As you boot up the highly-anticipated gaming phenomenon that is No Man’s Sky, you’ll immediately be assaulted by a blizzard of stars rushing at you through a vacant void of existential nothingness.
As you’re dazzled by the visuals, you’ll be struck by one of the stars and incepted with the vague sensation of crashing before the screen turns completely white and the title of the game appears.
“No Man’s Sky” the title declares before smaller text tells you the game is initialising, and you wait…
… and wait…
… and wait…
… until you finally realise that the little circle under the text looks a little like it contains a square – just like one of the buttons on your controller. You tap the square and the circle undulates a little. You hold it down and it flares to life and the game begins.
No “hold square to start.” No “start game.” No “go screw yourself.” Nada. You had to figure it out alone; and that mission statement sets up the entire concept behind the game.
You begin on a random, alien world; standing next to your crashed spaceship with nothing but a ‘mining laser’ and some broken tech to hand. Firing your laser, you realise that destroying parts of the alien landscape provides you with minerals and materials that you can use to repair your technology and eventually escape the planet to continue to explore the galaxy. So far, so Minecraft.
Just as you’re figuring all this out however, your space suit starts beeping at you. The planet is, in some way, toxic – radioactive, too hot, too cold, acid rain, etc. Likewise, you only have so much basic air and life support.
If you’re lucky, you work out that you can recharge the defences and air in your suit with the minerals. If not, you die. If you’re lucky, you work out that your mining laser also needs minerals to recharge before you find yourself out of air with no way to replenish it. If not, you die.
If you die, you respawn close by… without any of the tech or resources you accumulated. Just like Dark Souls, you have one chance to get back to the “gravestone” that marks where you died to recover your loot. If you die again before you do, you lose it all, permanently.
In the first few minutes, this is just a step back. If you die later in the game, this can be utterly crushing as you are put back to square one after days of play.
The game does not care.
Since its release last week, gamers have bemoaned the absent features the game’s designers had claimed would be present, including massive star battles and giant creatures. Chief among their complaints is the lack of other players.
The designers had initially claimed the game was so massive that the chances of you ever meeting another player in this shared online environment were infinitesimally small. Of course, a few enterprising gamers rendezvoused on the same planet within hours of the release, only to find themselves invisible to each other.
When you discover a planet, alien species or plant, you can name it, and other players will then see those names if they find the same place, but you will never be able meet them. All you can ever see of others is the footprints they’ve left behind.
Maybe these frustrations are flaws in the game’s design, but you can’t help but feel that they might be at least partly intentional. It’s perfectly fitting for a game where loneliness and existential quandary are almost level bosses you must overcome. This is the gaming equivalent of a Beckett play – Waiting For Atlas.
If you go into the game looking for structure, rewards, achievements, points and a final victory, it actively mocks you. It’s like it lures you to a deserted planet, saying ‘next level this way’, then pounces on you, forcing you to shoot yourself in the face with your laser while laughing and saying “stop mining yourself” over and over.
If you go into the game looking to escape to another world of randomly-created beauty; to explore new places, discover new things – and to spend some time in a zen-like state with no to-do list other than ‘see what’s there’ – you’ll find No Man’s Sky is the perfect distraction.
There’s something incredibly rewarding about spending three hours painstakingly disintegrating a 100 foot-high pillar of pure gold down to rubble in order to trade it in for a snazzy new ship. Of course, you need to be a little bit obsessive to enjoy that kind of fun, but for the right person, it’s like meditation. I’ve already had people tell me that No Man’s Sky is like therapy for them. It’s a way to calm and centre themselves; a lifesaver.
Of course, doing anything in the game takes resources, gathering resources takes time, and time is not something many of us have. I sat down to play for an hour before bed the other night, knowing I had to be up at 6am for work. Figured I’d make myself a cup of tea at some point. Next time I looked up from the game, it was 1am, I was very thirsty and I’d explored a fraction of the surface of a single moon.
Ain’t nobody got time for that.
I suspect part of the problem with No Man’s Sky is that the majority of people who have the kind of free time that you need to play the game properly are 15 and more interested in screaming homophobic insults over gamechat. Thankfully, there’s no pressure to achieve anything in the game at any particular pace. You’ll never complete No Man’s Sky; there are 18 quintillion (seriously) planetary systems to explore; seeing them all is physically impossible. As such, you can just spend whatever time you can spare having experiences and stepping outside of your own life.
I mean, yes, many gamers have pointed out that the game’s menus and control systems are far from revolutionary, maybe even a little sluggish, but the very concept of the game is so ambitious that complaining about these things is like being given a working lightsaber and whinging about the battery life. If you lack the kind of child-like wonder that makes space exploration appeal to you, you’re not going to get anything out of this game.
Of course, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with not enjoying No Man’s Sky. It’s probably not a particularly great game. It is, however, a truly magnificent experience. Not since Skyrim have I played a game that generated more unique and entertaining stories to share with your gaming friends.
Those complaining about the game being oversold, about it being flawed, are missing the point. So the designer’s achievements didn’t quite reach their ambitions. Meh. Worse things happen in space. This is a bold step towards a new way of gaming; a resurgence of a concept that was way ahead of its time when solipsistic games like Elite or Frotz first touched on it.
Whether you consider No Man’s Sky a success or a failure, at the very least you have to admire its ambition. 4/5