As the No Man’s Sky hype train finally arrived in the station and I opened my copy, ready to sink days of my life into the procedurally-generated universe explorer, I maintained a sober but optimistic outlook as the game’s day one patch installed and I prepared myself for the days of my life I’d be sinking into this experience.
Of the “18 quintillion planets” indie developers Hello Games had promised for my exploration, I knew they weren’t all going to be rich, captivating troves of lore and a-ha moments. Still, I had hopes they’d rise above the failings of their big-number-touting predecessors.
The last math-based-generation game I went out on a limb for, EA’s 2008 sim Spore, had burned me big time. What was advertised as a chance to play God quickly revealed itself to be nothing more than a couple shallow mini-games and penis-monster creator. The next year, Borderlands would arrive, throwing 17.75 million different guns in my lap. While Borderlands wound up being a more fun romp than Spore, primarily due to its stellar plot and dialogue, it too suffered from its glut of offerings. After familiarizing myself with the different handling styles of each gun manufacturer, Borderlands eventually devolved into an Excel spreadsheet of comparing weapon stats, gradually inching my way up the in-game food chain, one increase in damage point at a time.
I dove into NMS with the hope that these prior proofs of concept would be taken to their full limits and married with gameplay that urged me to keep journeying inward, to the center of the galaxy, hungry for answers about what lies within it. Only eight hours in, I’m ready to give up that mission and wait until someone with more passion for it uploads their findings to YouTube.
As a game based primarily on math, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the unrelenting averageness of No Man’s Sky. The planet I started out on, along with the dozen or so I explored thereafter all manage to look simultaneously different and the same. Players will quickly and subconsciously pick up on the patterns the randomizers spit out when stocking each new world with flora and fauna. Blob-faced-bird-gazelle on this one, gazelle-face-lizard-bird on that one. Triangular-fuchsia-cactus on this one, Ovular-teal-cactus on that one. My eyes quickly glazed over at the murky rainbow of colors and I started praying for a planet or moon that had something fresh to offer me, even if that was nothing.
But Hello Games had promised more challenging and terrestrially jarring worlds the further into the galaxy I journeyed. I can forgive a bit of sameness in the opening act if that’s what awaits me.
What’s harder to forgive, and might ultimately be the game’s undoing, is the tedium of inventory management that NMS saddles you with. Taking me out of my exploration of these alien planets was my exo-suit, mewling every minute or so like a fussy baby that I’d used up all the space in my futuristic rucksack. Sure, I’d be able to add new slots by visiting the drop pods littered around each star system, but first I’d have to slog through the never ending cycle of refueling my suit, ship, and mining gun to get enough juice to fly to a place that will tell me where such a drop pod is. Forced grinding in the early hours of game play doesn’t seem like a smart plan for player engagement longevity.
These constant “two steps forward, one step back” reality checks the game imposed never hit controller-throwing levels of frustration. Instead, as I swapped through my inventory pages for the third time in that minute, scratching my chin over what element I needed to make the thing that would let me make the other thing that would let me make the OTHER thing that would finally allow me to go do something (maybe) fun, I began to wonder what’s the point in playing video games at all?
There’s a certain level of task/reward give and take I’ve come to expect from games at this point. It’s the reason “clicker” mobile games are such monster successes. Tap your phone’s screen enough times and earn a multiplier upgrade pops up allowing you to get more points per tap, but essentially do the same thing as the next milestone in the game has scaled up along with your tapping power. No Man’s Sky feels like one of these mindless clicker games, albeit on a much larger and prettier scale. Unfortunately, the dopamine releases from upgrades and milestones in NMS don’t also feel scaled up from its mobile counterparts, which makes drumming up the will to keep going that easy.
I’m going to continue my No Man’s Sky space exploration… for now. But it doesn’t bode well that, rather than fully immersing myself in the game, I’ve already resorted to listening to podcasts and audiobooks as I hop around planets farming resources in a desperate attempt at milking some lasting benefit from this time.
I know this game is, for some, everything they’ve ever wanted. I would imagine those people also had an affinity for Minecraft, something I quickly grew tired of as well. So, the caveat of “people like what they like” is, as always, in full effect for this No Man’s Sky review.
That said, I staunchly believe that, unless you’re attempting to convey a more profound point and listing more into the art or cinematic world with your offering, a video game should be a fun escape. Hello Games hasn’t sold me that. For all its infiniteness, an unexplored Wild West universe beckoning, No Man’s Sky left me feeling more like a child chained to a desk, doing homework than intergalactic adventurer.
*All photos are screen shots taken by the author.