Review: No Man’s Sky

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The view of Marquette, Michigan, from the top of Sugarloaf.

Not many people are aware that Michigan is a state comprised of an upper and lower peninsula. I’m from the former – an expanse of land that often gets mistaken for being part of Canada or northern Wisconsin. When I explain this to people, they seem skeptical, and I’ve had more than one person insist I was pulling their leg. It’s a shame, because my hometown of Marquette is a beautiful, quiet town, located right on the shores of Lake Superior. I may be better suited for city life, having left the picturesque town more than seven years ago, but there are parts of it that I dearly miss. One of those is Sugarloaf Mountain, a small rock outcropping located just a few miles outside of town. What makes Sugarloaf so special is the view – once at the top, hikers are treated to a stunning look at Lake Superior on one side, and the endless forest on the other.

I’ve probably climbed Sugarloaf 50 times, and I’ll most likely climb it again. It’s hard to think of something that I’d be willing to do 50 times, and still feel compelled to do it again, especially something that doesn’t change much. The view is always the same, the climb up the mountain is similar from one trip to the next, the only real change is the weather or the number of fellow hikers making the climb that day. So why climb the same rock over and over again? Once you’ve seen the sights, isn’t that enough?

When you get to the top of Sugarloaf, and you look over Lake Superior, you cannot help but feel small. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I still think to myself, “Really? That’s a lake? You sure this isn’t an ocean?” The water stretches out for an eternity, melting into the horizon, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think that you were looking out over the edge of the world. It’s overwhelming, but if you turn away from it, the endless, daunting forest awaits. Standing among the lake and woodlands, it becomes clear that I’m insignificant to this world, a tiny speck floating around a grand, epic tapestry.

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Lake Superior, as see from the top of Sugarloaf.

Just before the existential panic sets in, I notice my hometown, a collection of tiny buildings doing their best to reach up just past the tops of the trees. It wouldn’t even register as a blip on the radar, yet all of my formative years, from childhood through college, took place in that tiny little blip. I’ve met life-long friends there, studied human history and explored philosophical conundrums there, as so many have before me. I met my wife there, my family is from there – that tiny, insignificant blip means something to me, a great deal for that matter.

Standing atop Sugarloaf is a reminder that I may be insignificant to the universe, but the universe is significant to me.

These same thoughts and feelings wash over me every time I load up No Man’s Sky, the latest and most ambitious project from indie developer Hello Games. No Man’s Sky is a game that has reminded me how large our world is, and how small it is in our own solar system, and how insignificant our solar system is in our galaxy, and how mind-numbingly large our universe is that our galaxy is just one of billions. No Man’s Sky is a humbling experience, yet despite feeling insignificant in its universe, I am in awe at its majesty, and the stories that unfold on each planet mean a great deal to me, even if they mean nothing to the rest of the universe.

Proper Expectations

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Appreciating what No Man’s Sky delivers requires us to first understand its goals.

Since it was announced in 2013, No Man’s Sky has been highly anticipated, yet still existed as this mystery that gamers weren’t sure whether or not to get excited about. Hello Games seemed more than willing to talk about features in the game, but still somehow managed to remain cryptic, avoiding concrete answers. This led to a great deal of controversy surrounding the release of No Man’s Sky – the game in its current state is missing many features previously discussed by Hello Games, leading some to wonder if the whole thing was just one big lie.

I have plenty of thoughts on this topic, but for the purposes of this review, I will focus on the game in its current state, not what it could have or should have been (though keep an eye out for a companion piece discussing this topic). So what is No Man’s Sky? And what do I do in it?

Answering the first question is important, if we’re to understand the rest of the title and what we do in it. No Man’s Sky is a minimalist indie title, in which the player explores a procedurally-generated universe. During the build-up to this game, the focus was placed more on the latter half of that description, but the more important aspect is that this is first and foremost an indie title, one that takes a minimalist approach to its aesthetics and storytelling. It just happens to be set on a grand scale.

We have to be careful when we label a game an indie title, because the term in itself can be a bit contentious. For many, that term means that the game is a short, quirky game with some different ideas, one that has flaws that should be dismissed because it was made by a smaller team on a shoestring budget. That definition gives No Man’s Sky a pass for how the final game turned out (for both positive and negative reasons). However, I’d argue that this definition is incorrect – indie titles often tend to be short, quirky titles, but that’s a product of them being passion projects of the developer, which is the more important takeaway. Indie titles are very personal pieces of art, ones that represent the vision of just a few people as opposed to a large developer, publisher and dozens of focus groups. This definition more accurately reflects No Man’s Sky. Classifying it as an indie title is not a cheap excuse that lets Hello Games off the hook for providing no real story or characters, but a way of understanding that the minimalist approach was the intent from the beginning.

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The menus may look clean, fitting the minimalist design, but they are rarely helpful or easy to navigate.

This design choice is felt everywhere, from the menus, which are clean and sparse on details (at the expense of usability and practicality), to the locations players can visit in the game, such as space stations or outposts located on planets. There is a lack of detail within these structures and ships, which gives the environments a strong retro sci-fi feel. Visually, No Man’s Sky looks like a classic science fiction film, and the minimalist tone gives it the feeling of some of the classic sci-fi novels that clearly inspired the game.

No Man’s Sky does not have a story, at least not in the traditional sense. There is no plot, no race against time to save the world. Some canon is established, although it’s vague, with Hello Games leaving it up to the player to choose how to interpret the nature of the world. That canon is delivered through text, at locations the players can visit to learn more about one of the three alien races in the game. There are no characters, almost no voice acting (just a few grunts here and there). There are aliens the player can interact with, but those interactions are minimal – the player  encounters only a handful of aliens throughout the game, and to say they interact with them is a bit misleading. Again, everything is delivered through text, which describes a scene playing out between player and alien, however on screen nothing actually happens. There is a strong disconnect, especially for players who may be accustomed to seeing the action play out in front of them (and most likely interacting with said action scene), and No Man’s Sky, which is content to show the player nothing, and simply tell them what is happening. While it’s an atypical approach, it works in tandem with the minimalist elements of the game.

A common example of what the player can expect from these interactions is what I call the “alien terrorist scenario.” The player finds an alien who needs a resource to craft a bomb, which he will use to blow up a world belonging to another alien race. The player can either help him create this bomb, or report his actions, which lands the alien in trouble. Regardless of what the player chooses, nothing in-game happens – nothing blows up, the alien isn’t taken away to space jail. A resolution is told to the player, and then they move on, the terrorist alien remaining where the player found them, seemingly for all eternity.

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An example of how the story and canon are presented to the player.

Because of this minimalist, all-text approach to story, canon and characters, No Man’s Sky has a distinct old-school flavor. This, of course, means that players shouldn’t go in expecting action scenes on par with Gears of War or Halo – this is a game about exploring a universe, and in the process grappling with some challenging questions about our role within it.

Interestingly, the game was billed as a AAA title, specifically by Sony, on par with an Assassin’s Creed title. Hello Games attempted to get out in front of this and adjust expectations – in an interview, co-founder of Hello Games Sean Murray admitted that No Man’s Sky would be divisive, and that some people simply wouldn’t like the game, which is OK because it’s not meant to be played by everyone. This is the opposite approach to AAA games, which often try to be all things to all people (see: Watch_Dogs from Ubisoft). There’s a good chance that No Man’s Sky, and the vision Hello Games had, is not for you, and that’s part of the plan.

So who is No Man’s Sky for? That depends on how one would answer the question – how willing are you to create your own fun?

Minecraft in Space?

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In No Man’s Sky, the player is left to create their own adventure.

“What do you do in No Man’s Sky?” was the question most frequently asked by gamers and journalists during development, and even though the game has been out for a couple weeks, it’s one question many gamers as still asking. During development, Hello Games was coy about what players would actually do, and now that I’ve had the chance to experience it for myself, I can provide the very unhelpful answer – in No Man’s Sky, you do whatever you want.

That’s a troubling answer, because it doesn’t tell prospective players anything about the game. A common analogy that I’ve seen people use, and have thought myself, is that No Man’s Sky is Minecraft in space, and while there’s some truth to that statement, it also misses a fundamental difference between the two.

As the name suggests, Minecraft is a game about mining materials to craft things, from contraptions to traps to giant fortresses. It’s virtual Legos – the player can build nearly anything they can imagine. In Minecraft, there are two mechanics which push and motivate the player to keep building – crafting and exploring. Crafting takes top priority – it’s virtual Legos after all, so gathering resources and crafting items is the logical focus of the game. But Minecraft also uses procedural generation to create each map, which can lead to some interesting land formations that may hide valuable resources. Although secondary to crafting, exploration is still important to the Minecraft formula, and can be rewarding in itself (after all, diamonds don’t just randomly fall from the sky).

No Man’s Sky is the exact opposite – the main attraction is exploration, and gathering resources and crafting items feeds into that mechanic. As of now, there is no building element – it’s simply about gathering the resources necessary to craft gear to help survive and venture deeper into the unknown. But why go out and explore? If there is no story, little canon, no meaningful characters, what compels players to explore this universe? This is where the question “how willing are you to create your own fun?” comes into play – the player explores in No Man’s Sky for their own reasons, to create their own stories and journey.

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For some, views such as this make No Man’s Sky worth the price of admission.

Minecraft started out in a similar way – long before new realms or Ender Dragons were added to the game, it was very much a game in which the player chose what they wanted to do. I got it in my head that I wanted to make an upside-down pyramid out of dirt, so I did just that. Later, I decided to build a small hut, that when entered would lead to a cellar that housed a gigantic, subterranean forest. Why did I do these things? Because I wanted to – they were creative expressions, and the game gave me the tools to make them come true. In No Man’s Sky, my goals have been to explore a universe, to catalog the weird, strange creatures I’ve come across, to name my discoveries in the off chance another player later stumbles across them, so that player can catch a glimpse of how I saw this strange world. I’ve sought out other player’s discoveries, and along the way I sat back and relaxed on a planet covered in teal grass and purple trees, with three moons hanging above me in the sky.

In No Man’s Sky, the player is left to create their own fun, and admittedly that doesn’t sit well with some gamers. Video games are entertainment, and when spending $60, the expectation is for the promise of entertainment to be fulfilled. Traditionally, video games are supposed to tell us an interesting story, introduce us to compelling characters, transport us to a strange, new world. If a game doesn’t accomplish those tasks, is it a game?

But No Man’s Sky takes a different approach, and this is what Hello Games meant when they said the game wouldn’t be for everyone. Instead of showing you a painting they created, they hand you a blank canvas and brush, and ask you to paint the picture. In this instance, the canvas is an actual universe, and the brush is a gameplay loop of: landing on new planet, explore and learn what it has to offer, gather resources to help further exploration, leave planet and explore another. It’s during that gameplay loop that players who are comfortable making their own fun find unique, personal micro-stories, experiences that no one else may ever have, moments that stick with the player, even as they travel thousands of lightyears from where the memory occurred.

This is where No Man’s Sky delivers, if that experience is your thing to begin with. I’ve created memories on alien planets that were just as rewarding to me as the epics told in many traditional games, and yet no writer or level designer created these experiences – they just happened naturally. In one instance, I left my ship and ran toward a point of interest marked on my HUD. I came over a hill and found an abandoned building, the site of some sort of experiment from an undetermined time ago. I entered the building to find a strange lab-grown lifeform that had slowly grown throughout the facility. I quickly decided to move on, hoping to find something just up over the next hill. What I found was a resource-free desert, and the temperature was steadily rising, lowering the power in my heat protection shield. Before long it would run out, and I would begin to take damage. I had some supplies in my ship that I could use to keep the shield powered, but at this point it was a lengthy walk back to my ship, or a shorter walk toward another point of interest, but what awaited me there was unknown. I decided to take my chances, and right before my heat shield was about to hit zero charge, the sun began to set, and the temperature lowered with it. I safely made it across the desert, where I found a flower which gave me the zinc I needed to recharge my shield, and found a beacon I could use to call my ship to my position. I gathered the resources needed to make a computer chip to activate the beacon, which instantly summoned my ship, and in a moment I was blasting off into space, just narrowly surviving that desert, ready to explore another day.

This is just one of countless examples of unique, personalized stories I encountered when venturing out into the universe. It’s amazing to me that no artist created these experiences – the entirety of humanity could play this game non-stop for the next one hundred years, and thanks to the procedural generation, no one is likely to have the exact same experience I had on that planet. Yes, the procedural generation isn’t quite as varied as I hoped (although it does offer quite a bit of variety), and the core gameplay loop is very basic, but these aspects don’t get in the way of these unique, organic stories. And these stories are the moments that will stick with the player, and provide meaning to a universe that sees them as insignificant.

Armchair Philosophy

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The ability of No Man’s Sky to make the player feel small is its greatest asset.

I’ve made many comparisons to Minecraft, and at this point it’s fair to ask – why not just play Minecraft instead? It’s far more feature complete and stable, and at least offers multiplayer support. A fair question to ask, except it doesn’t take into account the one thing that really separates No Man’s Sky from games like Minecraft – the armchair philosophy.

A few years back, I was able to see the Terrence Malik film Tree of Life in theaters. It’s a very long film, and at multiple points I squirmed in my very uncomfortable seat, the events on screen playing out before me in what seemed like quarter speed. When it was over my back was killing me, my knees were sore, I was out $15 and three hours, and all to watch brothers spend lazy summer afternoons doing nothing. Yet I was happy I sat through the film, because the point of Tree of Life was to reconcile our perception that our lives matter with the notion that the universe is so large and uncaring that, ultimately, we don’t matter.

No Man’s Sky sets out to achieve this same goal, and does it far more efficiently.

The scope of the game is humbling, and the title provides just enough information to the player for the size to really sink in. This is the main draw to No Man’s Sky, not the procedural generation – it really doesn’t matter that there is too much repetition or little variety on each planet (don’t get me wrong – more is always welcomed), because the point of the game is to show you how massive the universe is, and how tiny you are in it. When I warp to a new solar system, it may take me up to two minutes to reach a new planet while traveling at the speed of light – if I decide to not engage my pulse drive and head there at the fastest speed my ship will allow without consuming resources, it could take up to 11 hours. That’s 11 real time hours, not in-game hours. That sense of size and scale puts some things about my role in the game into perspective, and when you consider that Hello Games made their galaxies and solar systems smaller than the ones in our real world, you can’t help but apply these feelings to your own life. After playing No Man’s Sky, you’ll certainly have a different appreciation the next time you look at our own night sky on a clear night, and realize just how massive the whole thing is.

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There may be too much repetition with the procedural generation, but it can produce some odd results.

I touched a bit on the amount of variety in the procedural generation, and this is where I think the game was set up with some unfair or misleading expectations. The 18 quintillion planets line, which was used extensively in the marketing, and how it connects to procedural generation mislead many people to assume (and rightfully so) that the procedural generation would lead to 18 quintillion unique planets, and that gamers wouldn’t see the same thing twice. After spending close to 80 hours hopping from solar system to solar system, I can confirm that the same coral-like plant grows on every planet in the universe, that even the strangest creatures appear on multiple planets, and that every planet is just littered with crashed ships waiting to be repaired. But I realized that this was missing the point of the 18 quintillion tagline – the number of planets is there only to demonstrate to the player just how insignificant they are, right from the beginning. It’s not meant to claim that there are 18 quintillion planets and each one is 100% different from the last, it’s meant to let the player know up front that they don’t matter in this world, that it will continue existing with or without them.

This, if anything, is the core philosophy to No Man’s Sky, and it runs counter to the very traditional power-fantasy most games employ. Players want to be the heroes of their own journey, they want to save the world, but in No Man’s Sky there is no world to save, and even if there was, the player is way too small to do anything about it. This is extremely freeing, and enables me to enjoy the minimalist aesthetic, the exploration and the scale of the game. I’m not burdened by the visions of helpless victims, screaming in agony as an evil force brutally murders them, compelled to prevent that from happening again. I can sit back, relax, and explore at my own pace.

However, once that burden is lifted, No Man’s Sky really begins to mess with the player’s head, because there are byproducts of being a simple explorer that raise some intriguing and uncomfortable questions. When the player discovers a new plant, animal, outpost, planet or solar system, they can name and upload that discovery to the servers, which lets anyone else who might stumble upon it at a later date know that they were not the first ones here. Each player has a log of their discoveries, reviewable from the pause menu, but as of now there is no easy way to revisit a planet the player has already discovered. Initially I was troubled by this, as I wanted to return to my starting planet, and trying to find it in the galaxy menu is a frustrating and ultimately futile exercise. But that’s when I realized that the only memories I have of these places are the ones I’ve made, and the ones I’ve captured on film (Note: when playing No Man’s Sky, please take full advantage of the screenshot tools available on both Playstation 4 and PC – if not, a major element of the game will be lost). Ultimately, these photos and videos, along with your memories, are the only things players will be able to take with them when they leave a planet for good.

I didn’t fully appreciate this aspect of the game when I first started, and I named my beginning planet Boeje, in honor of my pet rabbit who recently passed away at the ripe old age of 11. That planet was filled with flora and fauna, and the atmosphere was not toxic. Basically, I was very lucky, because my journey began in paradise. At times I’ve wanted to warp back to that planet, but it’s nearly impossible to find it again. Because of the name I gave it, I began thinking about how I’d like to come home again, even if for just one more day, and see my dear friend, eagerly awaiting me and the treats I’m sure to dispense. But I can’t, and that may frustrate and upset me, but then I look at the photos I have, I reflect on the memories I’ve made, and I’m at peace with what is inevitable in life – that we all move on. At this point, I’m not sure if I’m talking about No Man’s Sky or the memory of a good friend, and that’s the point. No Man’s Sky has taught me to be OK with moving forward, even if whatever is in front of me is unknown, potentially harmful. It’s OK to carry memories of the past with you, but that’s all you’ll be able to carry, and that’s OK, too. I can use those memories to comfort me as I step out into the unknown.

Trouble In Paradise

No Man’s Sky is a bold vision, and for that reason alone it should be praised, regardless of whether or not its brand of gaming resonates with someone’s particular playstyle. Hello Games created an actual universe and set players loose, a remarkable achievement. It’s one that made me reexamine my own life and my place in the world around me. It may not deliver fully on the procedural generation front, and the core gameplay loop may be a bit basic, but the feelings it has invoked put it in a class unto itself, and for that I’d call it a success.

Even though I love the game we have now, even I can admit that it can be something more, something greater, and a lesson on the importance of proper marketing and communication. There are many ways No Man’s Sky can improve, but that’s a story best told for another time.