Brief Thoughts on No Man's Sky

There’s been some Gamer Drama about No Man’s Sky lately. This game came out last week, and I picked it up and have been playing it a bit, and I think it’s an interesting game. Let’s talk about it for a while.

First, let’s dispense with the drama, which is the typical entitled gamer whinging. There are two main lines of complaint: “The game is not worth $60 and I’m sad that I paid that” and “The publishers lied about what features would be in the game.” Both of these complaints are stupid. There is no world in which everyone did not have an opportunity to know what they were buying, unless they pre-ordered the game, in which case it was their own terrible decision to pre-order a game that led to their sadness. The fact that the game doesn’t precisely match every preview from 2013 is neither surprising nor upsetting. The large strokes to me feel the same, and the differences feel exactly like the sort of decisions that have to be made to ship software.

But, even if the Internet Controversies about the game are not worth discussing, we can still talk about whether the game is good. My answer is: it’s ok, with reservations.

There are striking similarities between No Man’s Sky and Minecraft. But by this I mean it’s similar to Minecraft when Minecraft was first released and there wasn’t that much to do in the game. I think a lot of the rage about the game, in fact, reduces to “Minecraft didn’t cost $60”.

The argument in favor of No Man’s Sky’s is “it is a meditative exploration experience full of moments of childlike wonder and beauty”. On the macro scale, the game does this wonderfully - every planet you visit will be slightly different, from lifeless rocks to verdant paradises. The argument against No Man’s Sky is “Once you’re on a planet, there’s nothing to do while exploring that actually matters.”

There is merit in both of these points of view. When you’re on a given planet, there is very little payoff to “exploring.” By payoff, I don’t mean “collecting in-game resources”, but a more philosophical point: exploring should make you feel like you’ve found something new. If on a given planet you find Resource A on a mountain, then it’s very likely that Resource A will be on every mountain. This means that the rigging of the stage is really obvious in a way it’s not in Minecraft. Minecraft has multiple biomes per planet and more importantly little – not easter eggs, but important-ish things that are rare: villages, hidden temples, dungeon spawners with treasure chests, and so on. These locations actually have very little game-mechanical purpose, but psychologically you think “Oh wow, through my sheer effort I have discovered something that was not obvious.”

I do not believe No Man’s Sky contains anything (yet) that is not, effectively, obvious; perhaps after another 20 hours of the game I’ll feel differently. If I wanted to describe this negativey, I’d say: the exploration on the ground has no (or very low) stakes. Unless you need some particular resource, there’s no particular reason to go over the next hill after the first few hours of the game, because you know what you will see: more of the same. All of that being said, Minecraft did not add biomes, temples, dungeons, etc until several releases in. So maybe this all comes in patches, later - regardless, I think the space exploration itself is enough to carry the game, but you have to set your expectations accordingly.

Another way in which the mechanics of the game differ from other open-world or survival games: Minecraft and Terraria, and Dwarf Fortress, and Rimworld are about claiming space. There are times when you explore and forget a place, but very often what you’re actually doing is building and transforming the landscape. In NMS the very premise of the game means that even if you say to yourself “Hmm I should remember this place so I can come back again,” you never, ever, under any circumstances, will.

This is not to say they should have re-made Minecraft in space, but again: its a question of stakes. In No Man’s Sky the places I’ve been are not important enough to preserve except in vaguest memory, and I can’t make them important – in the sense of “worth returning to” – via in-game mechanics. So, in this admittedly limited sense, the places aren’t special, in a game that is supposed to be all about special places. The consequence of having an open world with no borders is that none of that world is yours.

You don’t need to build to make a place special. Switching comparisons, think about Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls. That place is special. It’s special because it’s a place you come back to, and because it’s a place where most of the rules of the game are suspended in obvious ways, and some not so obvious. In No Man’s Sky I find that I am categorizing the various places because of what they offer me, rather than because of what they are.

While I realize I’ve spent six paragraphs critiquing the game for what it isn’t, I should be clear: I like the game. I think the type of exploration the game has is the result of legitimate design decisions, and those design decisions have trade-offs, and thinking about them is worthwhile. I like No Man’s Sky in the same way I like Euro Truck Simulator 2 - it puts me in a meditative state with low stakes where I can fly around space and see some randomly generated creatures and talk to some aliens and look at strange monoliths (the meta-game of ‘collect new alien words’ is actually the most enjoyable part of No Man’s Sky for me). If that sounds good to you, No Man’s Sky may be your cup of tea. If it’s not, you shouldn’t buy it.

What you shouldn’t do is complain on the Internet that you were lied to because the game isn’t Minecraft in Space. The game is what it is. It’s No Man’s Sky.