There’s been countless talks and takes about the supposed lies and the aggrandising marketing (a baffling concept!) behind No Man’s Sky’s reception, but very few, as far as I can tell, about the game itself. I’m more interested in thinking about what made the game become what it is, as opposed to what shaped the perception of it into players’ minds before and after the release. Indeed, No Man’s Sky is very explicit when it asks of you to traverse an infinite universe, but, in a less obvious way, you’re also expected to navigate a fascinating set of contradicting decisions and goals. It shares the characteristic with most games out there that venture onto unexplored design planets, but what sets it apart is the scale of its experimentation. It deviates from norms in so many ways that to pick one as a single dominant influence on its nature would be reductive; I’m left to mentally wander among the question it raises, as if the experience extended to headspace after the screen turns black. How to make the limitless feel graspable? How to align the expectations of millions with a personal vision? How to make a marketable game blockbuster out of an un-game-like nature? Faced with that network of highways headed in opposite directions, the team at Hello Games opted to scribble down their own uncertain path, slaloming between hard choices – leaving me unsure of what they were going for.
First of all comes the promise: a quintillion systems! The cold claim of unfathomable numbers; numbers so unnatural that their existence is in itself mind-bending, unsettling. Numbers so bizarre that whole games exist to explore them, without attempting anything else, in the form of universe simulations. Their representation of the space that surrounds a microscopic Earth is adequately stoic, because the concept is inherently distressing and inspiring enough. That the planet we live on feels so big, yet is so ridiculously minuscule, and that above us lies such a deep sea of nothing, are notions that push past the limits of human comprehension. Just modelling them suffices to faze.
But No Man’s Sky doesn’t want to faze. It wants the mystery, not the overwhelming existential dread. It wants to give a vague idea of ‘numbers’, not to push the actual numbers into minds too tiny to contain them. An idea of space, but not, like, actual space; a sci-fi cover version of space. This is why each system only contains a handful of planets, so impossibly close that they fill up each other’s skies. You are actually very rarely confronted with ‘vast emptiness’: trips from one point to another are all conveniently short, just like the next rooftop in an Assassin’s Creed game is always just one jump away. When you warp into a system, you can easily have a quick overview of everything that’s in it: two small planets, a moon, a ton of asteroids. A new temporary home. Of course it had to be this way: systems have to be the unit for exploration, not planets themselves. Consider the alternative: a game where flying from Earth to Mars takes half an hour, and where that’s only a percent of the distance to the farthest planet, and where the next system is maybe 10 times as large, and where spending hours upon hours travelling will still only let you see an insignificant portion of what exists— ah! the dread! just typing these words makes me uneasy. So, no: a system is a small, comprehensible thing. No Man’s Sky does get close enough to the edge when it reveals its galaxy map, which makes you realise that there is absolutely no way for you to even compute the effort it would take to see everything; and even there, it does its best to console you, with the pretty hues and the relaxing path between systems and the stated objective of getting to the center. (For the record, just scrolling until I reached it, in the map, took me about 45 minutes.)
The ‘small distances’ formula is also applied to planets themselves, and it’s another thing many have complained about: after landing, almost everything this new place has to offer is within a 2-minute walking distance. Well, you won’t see everything, but you’ll get a taste. The general topology, the weather, the creatures, some minerals, an alien outpost, a couple knowledge stones. There are no biomes, no poles, no strange and unique features (discounting the accidental algorithmic hiccups), no variation in the species you encounter or the resources you can collect. Again, why is that? There’s a list of factor that are at play here; the most obvious one is the aforementioned refusal to be overwhelming. If a planet were to be as dense with surprises as even a single country on Earth is, there would be no reason to ever leave, defeating premise of ‘space exploration’. There’s also a technical argument to be made: is the additional programming effort required to get, say, water to flow into rivers and waterfalls, worth it? Even if most of it will never ever be seen – and if there is no way to extensively test the implementation for bugs? There’s another thing that, I would speculate, was the most influential: it’s just not the way to make a good game. This is not me talking, of course, but a fictional know-it-all entity with the power to make that kind of decision. The player has to be able to reach the next short-term objective within five minutes. It should not be possible for the player to get lost without a way to get back to the main path. The player should always have a way to avoid losing. These ‘tried-and-true axioms’ shape the current AAA landscape, and the landscapes of No Man’s Sky no doubt fell under their rule as well: I am certain they took precedence over even the all-powerful algorithm, ensuring that the necessary Plutonium was always within reach, that there was always a nearby cave to hide in from storms, and that said cave would always be lit by phosphorescent mushrooms. (Never mind that the player has a torch, can build a cave wherever they need using grenades, or even that death doesn’t actually come with harsh penalties: I can see the face of the dubious executives and senior designers, perplexed by the sheer weirdness and riskiness of the game’s pitch, and I can understand that no amount of reassurance would be zealous.)
Now think: if the team at Hello Games had opted to go the other way (let’s pretend they had the financial ability to do so, for argument’s sake), if they’d ignored those principles and aimed for a different set of procedural rules, one that could generate lush and magnificent and teeming-with-secrets habitats… for the discoveries to have any impact, for novelty to exist, they would have had to be rare. (If you don’t believe this, consider: how long would it take for you to grow bored of that Jurassic Park planet if it were just the bit you saw in the trailers, repeated over thousands of square kilometres?) If you accept that scarcity is necessary for surprise, then that implies re-adding the vast emptiness I mentioned before; and we’re facing the same problem again, the prospect of dread and meaninglessness. But never mind that, and just imagine something even more dreadful: what the metacritic page would have looked like, if the people who are denouncing the lack of gameplay now had been asked to walk across a gigantic icy desert to get to the next checkpoint. Alternatively, look up what people said about the planets of the first Mass Effect. It is a fact that a good portion of the gaming audience needs very short reward loops, and it is also a fact that No Man’s Sky could not afford to ignore a good portion of the gaming audience. And if you were in charge of handing out the money to finance No Man’s Sky, and you realised that the phrase ‘but what do you do in No Man’s Sky’ was approaching meme-status, it’s understandable that you would ask the developers to make sure that there is, at all times, something to do in No Man’s Sky.
Hence the crafting.
The crafting in NMS serves several purposes, some clever and some marketing-related. Of course it is a result of the success of free-form survival games on Steam – when No Man’s Sky was revealed, Don’t Starve had just been released, and Rust wasn’t out yet – but it also does have some design value. What do you do in No Man’s Sky: you hold the square button to mine some crystals, you open your inventory, you move stuff around and recharge your shield. The crafting and resource-gathering serve as a distraction from all the walking around, and transform the game into an idle pastime punctuated by moments of wonder and discovery. Because it follows Don’t Starve and Rust and the like, it’s assumed that the presence of a crafting system implies survival against hostile environments and circumstances; and that it should be deep enough to allow you to build a whole new ship out of tiny scraps of metal (I am hardly exaggerating). Because these titles have come before, it is presupposed that that is how games should do crafting and survival. It’s simultaneously argued that the inventory is too small and that elements can be found everywhere – remember, the player should always have a way to avoid losing – but the realisation that those two things solve each other doesn’t come. Presented with a ridiculously small inventory, people more easily listen to the voice of convention, despite the fact that the game they are presently playing seems to be shouting at the top of its lungs: ‘you do not need to gather everything! there are more resources on any given planet than you will ever need!‘
Similarly, if you get a weather warning, that must means you should struggle to build an tent and get a fire going. But in No Man’s Sky, if you get a weather warning, you can absolutely just stand still and not pay it any mind, and maybe you will get some red screen flashes, but that’s about it. Shallow! no: it’s just not what the game’s about. The storms are not there to make your survival difficult, they are there to reinforce the fantasy of exploring a new territory. If crafting or surviving were any more complex or difficult, then the game would slide towards that end of the scale; and since, by definition, ‘walking around’ is not a gameplay- or system-heavy mechanic, it would be pushed to the side, left as an unconventional way to approach a game that doesn’t promote it.
But No Man’s Sky is very much about walking around. It aims to create an almost intimate form of wonder – that of walking atop a ridge and discovering the alien vista that extends beyond. And despite the enveloping void of space, the recursive nature of its environments, and the persistent ‘Destroy’ prompts and the ‘No space left in inventory’ – it achieves that vision. In some ways, because of those things. It doesn’t do so in a particularly accomplished way, mind you; it’s still very awkward and unsure of what it’s doing. It’s afraid of what it could be, if anything, or unable to blossom into that refined version of itself for reasons it has no control over. Frequently, joy comes from watching the game stumble: the weird ways in which terrain folds onto itself, the glitchy spires and floating platforms, the silly animals with absurd skeletons and wobbly gaits – as you approach them, they scuttle away with a strange, robotic bleat. They are representations of the code that brought them to life, the manifestation of the procedures; and your bewilderment comes as much from laying eyes upon alien land, as from witnessing the artificial generation at work. As others have said, this is a game where you are powerless; but this is not so much a verdict as a declaration of intent. Sure, you are powerless because your actions have no consequences, you can not influence the global economy, you do not control the outcome of a culture war that spans the entire galaxy; you are, when all is said and done, non-existent relative to the crushing scale of the universe. But more than anything, you lack power because you were never meant to have any. You are a traveller, a visitor, a spectator; the game doesn’t need you to exist. Your verbs are not Kill, Obtain, Achieve, but rather: Wander, Wait, Look. Look at the funny one-legged potatofish bouncing around like a twit. Of course No Man’s Sky is bumbling and waddling: it’s the first of its kind, a game that tries its best to resist the conventions of mass-market design while still aiming for the same audience. A game that hides behind epic trailers and space combat and gun upgrades but retains a very authorial, personal, wide-eyed core. Baby steps.