No Man’s Sky promises a lot. Its website tells us that “entire galaxies lie waiting to be discovered” within the context of a story that seeks to uncover the secrets of the universe. Or, if you’re not on board with that, you can just experience “infinite freedom” among the stars. I’ve managed to skip No Man’s Sky until the recent release of Next, a patch that implements multiplayer, a galactic freighter system, and a lot of touches of polish and simplification that players (and prospective players) were apparently clamoring for.
Now that I’ve put some hours into the game, I have more questions than I do answers. On some fundamental level, I don’t understand the appeal of No Man’s Sky, and I don’t think it’s a very rewarding experience.
At its core, No Man’s Sky needs the player to feel special. You are an agent out in this world, and you’re going to use your mining tools, base-building technology, and space ship to mold the universe into a shape that you can deal with. The selling point of the game has always been based on its procedural generation, or the creation of always-new galaxies, solar systems, worlds, land masses, plants, and animals based on some general algorithmic protocols. There is always something new to discover, to mine, to bend to your will.
And I imagine that there are people who find that fulfilling on its own. The sheer spectacle of the thing is impressive. Warping into a new planet system to find iced-over planets partially obscured by clouds of space dust is an impressive thing. Slowly turning your ship so that a massive, unthinkably large planet obscures your field of view generates awe. It’s undeniable.
When I realized that a Minecraft world would generate infinitely in front of me for the first time, I was a little bowled over. In a story I’ve written about several times, my friends and I set out toward the horizon in order to generate new worlds to then build our bases in. The unknowability of what was coming next was thrilling, completely and absolutely.
I think a game can probably only deliver that feeling exactly one time. Much like Minecraft, the moment that No Man’s Sky loses the thrill of awe, it is all about doing your chores. I’m not being gleefully negative here, but that’s the only way I can describe the gathering, crafting, using loop of the game. It is a set of chores that you need to complete before you can go do interesting things like procedural missions or interstellar trading.
For example, I like hopping from planet to planet in order to see what’s going on in the universe. To do that, I have to create launch fuel. Launch fuel requires some hydrogen and some metal plating, the former of which needs to be mined and the latter of which needs to be crafted. This is simple and straightforward, but I am constantly needing to stop whatever micro-mission I am on to do the inventory management necessary to create this fuel that is absolutely necessary for basic actions in the game. There is a maintenance chore built into the process.
And I could understand that design choice if it were some kind of structure from which other stories emerged, as if this were the price to pay for a universe of divergent character interests and mysteries to be excavated, but the game’s narrative remains a daisy chain of locations and pseudo-explanations that demand wilder and wackier objects be built so that I can jet across the universe to be burned to death on a molten storm planet.
Go to new places. Meet interesting aliens. Do your chores on the purple planet now.
And, again, I imagine that this is the ideal game for many people. It ticks the same boxes as the aforementioned Minecraft or the trucking simulators that people have found so fulfilling in the past few years. But as more and more games compete for my time and interest, I cannot do the kind of work necessary to “find the fun” in No Man’s Sky. The game’s player is the center of its universe, and their ability to put in the time and effort to mine the right ores and craft or process the right materials to get to the next step, whether that’s of their own devising or one asked for by the game’s narrative, is all the game has going for it. No Man’s Sky demands willpower, and jamming that willpower into its system can produce something great.
However, that’s not what I am after at this point. In order to so fully center the player as this discovering and crafting universe wanderer, No Man’s Sky has to clothe itself in generic tasks that can be accomplished on procedural planets. It has to have generic narrative beats to make sure that the player’s experience is never at odds with what the narrative wants the player to be doing. For such a colorful and expansive title, it all just ends up feeling like so much grey.
Many people seem to believe that Next is the shot in the arm the game needs to keep getting better. But the problems I have with the game are not going to be solved by stapling additional systems onto it. They are fundamental assumptions about what a player might want to be doing.
Generalities like “freedom” have taken the place of a signature mark in No Man’s Sky, and it’s unclear to me if any update can (or would even be interested in) fundamentally changing that. And, you know, that’s fine. People enjoy the work of the game, and what I see as drudgery is completely fulfilling and expansive content for others. But when I compare playing this game to lots of other things that compete for my time, I don’t have any desire to do planetary fetch quests or resource trading.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.