Christopher Machell on No Man’s Sky...
It’s safe to say that for many, No Man’s Sky’s is a colossal disappointment. Consisting of shallow inventory management, frustrating combat, and planetary wildlife that is as repetitive in its behaviour as it is varied in appearance, the playground of No Man’s Sky may be beautiful but it is also empty. By stripping out features such as complex trading, working with warring factions and dynamic space combat, developer Hello Games has angered many gamers expecting a deep and rich world full of possibility.
Chris Franklin of the excellent YouTube series Errant Signal has already contrasted the game’s mechanical weaknesses with its meditative qualities, and The Guardian newspaper’s Keith Stuart recently mounted an impassioned defence of the game as a spiritual successor to the original Elite. I want to contribute to this debate by first acknowledging the game’s flaws – many of which have arisen from a development culture where unfinished games are shipped at full price – while challenging some of the game’s key criticisms. Many of the game’s detractors have denounced its lack of direction, its bafflingly frustrating ending and the repetitive nature of the gameplay, all of which are fair observations.
But while everyone is fixated on the what, no one seems to be asking the why: why is No Man’s Sky’s ending so weird? Why is the inventory system so clunky? Why does the game seem to do everything it can to make the player’s interactions with the world so meaningless? The answers offered so far, centering mainly around accusations that Sean Murray is an evil liar, are unsatisfactory at best, paranoid and entitled at worst.
The game’s core mechanics – trading, mining, crafting, survival, flying, combat, and exploration – are all necessary to make progress but are neither as deep as the quests in Skyrim, nor as creative as the building in Minecraft. Similarly, interactions with the few intelligent alien races in the game are flat and limited. The crafting and survival mechanics are hampered by an absurdly limited amount of inventory space, which is further hobbled by an overabundance of minerals on every planet. Flying feels like you’re doing it with the training wheels on, unable to crash (except into asteroids), and there is no challenge to landing, taking off or warping to new systems. In contrast, combat is an imprecise slog. Exploration is repetitive, too, with each planet having only one climate, whereas landmarks like trading stations, drop pods and manufacturing facilities repeat themselves ad infinitum. Undoubtedly, No Man’s Sky is a game with very little to do, and the grind in which you must engage often feels devoid of meaning beyond the compulsion to keep moving forward.
But the rote simplicity of these systems negates the feature creep that plagues so many sandbox games. Instead, No Man’s Sky’s systemic simplicity, clunky as it is, clears the path to the game’s emotional and thematic complexity. No Man’s Sky is a game of singular vision: instead of saying many things badly, it says one thing well. The game elicits a paradoxical sense of excitement at the prospect of visiting new worlds and futility in the face of endless exploration; of limitless possibility and crushing repetition.
Comparable games – Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout – all work hard to remind the player that they are an essential component in their massive, complex worlds, but the world of No Man’s Sky is one that does not care that you are there, and is unaffected by your presence in it.
These are not the kinds of emotions that gamers are routinely encouraged to feel: in fact, the majority of games reinforce the sense that the player is important and powerful, a significant agent in the world. Indeed, the vast majority of interactive media privilege player agency above all else, but it is important to remember that interactivity is not the same thing as agency. Everybody’s Gone to The Rapture – another game derided for not being ‘gamey’ enough – tells the story of a village’s mass disappearance. By framing its narrative in the past tense, Rapture retains interactivity while removing player agency, and in so doing, reinforces the game’s central theme of the intractable, unchangeable past.
Similarly, the core mechanics of No Man’s Sky reinforce that game’s sense of isolation and insignificance. The frustrating inventory disempowers the player, never more so than while desperately trying to recharge shields in the midst of combat, and the flat interactions with alien traders emphasise the vast gulf between the player’s understanding of the world and theirs. This lack of understanding is further underscored in the game’s opening sequence, in which you wake up not knowing where you are or why you are there. You are adrift, without a context in which to make sense of yourself.
It is the compulsion to make sense of your marooned self that initially pushes the player to progress, the need to continue playing driven by the search for meaning. Every monolith you discover answers one question but raises two more, urging you to continue searching for that elusive dramatic catharsis, a catharsis that is perpetually out of reach. When the satisfaction of so many games derives from a final dramatic or ludic denouement, it is not surprising that so many players are upset that No Man’s Sky’s wilfully denies them one. Indeed, reports of players working through multiple galaxies in the hope that they will eventually get the ‘real’ ending is telling: the need for catharsis is profound, but No Man’s Sky challenges us to think about that need in the context of endlessly cyclical play.
The lore that the monoliths and other alien artefacts hint at is sparse and vague: learning one word of Gekese at a time is rarely functionally helpful, and the player is left with the sneaking suspicion that there is not a great deal of depth underneath the mysterious structures and snippets of mythology that you encounter. Paradoxically, however, this works in the game’s favour, evoking an obscure history that hints at vast empires crumbled into dust and galactic wars waged millennia ago. Indeed, much like developer The Chinese Room’s walking simulators, the meaningful events of the game world are locked in the opaque past, reassembled in the space between inscrutable artefacts and the player’s imagination. Additionally, the design and nonsense languages of the aliens is suggestive of the game’s thematic roots in classic science fiction literature, and textual interactions with the monoliths recall the days of text-based computerised adventures. Regardless of whether this is by accident or design, these thematic resonances are etched into the game’s subtext.
By containing no pre-ordained meaning, the monoliths and other artefacts require us to inscribe our own, to create a sense of personal, transient catharsis. In this, at least, No Man’s Sky is unique.
None of which, of course, will cool the anger of those whose dreams of a vast universe filled with dynamic potential have been dashed. But to those who are willing to meet No Man’s Sky on its own imperfect terms, to consider its artistic achievement alongside its technical shortcomings, there is much to admire. No Man’s Sky challenges our long-held assumptions of what games can and should be, and of our place within their worlds. It advocates a future for games as artistic endeavours as well as consumer products. In that sense, then, No Man’s Sky makes good on its promise, pointing a way to the stars even if it can’t make the journey itself.