I was fading fast with No Man’s Sky, and then I hit my breaking point. The moment that finally put me off of Hello Games latest offering, was when I came across the most impressive alien ruins I had seen yet.  It was beautiful like so much of the game, a towering structure of onyx-like black.  It was twice the size of the monoliths I had found littered throughout the previous worlds and I couldn’t wait to discover what what secrets the strange monument.  I landed my spaceship and ran up the black stairs, excited to see what unique alien information I could find.  But I found nothing.  I couldn’t do anything or learn anything.  There was nothing to read and nothing to interact with.  It was just there.

Hello’s Games much anticipated world-exploration game has been something of a hot topic ever since their trailer debuted as part of the VGX Awards a few years ago.  Since then the game has been a headline-maker, first with the setback of Hello Games losing a lot of their work to their office flooding, then with the re-emergence of the game during Sony’s Press Conference the same year.

With so much excitement built around a game, I always tried to stay at arm’s length.  I was interested, but not hyped.  Usually this even-keel approach serves me well and even when a game isn’t delivering the experience I want, I can find a reason to keep playing – mostly because I have to so I can write something about it.  But No Man’s Sky quickly became a struggle.  After a handful of hours, I was quickly wondering to myself, “What is the point of this?”

SunsetBots

For those who haven’t been watching the Let’s Plays or been playing the game yourself, No Man’s Sky drops players on a random planet in their expansive galaxy with little-to-no information and instructs them to start gathering materials to repair their damaged ship.  The  opening hours of the game has all of the intrigue of a tutorial – one of the longest ones in recent memory.  Over the course of several hours, you repair your ship, manufacture materials to run your hyperdrive, fly to another solar system, land on another planet, and begin to catalogue and name the species of animal on said planet.  While traveling from one planet to the next you can find ancient alien monoliths, meet alien traders, and explore the incredibly large universe of No Man’s Sky.

With such lofty ambitions and such a massive scale, you’d think No Man’s Sky would be the ultimate sandbox for fun adventures.  The formula should offer almost endless possibilities for the player, but I never found much possibility open to me.  This is the shortcoming of No Man’s Sky that hurts the most.

I’ve had a few conversations with friends about No Man’s Sky and it seems like the biggest fans of the game “love it for what it is” – that is the exact phrasing that has been used in these conversations.  They find the planetary exploration to give them a zen-like sense of peace and serenity.  Far be it from me to take that away from anyone, and I could understand a certain calmness that comes with gameplay loop of: find planet, find resources, improve tools, keep flying.  This kind of on-going adventure is not dissimilar to many sci-fi adventures.  Man has continually looked to space and dreamed of exploring its vastness because it next for a species that has always thrived through exploration.  Man wandered the waterless lands of Pangea, we settled lands far beyond the cradle of civilization, we crossed oceans, scaled mountains, dove to the very depths of the sea, and now we look beyond our world to those we do know.  I get it – I definitely get it.

And with such passionate idealism about the glory of exploration, the fault of the game lacking a story seems almost benign.  But what No Man’s Sky fails to do has nothing to do with story or narrative.  The game lost me when it failed to present any context for the world in which these discoveries were being made.

BlueSpace

I’ve heard some comparisons between No Man’s Sky and the exploration of Bethesda Softworks games like Skyrim or Fallout 4.  But when you are exploring in the two aforementioned games, each discovery means something.  Your adventures never lack context.  In Skyrim you dive deep into the caves of the world’s massive mountains, discovering lost artifacts and magic.  Each tunnel has the promise of treasure, each door holds the threat of danger.  You know that there are lands of great kings and powerful deities.  It’s only because the world is so well built that each discovery of a cave or ancient ruins has meaning.

It is this exact meaning that is lacking from No Man’s Sky.  Again, I’m not looking for scripted events or people to hand out quests.  But what there’s no reason to do anything in No Man’s Sky, nothing that infers your discoveries, your firefights, or your trading means anything to the inhabitants.  The game almost feels more like an experiment in philosophy than it does in mechanics and gameplay.  If you get to name one planet of out of quintillion, does it even matter?  If you name one plant out of the googleplex of lifeforms offered in the game, will anyone ever care?

I’ve played nearly ten hours of No Man’s Sky and I’ve yet to find a reason to carry on.  Why wouldn’t I find a nice plane to settle down on and live out the rest of my days in relative peace?  Why bother to stop and collect anything at all?  Why not just fly to the middle of the galaxy?  Or perhaps, the biggest problem, why not do one of the million other things I can do to entertain myself?  Great exploration games give you purpose and context.  They show how your discoveries would help contribute to the world and to yourself.

Monolith

The moments that define Skyrim are set up by the world building the game has done.  Great escapes from dragons and mammoth-herding giants are the kinds of things you’ll tell your friends about because the context makes for a great story.  Every you time to come to an abandoned structure or rural fortress, there is history to why it is there and what purpose it played.

The alien structure I found could have been anything: an old fortress, an altar to old gods, a beacon to call home their lost brethren.  It could have been all of that and more – but it served no purpose, it had no meaning.

This is how I feel about most of No Man’s Sky.  I can learn alien dialogue to unlock sections of the world, but it just leads to money and materials.  I can fly to planets no one has discovered and name them, but they are just rock and vegetation.  I could find a trading station and make some money, but it’s just a fictional currency.  I could get a bigger and faster ship, but it’s going somewhere faster doesn’t give me a destination.  I am the nihilist of this world, believing that nothing matters or exists.  But I’m that way because I haven’t seen anything to convince me otherwise.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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  • Some half-formed sentences:

    “I couldn’t wait to discover what what secrets the strange monument.”

    “Man has continually looked to space and dreamed of exploring its vastness because it next for a species that has always thrived through exploration. ”

    “Every you time to come to an abandoned structure or rural fortress-”

    PS: I hadn’t followed this one, but would not have expected anything other than what it is. I’d already decided I wouldn’t even try it because it was clear that pop-in was not a concern for the developers. I think about a decade or more of games of late probably have no long-term value; but I don’t think I’ll ever personally find out unless all of the games of the last several years are remade without pop-in, because I won’t sit down with anything with pop-in glitches. This has been a decade of accepting pop-in as normal. Also the shadows of the last decade are hideous. I think it’s a happily forgotten decade for me. I’d rather have 20ft vistas and no shadows than these things, and I firmly believe that you don’t need far vistas or shadows to make something memorable.