Space is big. It’s big on levels that are hard to even conceptualize, with countless planets and stars inhabiting the known universe. No Man’s Sky captures a surprisingly large amount of the complexity that is an entire universe, and it’s one of the game’s greatest triumphs and greatest flaws.
Even before the recent NEXT update that overhauled huge portions of the game’s systems and mechanics, No Man’s Sky was a game primarily about breadth, not depth. It had millions upon millions of planets (made possible by the developers’ strident and unceasing use of procedural generation), with their own atmospheres, flora and fauna, and materials for the player to harvest.
This breadth is, however, also the game’s greatest weakness. No Man’s Sky is a game that’s firmly staked itself in the camp of a broader, wider game utilizing the strengths of procedural generation to create what is, in effect, an entire universe. It’s also made this universe, by virtue of being procedurally generated, same enough that players can find themselves never too lost on any particular planet or space station.
The world of No Man’s Sky, then, is an acceptably large largeness. It’s never big enough to evoke realistic proportions but never small enough to feel too cramped. The downside of this is that, even while I enjoyed my time in the game, I found it often quite… bland.
Each planet was chosen from a set series of climatological archetypes, populated with fauna from a set series of ambulatory and visual archetypes, and dotted with flora from a set series of material and aesthetic archetypes. Sure, there were minute differences between this tentacle-plant and that one, but after a while it starts to feel like if you’ve seen one tentacle-plant, you’ve seen all tentacle-plants.
This isn’t meant to be that harsh of a criticism of the game—I still enjoy flying around and performing the tasks that the game gives me. But ultimately it feels like a set of tasks prettied up by some breathtaking vistas and spaces. It’s a game that both flourishes in and is lost within its own size. In many ways it feels reminiscent of games from smaller studios that were meant to be viewed as experiments in space and traversal—games like Kitty Horrorshow’s CHYRZA, or even Campo Santo’s Firewatch, both games that used space as a way to tell their stories.
No Man’s Sky feels, at times, like a perfect encapsulation of the AAA-scale, hyper-ambitious goals that it tries to accomplish. At others, it feels like it’s swimming in itself, not quite able to be cohesive in all of its disparate parts. It’s a universe shaped by people and created by computers. An entire universe is laid out in No Man’s Sky, but it’s not quite our own—it’s more tangible, more understandable, and ultimately more tame.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.