I’m still not done with No Man’s Sky. In fact, I’m starting to think I’ll never really be done with No Man’s Sky. By now Hello Games ambitious space-sim has passed through the considerable backlash that followed its release and come out the other side a game that most people just don’t seem to care about either way. It never became the world-changing transcendental masterpiece many were lead to hope for, and it is a flawed experience that even I can’t stop finding reasons to complain about. Even so, I cannot deny that there is at least one thing it does better than any other game has ever done. It allows me to see things I, nor anyone else, has ever seen before or ever will.
Let’s think about places and the meaning we attribute to them. Most actual locations we visit inside the world of a game serve an explicit purpose, mechanical or narrative. They are created by a developer (or a developer-created algorithm) with the intention of giving the player a specific reaction. This means that the meaning a player takes away from a given location is almost always assigned to it by the developer, depending on how it fits into the game’s bigger picture.
The planets in No Man’s Sky are different because they do not have a pre-considered purpose. Instead their vast surfaces are generated by an algorithm that chooses where each rock, hill and plant will appear. While that kind of randomly generated world design is far from unique, No Man’s Sky treats its locations differently from, say, the dungeons of The Binding of Isaac or the underground in Spelunky. These are gameplay focused locations with challenges that the player is meant to overcome. They are very clearly designed to exist around the player, to challenge or help them. By contrast, Hello Games seem to specifically try to avoid making the planets in No Man’s Sky feel like they exist to accommodate a player. For the most part they succeed.
When you land on a planet you have only a basic idea of what to expect from the visit. Each one is a blank slate for you to explore and form a unique relation with. You can’t just put its name into Google to find exactly what you can expect to find there – it’s an unknown entity that exists apart from you and all the other travellers out there. Not only does this make each descent into its own adventure, it allows every player to assign their own meaning to each world based on the experiences they have there in a way that no level designer could ever plan or predict.
This is further enhanced due to the fact that you are highly likely to be the only living human to ever leave your digital footsteps on its surface. Even in the unlikely event that another player would ever find their way to your world, they will never experience it in the exact same way you have. They will never explore the same cave system, walk over the same field, nor see the exact same sunset as you. Each moment you spend there is truly yours and at the same time you know that millions of other space-travellers are having their own unique moments across an enormous universe.
This is why No Man’s Sky reminds me of the real-life sensations of travelling more than any other game I can recall. It captures that feeling of visiting an unfamiliar place for a brief period of time, or rushing past a small town to which I will likely never return, only experiencing it for a couple of short moments. It’s the feeling of experiencing a microscopically small slice of the life one might live there, make your memories, and then leaving forever.
That’s not to say that No Man’s Sky is fully realising its potential. Since every planet must also be feature-complete from a gameplay standpoint they have a tendency to be very generic, with similar landscapes, atmospheres, valley and mountains. Its universe is one devoid of extremes, which also means that there are rarely any surprises. This has the effect of making the planets bleed together in your memory rather than stand out, so after several hours of playing it becomes increasingly more difficult to recall individual planets.
Imagine a version of this world-building algorithm that was granted permission to create truly extraordinary, impossible planets. Imagine the stories that players would have of the unique, indescribable vistas they’ve seen. Places that nobody else would ever experience beyond the stories brought by the pioneers that saw them first-hand.
All of this does not change the fact that when a leave a planet behind, knowing that my ship’s landing gear will never again touch its surface, I still feel it in my gut. That part of my journey is invariably over and it’s time to move on. In real life we associate places with the experiences and emotions we felt there, and No Man’s Sky recreates this better than any other game. With recent updates Hello Games has systematically eliminated some of this, by allowing you to teleport to certain locations, which seems like an attempt to make the game closer to what many expected it to be upon release. I can’t help but feel that it cheapens an aspect of the game that was truly special in order to chase an audience that have long since abandoned the game anyway.
But when it isn’t struggling to be the AAA game that will please everyone with shooting segments, crafting and collecting, No Man’s Sky is a perfect encapsulation of the uplifting and bittersweet feelings of being on a journey. In fact, the core of the game is an epic mood-piece, focused on this pure experience – there’s a reason the player character is called The Traveller, after all. But if your game has years of concentrated hype on its shoulders and a price tag of £40, creating a sublime atmosphere isn’t enough. Still, I can’t help but think that it’s a shame that Hello Games keeps adding more traditional game mechanics in an effort to appeal to those that have already abandoned the game, rather than embrace and focus on the aspects they nailed right from the start.