There are some games that engulf you in their worlds, and others that let you relax in them. The former bombard you with endless tasklists, quest markers, waypoints, destinations, and goals. It’s a design mindset most exemplified in the contemporary model of Ubisoft games, Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry being the biggest offenders, with in-game maps filled to the brim with things to do.
In contrast, there are games that let you, the player, feel out the world, make your own objectives and commit to them in your own time. Stardew Valley comes to mind, as well as something like Minecraft.
Somewhere, nebulously floating in the middle, there is No Man’s Sky.
It’s certainly not a game without its share of menial tasks, as Cameron Kunzelman rightly points out. But I’ve found that once you settle into a loop with the game, it’s… very relaxing?
Don’t get me wrong, the game’s strident adherence to survival mechanics can get grating. I’m also not a huge fan of how the game’s early economic structure is built, nor how few items you can reasonably store on your person or in any cargo container. But the game’s universe never feels too dangerous or unwelcoming. All the sharpest edges of the design are filed off, and after getting accustomed to how the universe and space travel work, finding a new planet to carve out a base or just see the sights feels less like a dangerous excursion and more like a vacation.
No Man’s Sky’s procedural generation means that each new planet will be, in some way or another, like other planets you’ve been to before. Each will have a few trading posts, each will have their share of sentient aliens. Each system will have a space station, and each space station will be roughly alike.
This familiarity is something that gives the game character, even if it makes it more easy to get bored of. But, at the risk of arguing against myself, I think that No Man’s Sky might be one of the most comforting huge games I’ve ever played.
It’s a game as much about exploring the universe as it is about crafting a space to be safe and warm within the universe. The game’s relatively expansive basebuilding and freighter customization options that open up to the player as they progress mean that you’re never without something to do, even if that something to do is as simple as finding enough raw material to make a patio.
This sort of player-first customization drive is something that I’m not wholly unfamiliar with (I was a huge fan of the house-customization aspects in Stardew Valley) but in No Man’s Sky, due to the game’s dedication to letting you build a base almost anywhere in its procedurally generated universe, I feel less like an interior decorator and more like a voyager in a land wholly unknown to me.
The game incentivizes this, too. There are plenty of forced-on tasks and to-do lists, but they’re all mostly avoidable, and with a few occasional trips up to the local space station to refuel on hard-to-find materials you can generally turn enough of a profit to set up camp in most systems without too much trouble. As Garrett Martin notes, it’s a patient game for patient people.
While the game may be far from perfect, and I’ve ran into just about as many bugs as I have breathtaking vistas, it’s the only game I know of where I can make a home next to the spaceport and watch the sun set over the ocean as the travelers dock above me. And sometimes, that’s all I’m looking for from a game—the peace and quiet of an entire universe.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.