August 13, 2016

Every Man’s Sky

Two Broken Promises and a Dream Come True

I’m approaching the 20 hour mark in No Man’s Sky. It’s that space game everyone’s talking about.

Now that the game has released on its initial launch platforms (PS4 first, then PC), the reviews have started flooding in. They’re lukewarm.

We were promised a near-infinite galaxy of planetary systems to visit, each with its own unique ecosystem full of plants, animals, and minerals we can explore and catalogue. The wispiest of narratives wafts through, its presence inconsequential.

Story isn’t the point of this game, but it would help alleviate the sense of sameness that creeps up on you.

It happens faster than you expect, just a few hours in, when suddenly you recognize that mushroom, that beast, that valley. It was called a Vashex Murugu on that previous planet, and it was green, but you’re unmistakably looking at the same fungus.

You scan it anyway.

For a game about navigating the existential dread of our irrelevance in the universe, No Man’s Sky is surprisingly terrified of letting us feel it.

Every single one of its 18 quintillion planets is populated. Some are devoid of wildlife, but they are invariably covered in alien settlements. You may never encounter another human player in this universe, but you are never alone.

No Man’s Sky broke a promise to me here. The promise of discovery. The settlements serve a practical purpose, giving you access to the galactic trade network, but they also rob you of any true sense of discovery.

You’re not the first person to see this ecosystem, you’re just the weirdo showing up to name stuff long after the planet’s been settled. Just keep scanning.

Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker put it best:

You’re not discovering anything. You’re just turning up afterward and deciding what everything’s called—from solar system to rock name—like some lunatic 15th century explorer.

And the game makes you feel like an asshole for it too, thanks to the Sentinels. This galactic force of robotic ecologists is all too happy to zap your ass if they think your mining efforts are disrupting the environment.

Am I a trader or a scavenger? An explorer or a poacher?

On a lush world a handful of systems away from where I started, I break the monotony of mining by seeking out a new ship. I don’t need one, but I want one.

This planet, like all the rest, is settled and presents an abundance of scanning platforms for my use. The nearest is less than five minutes’ flight away and using it points me toward a crash site beside the planet’s southern ocean.

My new ship is dreadful; it has a stupid name and a design that looks like a buck-toothed caboose. I hate its stumpy little wings.

I take it anyway because it has 5 more inventory slots than my pre-order bonus ship, the one whose game-breaking” hyperdrive has allowed me to skip some tedious resource gathering on my home planet. Those extra inventory slots mean slightly less tedious resource gathering going forward.

Of course, the ship is a wreck so it takes me a half hour of wandering around the landscape to gather and craft the parts I need to get its dorky bulk back into the air. It should have taken longer, but there was a settlement nearby with convenient trade network access that gave me everything I needed. Money is no object in a game where it grows on trees.

And that’s where promise number two was broken. There are no real stakes in this game, no challenges, no consequences.

Maybe my expectations were skewed, but when I imagine exploring a universe, part of the appeal lies in the ability to make the wrong choice. Becoming stranded on a desolate world, or lost in a backwater solar system is a mistake I want to be able to make.

I’m not asking for Dark Souls in space here, I just want to be a few steps away from this everyone-wins, kindergarten version of exploration that robs the experience of any sense of accomplishment.

You can’t make wonder and awe without fear and risk.

No Man’s Sky is also a dream come true for me. The dream of exploring a universe and being able to seamlessly go from space to planet is fully realized here. And it’s gorgeous.

The broken promises are gaps to be filled, and I expect that they will be in time. In the same RPS article from above, John suggested that No Man’s Sky could become a platform for other game narratives…food for thought. Regardless of how it happens, I hope the game will eventually stop holding our hand, telling us everything will be okay.

I hope it allows us to feel loneliness on our journey to the centre of the universe, reminding us that sometimes a planet truly is empty, unsettled, unsettling.

We can’t overcome existential angst unless we’re allowed to feel it. We can’t feel a sense of triumph or accomplishment reaching the game’s goals-whether directed by the story or the goals we set for ourselves-unless there’s some degree of struggle in reaching them.Perhaps it’s all intentional.

See, No Man’s Sky delivers exactly what it promised, but it’s only when we get what we want that we realize it’s shallower than we expected.

No Man’s Sky is really Every Man’s Sky; an inviting, harmless place for casual contemplation. A break from life’s challenges rather than a new perspective on them.

Perhaps that’s enough.

review gaming

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