consider all of these works to exist in the same medium? They are all, essentially, virtual experiences. But they operate on–and entertain/inform on–completely different principles.

So how do you critique a game like No Man’s Sky? There really aren’t comparable games. Sure, there are other space exploration sims. I even wrote about Elite: Dangerous last year. But let’s be clear, No Man’s Sky is not Elite: Dangerous. It is barely a space sim, if only because “space” is so unambiguously faked. Planets do not orbit around stars, distance to a star does not affect planet composition, your ship doesn’t collide with anything but asteroids, and there is no actual physical/virtual space between systems. When you “warp” to another star, you are essentially just scrambling the world around you to meet the specifications of that star. There is little in the way of sense of physical scale/progression because the “distance” between stars is faked.

This sounds like a weird, petty complaint, but it means that I don’t go to NMS for the same reason I go to Elite: Dangerous. Elite: Dangerous successfully created a sense of place in space. NMS creates a sense of place on planets.  Each planet itself is a new world, and is largely disconnected from the sense of space/distance. At times it feels like going between worlds is just a barely-responsive menu rather than an actual solar system I’m exploring.

So we can’t look at other space exploration games as a point of comparison to NMS, because it largely fails at what that genre is explicitly about–exploring space. What about survival games? The key gameplay loop of NMS is gathering resources to stay alive and maintain forward momentum on your way towards the center of the galaxy. Your life support is constantly ticking down, every takeoff requires fuel, every warp jump requires a warp cell, and all of these resources require gathering or crafting. Sounds like a survival game! The problem with that is that NMS isn’t hard. Outside of my sheer bad luck on the first planet, I never was threatened with any consequences.

Life support, mining beam, and launch thrusters are powered by plutonium, which is everywhere. Pulse engines are powered by another isotope, which is in most asteroids. And warp cores are easy to craft if you have a few thousand units to put towards some suspension fluid.

Don’t get me wrong! This is not a bad thing. If resources were legitimately scarce, NMS would be a miserable experience. But, as it is, it doesn’t really stand as a survival game. And combat? Space combat can be a challenge, mostly because of awkward float-y controls, but that can be mitigated by continuously recharging your shields with titanium. Planetary combat is a joke and maybe the only thing I’m willing to go really all-in criticizing.

Every planet is guarded by Sentinels, guard robots that attack you if you offend them. On some planets, they don’t give a shit what you’re up to. On others, they attack the second you land. Most planets are in between, with a certain level of hostility towards animals/exploitative mining required to trigger them. On their face, they present a decent challenge/obstacle. There’s only one problem: the second you pass through a doorway–any doorway–they immediately lose interest in you. No matter how angry they were before you slipped inside a building, they completely forgive and forget when you cross the threshold.

This is made especially clear at manufacturing plants and operational centers–locked buildings you can break into for blueprints and resources. These buildings are sealed with steel doors that you have to blow up in order to enter. As soon as you attack them, the sentinels respond in force. But you can just sit there, absorbing their shots, while you finish destroying the locked door. Then you can step inside to the place they were ostensibly protecting and…and they just forget you. Watch this:

I like most of the things that are broken about NMS–the weird, janky creatures especially. But the sentinels are kind of inexcusable.

Anyway, back to my original point: No Man’s Sky defies categorization and comparison. It is a space sim that doesn’t really simulate space. It is a survival game in which survival is effortless. It presents hostile forces that can merely be ignored.

So how can you evaluate this thing? No Man’s Sky has received middling reviews so far and I completely understand why. When you measure it next to these other games, it comes up short. But I don’t think that’s entirely fair. I think there’s a piece that is missing in its lineage that is incredibly important to understanding the appeal of NMS.

Very early on, I (half-jokingly) described NMS to a friend on twitter as “Elite Dangerous meets Hohokum meets Don’t Starve.” I stand by this high-concept pitch, but now I realize that Hohokum is probably the biggest part of the equation. NMS was pitched as a space sim and received as a survival game, but in truth it’s really a…well…what wold you call Hohukum? Or Mountain? Or Proteus? Wikipedia lists the genre of Hohokum as “art”, which is less a genre and more a can of worms I’m not willing to open here.

Some people would look at the games listed above and say they aren’t really games. I make visual novels, so that’s not an argument I’m ever really receptive towards. (Though I will say that the word “games” being part of “video games” is rather unfortunate, because meaningful discussion of anything beyond competitive video games is forced to wage a war against prescriptive language.) Instead, I think of these games as experiential. They create worlds with some level of interactivity and then ask the player to experience the world. Look at it. Listen to it. Traverse it. Find your own meaning in it.

I like experiential games. And on that level, No Man’s Sky holds up very well. Touching down on a scorched planet and watching the heat rise over the rocks was a super cool experience. So was finding a world dotted with gravitino balls, fiercely defended by sentinels (even if they are easy to escape). A pretty horizon. Sweet music. Sometimes it all comes together in a way I can only compare to a game like Journey, but generated by an algorithm and my own exploration instead of scripted. I can’t quantify what these moments mean. I can’t score them or even compare them 1-to-1 with moments in other games.

But I also can’t really recommend No Man’s Sky to anyone who doesn’t already know they like those slow, experiential games. As a game, it is deeply flawed and (especially in light of videos and interviews over the last couple years) likely unfinished. I got what I wanted out of it, but I certainly can’t guarantee anyone else will, especially if they come to it looking for something more like Elite: Dangerous. And I guess I should go back and check out that expansion to see how the planetary exploration compares.

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