My Time with, and Departure from, No Man’s Sky
I’ve jumped into a new system. Depleted my Hyperdrive reserves doing it. I’m going to have to craft a warp cell. Which means I’m going to have to craft Antimatter. Which means I’d need… Electron Vapors? Easy. Where the hell do I get Electron Vapors again…?
The screen’s flashing. There’s pirates nearby. They scanned my ship as soon as I leaped into this quadrant. They’ve found the stock I keep in my tiny gummi ship desirable. I am housing enough iron to build my own Iron Legion after all.
I’m not far from a mucous green planet. 36 seconds using my pulse engine. Closer, and this “Undiscovered” planetoid has a name. As far as a jumbling of random letters can be considered a name, anyway. I break through the atmosphere, extreme heat engulfing my starship. I’m skimming the surface of the planet now. Stalagmites jut from the planet’s mossy ground. I can make out unnaturally formed ruins. Alien monoliths. Beyond those, installations; shelters set up by other spacefarers. I guess the game’s definition of “Undiscovered” comes from Christopher Columbus’ dictionary.
I find a point of interest to touchdown near. Luckily, it’s a drop pod. These pods contain an upgrade for my Exosuit that allows me another inventory slot. Not sure who dropped it here. Not sure why the technology inside is perfectly tailored to my suit. Not sure who’s benefiting from the Units (space bucks) it costs to attain. Whatever the case, I have another slot I need since my inventory fills up quick.
There’s a conveniently placed marker for me to save at. Again, not sure who placed it, but thank you. You’re making this whole pioneer gig a breeze. Something whines and scurries past me. I follow and find some sort of mammalian with crab legs. It looks like a Pokemon HP Lovecraft would sketch. I can feed it. It eats straight carbon. I’ve gained this alien’s approval. I can tell because its emoting a floating smiley face. Food is the universal bond of friendship. I scan it into my database and rename the whole of its species “Kyle.”
I start back for my starship. Maybe I’ll go find one of those shelters, visit the higher lifeform inside. Barter with it. In my travels, I’ve learned enough Vy’Keen words to understand every one of their race calls me an “interloper” upon greeting me. Don’t know if it’s a term of endearment. I hop into the cockpit of my interstellar ship, I hit the thrust… and nothing happens. I’ve depleted my plutonium reserves. Shit.
Back on foot, I scan the area. There’s potential deposits around. Could be another Isotope (or “red resource”) like Thamium9. Quintillion worlds and I can depend on every single one of them to have one of these two elements. I sprint forward. My HUD warns me my life support is low. I’ve gone twenty paces and my survival is already threatened. No big. Let me pop into my inventory and dump some carbon into it… Except I fed the last of my carbon to Kyle earlier. I always knew altruism would be the suffocating death of me.
That’s all right. This is why I have my multi-tool. I begin firing a burning beam of light at the indigenous flora. They burst into shards of carbon. I’ll live just a bit longer so that I may find the right thing to disintegrate. Eventually, I see red crystalline shapes in the distance. Sweet, sweet plutonium. I make my way toward it and– Something is damaging my suit. I whirl around and find what looks like a floating stage light giving me the business end of its heat lasers. A sentinel. It can’t be reasoned with. It can’t be fed carbon. A cumbersome fight ensues (few things are more irritating than fighting a flying enemy in first-person).
It bursts into debris and titanium. I absorb the titanium and begin blasting at this world the sentinel died trying to protect. Maybe I’ll rename this planet something classy. Something like “Fartknocker Prime.” It won’t matter. The developers insist it’s a pube shy of impossible for any other player to ever come across this planet. There’s something implacably sad about that.
After I’m satisfied I’ve collected enough Plutonium to fuel Doc Brown’s DeLoreon, I head back to my ship. It’s a trek. I didn’t realize I’d gotten so far away. I find myself wishing I could summon the craft like Geralt calls for his horse. That’d be a worthwhile upgrade. Between worrying over my life support, hazard protection, and the ship’s twelve-hundred different element starved mouths, it’d be nice to have one burden lifted off my shoulders.
I make it back to my ship and home in another point of interest. I learn the Vy’Keen word for “warrior.” Elsewhere, I discover a creature that looks like a child’s drawing cruelly brought to life. I tangle with some sentinels. They might’ve been upset I renamed a species “Hoobastank.” Pressing on, I find an upgrade for my multi-tool. Faster cool down. Neat, but I don’t have enough slots on my current multi-tool to equip it. I either have to dismantle something or track down another one with more inventory. Somewhere. Maybe on a space station? Maybe if I search every shelter this planet has… It sounds tedious but few things in this game aren’t.
And that’s when it hits me. I wasn’t having fun. I’ve been to several planets, each with their own fauna and their own terrain but everything I do when I set foot on a new world is exactly the same. I scan aliens that look like someone hit “Randomize” during a session of Spore. I mindlessly mine for elements to keep a number of meters from depleting. I scour drop pods. I explore identical shelters for tiny little upgrades. I do this endlessly. From planet to planet. It’s all tedious and shallow and simply not fun.
It’s as if Hello Games paid the price for scope by sacrificing purpose. It’s an endless void endlessly void of meaning. I find myself craving a different game than the one in my hands. It would keep the core tenants that brought us all here to begin with: The vast, procedurally generated universe. The promise of sights unseen and undiscovered land.
But you’d have a starting point with some heft of importance. A space base of sorts. Maybe this is it for humanity. It’s your job to find a Goldilocks world perfectly suited to our fickle human frames.
Every outing inches you closer to that goal. The elements you mine won’t just keep your space bucket kicking; they’ll reinforce and expand your station. The creatures you study may hold secrets and immunities the scientists back on base can use to strengthen and help the last of your people. Your research and discoveries lend a huge hand in the continuity of your own species. And there’s a near infinite supply of planets and galaxies to increase your own standing in this universe.
That’s the kind of game I wanted No Man’s Sky to be. Something far less ambiguous. Something far more focused. As is, you’re given the broad goal of reaching the center of the universe because… because it’s there. Because you can (eventually, after hours and hours of the same unrewarding gameplay loop).
Conceptually, No Man’s Sky is an important title. We’re scratching the surface with procedural generation and its application in the gaming space. And, it really is astonishing what a small team like Hello Games was able to accomplish with it. Unfortunately, NMS’ heady concept took too much attention away from making sure the game was passably entertaining. In its survivalist focused, resource mining cycle of gameplay, No Man’s Sky demands far more of the player than it ever gives back.
There’s so much unbridled potential shimmering beneath the surface of the game. But what’s going to happen is that another studio will come and fulfill that promise. Someone’s going to take the groundwork for an endless universe, full of discovery and mystery, and do what Hello Games couldn’t: make it engaging.