It was late the other night when I found myself staring at a pillar of iron jutting out from a hill on a barren world in No Man’s Sky. The vastness of the galaxy I was exploring hit me as a stood 100 meters away admiring this lonely cylinder.
It took my breath away.
No Man’s Sky is a space-exploration game where players travel from planet to planet, star system to star system, and galaxy to galaxy in search of rare elements, recipes, and species. No Man’s Sky is also an overhyped, endlessly pre-analyzed PlayStation 4 and PC release that gamers have imbued with all of their hopes and dreams.
As an exercise in exploration and crafting, No Man’s Sky works. As a manifestation of the endless possibilities of space travel that you’ve obsessed over since you were a kid, it leaves you wanting.
What you’ll like
Endless exploration and sticky systems
No Man’s Sky’s greatest attribute is that it treats space travel like the American frontier. It’s a dangerous, unforgiving place that will always present you with new challenges, but you can also make your fortune if you stumble across a system teeming with gold deposits.
And while it was rare that a person would set out into any earthly frontier completely on their own, it’s the vision we fantasize about today. Society is broken and doesn’t appreciate the things you like? Screw ’em. Pack your bags and move away. Head out into the unknown to make your own way.
This is where No Man’s Sky comes in.
At its core, it is about moving from one place to the next in search of a steady stream of upgrades. As you get these upgrades, you need different materials to power or build them. Different solar systems provide elements in varying degrees while also presenting any number of threatening or welcoming environments.
In this discipline, No Man’s Sky is a fine video game with a strong loop. I’ve already written about having troubles putting the game down. When I know what I need to build next to continue progressing, I’ll just keep doing it. And No Man’s Sky always gives you something to do next.
Sure, you’re primarily finding, extracting, and carrying materials and equipment to build up the capabilities of your suit, ship, and multitool for the purpose of finding, extracting, and carrying even more materials and equipment. But that’s fun when it’s wrapped in this shell of exploring random worlds.
Let’s return to that pillar on the hill. I found it on a planet called “Bow.” It was the first time I walked on a world that someone else had discovered first and had named. It made the universe feel smaller, but that moment quickly passed as I looked around and spotted that weird iron spike.
I have seen thousands of these formations now in No Man’s Sky. Most planets have something along these lines, since iron is a common element. But I had never seen one that looked so isolated — they are typically bunched together.
And that’s when I froze.
You see, No Man’s Sky really is the size of a universe. The developer has famously said it features something along the lines of 18 quintillion planets. That is effectively infinite as far as any single human player is concerned. Hello achieved this scale by not building the game by hand. Instead, it crafted a series of algorithms — if-then mathematical statements — that create planets based on a series of rules, which is a lot like the way life works.
Here’s some examples of how the game might work: If the distance from a star increases to more than 100 million lightyears, then increase the chances of spawning another planet. If a planet is 8 light minutes from its star, its average climate is temperate. And if a hill on a barren planet has slopes at more than a 20-degree angle, the chances of spawning an iron pillar are 1-in-1,000.
Honestly, all of those ideas came to me in the moment that I was looking at the stalagmite. I couldn’t help but consider the rules that enabled its existence.
And then I realized I am almost certainly going to be the only person who has ever lived who will have these feelings about this pillar. In all likelihood, I’m the only being who will ever even look at this particular feature on this specific planet.
I have no other way of saying it: It was awe-inspiring.
It also made me realize not only how alone I was in exploring this universe, but how alone everything that comprises it is as well. The procedures will create rock formations, creatures, and even aliens that no one will ever see.
Recognizing that in a video game is novel and profound.
Games have always tried to tell stories. Most recently, the PlayStation 4-exclusive Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End told the climatic adventure through dialogue, cutscenes, and gameplay. It all looked and felt like the kind of storytelling you get in film or on television.
No Man’s Sky is not like that. What you get here is your story. That means you won’t have bombastic scripted moments where your brother deceives you and your wife discovers you’ve lied to her. Instead, you get stories like this:
One time I jumped into a new star system and immediately got into a fight with space pirates. They were too powerful for me, so I blasted as fast as I could toward the closest planet. This was enough for me to evade those enemies, and I even stumbled across a ruin that could potentially provide me with the language I need to converse with the intelligent spacefaring species in this quadrant of the galaxy. But as soon as I landed, I realized that my ship was out of fuel to take off and the planet was scorched with radiation.
This made it nearly impossible for me to travel far from my ship. I spent the next few minutes making quick runs out of my craft to gather resources and interact with the ruin. After successfully solving the problem posed by the ancient alien pillar, I received an upgrade. Looking at it in my inventory, I realized that I had a tech that could protect me from radiation that I had never built. I pinned the recipe to craft it to my HUD and started making trips back and forth from my ship to build it.
The final materials were nowhere near me, and I still could not find any plutonium to fire up my engines. I could, however, see a cave in the distance. On hot or cold planets, you can typically avoid the environmental hazards by hiding in these shelters. I had never dealt with radiation before, but I didn’t have much of a choice. Sprinting toward the cave, I hoped that it would provide a shield against the radiation (letting my shields recharge) while also putting me in striking distance of the materials I needed.
As I reached the point of no return in my sprint to the cave, my suit gave me a warning: storm incoming. I watched as the radiation in the environment doubled. My shielding and stamina completely failed in the last 10 meters. I was about to die when I entered the opening in the planet, but I was still taking radiation. Finally, after burrowing into the furthest, darkest corner, my suit ringed out with: “radiation levels stabilizing.” And I watched as my shield recharged.
Hitting my scanners, I nearly cheered when I found the plutonium I needed to launch and the other materials I needed for my suit upgrade. After dropping some other, less crucial items, I crafted the radiation shield. I waltzed back to my ship, and rocketed away.
It was a harrowing experience, and one that probably won’t happen to you. Instead, you’ll go through something else, but it will all come from you actions instead of the intent of an author.
What you won’t like
Your imagination is still far more powerful
While the vastness and isolation of No Man’s Sky are powerful, they don’t always make up for what the game is lacking. This is a problem with expectations more than the game itself, but it’s one that is still hampering my enjoyment.
The issue here is the gaps.
When Hello Games and director Sean Murray first talked about No Man’s Sky, he only told us what it is.
“This universe we created is so vast and so boundless, it’s actually infinite,” Murray said during the PlayStation media event at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2014. “We don’t even know what’s out there.”
When I hear something like that, my mind goes to work. He’s saying Hello Games built procedures that create endless worlds. What I hear is that I’ll be engaging in endless types of experiences. But now I’m playing, and I am seeing endless worlds. But what I’m not engaging in is endless types of experiences.
I’ve not stumbled into Whoopie Goldberg’s bar from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I haven’t had to fight off pirates from boarding my ship. I haven’t snuck onto corporate frigates to steal their valuable cargo. Even the “endless” planets often look a lot alike.
When you hear about a concept, your imagination can fill in the blank spaces. Murray says he doesn’t know what’s out there, and my brain can pick up the slack. But in the game, I’m engaging with this thing I cannot change, and — by its nature — it leaves no room for me to color outside of its lines.
And while it’s not fair to compare a game that human beings made against everything I’ve always imagined a game like this could be, I can’t help myself.
No Man’s Sky is about looping gameplay. You are going to do the same things over and over, but you’ll do them more efficiently as you upgrade your capabilities.
For me, engaging with those systems was fun a lot of the time, but digging out a deposit of aluminum for 10 straight minutes gives you plenty of time to ask “why the hell am I doing this?” And No Man’s Sky leaves it up to you to answer that.
Maybe you want to get to the center of the universe or you want to name as many planets and animals as you can. Maybe you are enjoying the exploration or want to see how powerful you can get. But I have a hard time seeing those things serving as the primary forces driving anyone wanting to put 40 hours or 50 hours into No Man’s Sky. It’s mostly going to come down to whether or not you enjoy the crafting and the hunting for materials. If you don’t, you’re going to have a hard time picking the controller back up after putting it down.
Life isn’t fair.
No Man’s Sky is the followup from the studio that made Joe Danger, the second-best motorcycle-platforming series ever made. Based on that track record, you wouldn’t expect to find the developer generating levels of hype typically reserved only for the return of long-running franchises like Metal Gear, Zelda, and Uncharted.
But No Man’s Sky is something of a return. It’s a call back to the sci-fi and adventuring stories that form the foundation of so many of today’s geeks. Roaming the galaxy as a lone explorer who has to rely on their wits to survive harsh planets nestled between light years of empty space is something I’ve played in my mind since I was a kid.
I’ve waited my entire life for No Man’s Sky. How could it possibly live up to that?
The truth is that it doesn’t satisfy the lifelong yearnings of a 33-year-old man. But I’m not throwing it in the garbage. Its scale and sense of isolation is special. The procedural nature imbues everything in the game with a sense of life that other, better-crafted games can’t match. And it nails the emergent storytelling that I want from a survival game.
But I also hope that this is only the start for No Man’s Sky or games like it. I’m glad we can do this, but I want more. I hope we get it.
In the meantime, I’ll never forget that lonely pillar on the hill.
No Man’s Sky is out now on PS4 and PC. Sony Interactive Entertainment provided GamesBeat with a copy of No Man’s Sky for the purposes of this review.