Library Days 003: No Man’s Sky

I took a break last week due to a certain amount of social stress, but am back with the latest game I’ve checked out from my local library! No Man’s Sky.

No Man’s Sky was, for several years, the subject of more massive speculation than any game I can remember in recent years. The game’s debut trailer at VGX 2013 sparked fan theories, and expectations of being able to fly amongst a galaxy of never-ending, never repeating planets through procedural generation; of endless exploratory gameplay that players might never tire of. I never quite bought into the hype, though I don’t associated that with any specific prescience or intuition; it was simply that I haven’t had much enjoyment playing games with a massive amount of procedurally generated content.

I prefer my game narratives finely crafted, and one of my least favorite things about Bethesda’s in-house titles (a la Skyrim & have been the development of “radiant quests”, continuous stories based on modular story content with no real individual impact on the world or characters within it; I’m fine with a dynamic, procedural world, provided that world grows and changes with the decisions that you make within it. My favorite moment in the original Dishonored was when I ran from a street gang, teleported to a ledge above, and watched in amazement as the gang that followed me started a brawl with the guardsmen in the nearby square, wiping out most of both groups.

My problems with procedurally generated content are when it’s used as a way to try and cheat or trick the player into having what is presented as a unique experience, but ends up being simply a pallet swap, text reset, or corridor shift of the same content. In that respect, early footage of No Man’s Sky, and information about it’s small development team, didn’t inspire much confidence in me that the game would have much curated content or direction; rather, it looked to me like a lot of procedurally generated, giant sandboxes; a broad scope sacrificed specificity and detail for the size of what could be explored. Frankly, it looked like a great midrange title that would offer a fun way to pass time, but without a very intense or hardcore experience.

When the game was released to heavy disappointment from the overhyped populace (developer Hello Games reportedly received death threats over the lack of content in the game worlds) I was surprised by the vitriolic response, but not the disappointment itself. I tried to withhold judgment en total, since I knew I’d possibly never get around to playing it, with my interest being much more story-driven. Now over half a year since release, No Man’s Sky has a 50/50 chance of being in when I trawl my library’s game section; so I nabbed it (since none of my holds have come in—currently hold number 25/39 for Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild).

To my immediate surprise, I discovered that No Man’s Sky wasn’t the boring samey galactic travelogue that I had suspected, but was instead built in the mode of a survival game, like Ark Survival Evolved, or the non-building sections of Minecraft. You begin marooned on an alien planet, must repair your ship, and are at the mercy of the elements; over time your life support will run out, requiring the mining of resources from the planet to maintain survival. Upgrading your ship, your suit, and eventually your home base, requires mining more and more elements, which requires finding more resources and going to different worlds.

Survival games tend to be fairly intense, but not so much No Man’s Sky (though admittedly I was playing it on its default difficulty setting) and the pacing seemed particularly easy-going. Travel to a planet, explore, avoid the hostile native critters, collect minerals, upgrade, upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. I suppose if I had approached the game that way, instead of zipping off to follow some of the main quest lines, I would have found it more enjoyable. As it was; as I ventured further into the interior of the galaxy without upgrading my ship extensively; I soon found myself outgunned, and outmanned on planets by drones; making continued gameplay more frustrating.

Rather, I hadn’t accorded myself to the game’s naturally slow, progressive place by attempting to move forward faster than necessary. It’s worth noting this is a good note to make about library game loans; there’s a tendency to want to get to the heart of things, since you won’t have the game long.

In that sense, this library-game checkout venture isn’t that different from when I was playing games for reviews professionally. In both cases, you have a limited time to get through the material, and this means either being satisfied with not finishing a game, or rushing through it to fulfill the story content. I think, in this case, I played No Man’s Sky completely incorrectly; I should have spent my time in it exploring at a relaxed pace, instead of rushing forward to try and get as much done as possible (leading to mounting frustration as I found myself out matched in tech and lacking the resources to build up my gear).

And this speaks to a certain degree to what’s been an unwritten (until now) part of this venture; instead of trying to determine broadly whether a game is good or bad on a quantitative scale; I’m trying to ask the question, “what is this game trying to do, and does it succeed at those goals?”

The answer for No Man’s Sky is, I think, yes. I think the hype-train built up a game that didn’t exist, and never was going to exist with the design direction the game had headed in, but the game that exists holds true to the original independent development ideas; those ideas were just never quite communicated clearly.

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