In our modern society there’s a desire towards wanderlust so strong that it borders on an existential crisis. This is certainly true for me; I’m motivated entirely by the opportunity to see the world and the desire to “start over” somewhere new. But satiating this urge to explore is easier said than done given that I’m a recent graduate, not fully out of the poor-student lifestyle, with moderate mobility issues. Essentially I’d love to expand my horizons beyond SE London, but neither my wallet or my knees are particular partial to this at the moment.
Because of this, I’ve followed No Man Sky fairly closely since it was announced a few years ago. Here was a game built around a literal galaxy, with 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 (18 quintillion) planets to explore. A shared world filled with wonders and lifeforms that will potentially never be seen by any human eyes, and no frame narrative other than “why don’t you go see it?” As I previously alluded too, I am mildly disabled. Gaming provides an excellent form of escapism when my mobility is limited. The desire to explore is almost satiated by open world games like Skyrim or Fallout: New Vegas, but here exploration is a side activity to the narrative. No Man’s Sky instantly defined itself as different as the only thing to do is explore. Was this a way to combat my wanderlust from the comfort of my own home?
After a few days with No Man’s Sky I can say categorically yes, it really does fulfil any desire you have to explore. The game starts with you spawned next to a crashed ship, with a very brief explanation of the most basic of controls and a tiny prompt that you need to repair your engines so you can leave the planet. The brief tutorial – here’s how you scan, here’s how you shoot – points you in the direction of the resource you need to collect, but this is very much a one time deal. After this, you’re completely on your own in the universe.
I can honestly say that the initial journey for this one critical resource is an experience unlike anything I’ve ever played before. The opening of the game will be vastly different for everyone depending on the planet they spawn on, but in my case it was wonderfully obtuse. I started on “Enhuayin Yirespo” – a lush, but toxic planet – and was told the resource I needed was a twenty minute trek away in acid rain. When I say the game throws you in at the deep end I’m not exaggerating. I only realised I had a jetpack due to a happy accident. I, somewhat frustratingly, only learned to sprint once I had returned to my ship after an hours trek. Everything you need to survive the climate you’re in, such as maintaining life support systems, you have to work out for yourself. I understand that this may be a bit too obtuse for some players, but I loved this approach to the game as the focus is on your interaction with this game world; it’s never about hand holding, but rather the player learning for themselves as the bold space-frontiersman this game wants you to be.
But this initial foray into planetary exploration was significant because Enhuayin Yirespo was achingly beautiful. I can distinctly remember the first time I cleared a ridge and looked upon a valley filled with alien plant forms growing out of the sulphurous ground. No other piece of media I’ve ever engaged with has made lose my breath as much as No Man’s Sky. Despite being all procedurally generated, it’s remarkable just how often the game continues to be breathtaking. It constantly rewards you with something unexpected, something beautiful, perhaps something unlike everything else in the shared galaxy? This effect isn’t limited to the first planet where the novelty is still new, but has in my case continued for days. One of the early planets I discovered reminded me of the Nevada Desert – flat, dusty and cactus filled – but more psychedelic. Naturally I named it Hunter ES after a certain drug fuelled trip across the Las Vegas desert that this planet reminded me of. Some day this planet might be found and the player might get the Fear and Loathing… reference or they might not, but isn’t that kinda remarkable regardless? What’s more I’ve discovered close to thirty planets at this point and no two have been alike. Just when I think I’ve seen everything this game can throw at me, I discover a planet with neon green grass and giant luminescent mushrooms. Each new world continues to be radically different from the one before it.
Although exploration is very much it’s own reward in No Man’s Sky, it’s not the only reward being offered. Throughout my time I have been given a steady stream of upgrades, weaponry and alien interaction just for taking the time to explore each planet. Every building you stumble upon, whether inhabited or not, will contain either an upgrade or the opportunity to earn one. This will perhaps satisfy those players who crave more structure to their game; the traditional model of “constantly improve your player character” can still be achieved here, just in a less than traditional form. To give an example, my first interaction with a sentient life form resulted in the alien barking and pointing at my gun. Not understanding his language, or wanting to engage in a battle with something far better equipped, I reluctantly handed over my weapon; to my surprise the alien appeared to deem it inappropriate to survive the arid landscape of that particular planet, so replaced it with something far better. The ability to improve my character was still there, but it was only achieved through exploration and taking an unusual risk.
Ultimately I think each player who engages with and enjoys this game will find a different resource or “treasure” that they are particularly excited to find as they amble across the universe. As an ex-literature student and all out linguistics nerd, I am particularly excited whenever I find anything that teaches me a new word in an alien tongue. I love how No Man’s Sky approaches the concept of language – it might even be my personal favourite facet of the game. When you start the game you are unable to speak any of the alien languages. Instead you pick them up word by word through either successful interactions with a particular race, or by finding ruins and relics on a planetary surface. I find the whole process both remarkable (the construction of languages with their own grammar to learn) and incredibly rewarding. Each word you learn, although maybe insignificant, increases the chance that you will better understand the situation the next time you meet a member of that race. Even at the point I am in the game, I can start to assume the meaning of some interactions. I am totally enamoured with the self-driven process that has taken me from complete ignorance to even a mild form of understanding; it feels natural, exciting and fun.
If you’ve read to this point of this review, you’ve probably assumed (rightly) that I am in love with No Man’s Sky. But what may surprise you is that I don’t actually think it’s a very good game. That’s because there’s no real “game” to it. You collect resources to fuel your ship/gun, explore a little bit, jump to the next galaxy, and repeat. You’ll sometimes engage in gunplay or be ransacked by pirates, but at the moment the combat is a little bit flimsy. If you approach No Man’s Sky looking for a game that encourages exploration, but has structure in terms of gameplay and narrative may I recommend you purchase The Witcher 3 instead; that’s a much more strict free-roaming experience with a story that is emotionally arresting. If you’re interested in this game because you heard it’s Minecraft meeds Mass Effect, I have to tell you it’s not that (although it may get closer to that with updates down the line).
But if No Man’s Sky fails as an actual game, it succeeds as art. This is an experience that changes vastly depending on what the player wants to get out of it. If you go into it expecting a game that tells you what to do,and provides you a path to follow, you will be bitterly disappointed and will hate your time in this universe. But as I explained at the start this was never how I approached No Man’s Sky. I approached the game with a sole interest in the exploration, a means to rectify my own inability to travel with few expectations beyond that. As a result I’ve had an experience that is poignant and staggeringly beautiful. My painful desire to explore, and my frustration at my inability to do so, disappears once I log into the game. Here I have a galaxy that provides compelling reasons to poke around it, you just have to be willing to look for them. I can’t quite put into words exactly what my emotional reaction to No Man’s Sky is because no other piece of media has had quite this effect on me. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve flown to a specific objective only to get distracted by something I fly past; I wanted a game to challenge my exploration instinct and it does this perfectly. I recognise that the very nature of this game as procedurally generated means that no two play throughs will ever be alike – my experiences may be the polar opposite of another player. All I can say is here I found an experience that was simultaneously challenging and calming, all the while encouraging me to get lost in either the beauty or ridiculousness of this imaginary universe.
It’s early days yet, but I’m ready to put No Man’s Sky up there with Hearthstone as one of my favourite video games of all time [although unlike Blizzards card game, NMS is a calming influence]. But at the same time, I completely understand why some people will walk away from this experience having hated every minute of it. It’s justifiable because the very way you interact with No Man’s Sky is so at odds with how a video game normally works. Here meaning is never made at the point of the game itself, it is solely created at the point of the player. As a result, the way the player interacts and engages with the content is fundamentally different to the way popular media works. If this doesn’t sound appealing to you, perhaps No Man’s Sky isn’t the experience you’re looking for; personally I found this to be a unique and engaging take on the medium. But whether you fall on the side of loving the game or hating it, there’s one thing both sides can agree on – no other game provides an experience quite like No Man’s Sky.