Game More of Promise

As my warp drive deactivates, my ship pulls hard out of the infinite colors of hyperspace. I’m surrounded by a bright but murky green nebula. I’ve never been in a star system surrounded by such a brilliant green. Space is brighter than I ever imagined it would be, brighter than any video I’ve seen of Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon, of the International Space Station’s robotic arm reaching out into the black.

But this isn’t reality, I remind myself. It’s a game, albeit a fantastically large one on an unprecedented scale. My mental escape to the real world is quickly interrupted. Space pirates are scanning my ship. Already? I think to myself. I just got here!

They’ve searched my cargo hold. They like what they see. I attempt to engage my pulse drive. Perhaps I can make it to the nearest planet, which, at my current speed coming out of hyperspace, is still a painful 4 hours away. But it won’t engage. The space pirates are blocking my pulse drive. I’m panicking. It’s just a game, I remind myself. But that doesn’t stop the irrepressible feeling of dread eating away at me. A feeling that only gets worse as I see three triangular ships appear in the backdrop of space, their lime green exhaust beginning to curve in my direction.

I’ve heard you can upgrade your weapons. I haven’t had the time, resources or technology to do so. I’m armed with photon cannons. I have shields. Surely the game designers did not mean for me to die so early in the game. And then I wonder, What happens if I die? It’s a bit of an existential question for a video game, yes, but a legitimate one at that. If I die, I die alone. No one will remember me. And with more than 18 quintillion worlds, chances are nobody will ever find  the worlds I named after myself. All that I’ll have to be remembered by is a fleeting moment of hubris.

It’s at that moment that the first pirate shots skip across the hull. My shields are dropping. I’m surrounded.

Breaking Down the Hype

After what can only be described as a wait that felt nearly as infinite as its universe, No Man’s Sky, arguably 2016’s most anticipated game, was released into the hands of eager gamers. Landing on the PS4 on August 9th and PCs on August 12th, the game was waited on with bated breath for a number of reasons. In the 3 years since British developer Hello Games announced the space epic[1], fans have been trying to have a multitude of questions answered. Chief among them is one that most games have answered long before their actual release date: “What do you do in this game”?

Now that No Man’s Sky is available, we have the answer. And, almost amusingly, it’s essentially what we were told in the lead up to the game: “explore, survive, combat, and trade”. All of that happens in No Man’s Sky’s impossibly huge, procedurally generated galaxy, one that, for all intents and purposes, is far bigger than our own. Hello Games advertises its procedural generation method as capable of producing over 18 quintillion unique planets. For perspective, many estimates put our own galaxy as having a comparatively small 100 billion planets[2]. As far as variety goes, no game in the history of gaming, and likely no program in the history of programs has achieved such a feat. In that alone, No Man’s Sky is a historic gaming masterpiece.

Poetry in the Magnificent

But then there’s the fact that the game is just gorgeous. Absolutely, stunningly gorgeous. So much so, in fact, that it seems to have made most game reviewers want to wax poetic when describing it. That even includes many of those giving the game mixed to negative reviews. Take these descriptions as prime examples:

Wired’s[3] Daniel Starkey writes: “No Man’s Sky is predicated on the idea that there is poetry in the knowledge that we are as lonely and as small in its computer-generated space as we are here in reality.”

The New Yorker’s[4] Simon Parkin opines: “It has been said that video games are best understood by the verbs they invite. No Man’s Sky is built on four primary actions: explore, fight, trade, survive. They are familiar verbs, for players, but, couched in the near-endless variety of this playpen, they remain brightly alluring.”

Polygon’s[5] Philip Kollar adds: “Let me tell you one spot where No Man’s Sky unequivocally succeeds, however: It is a complete technical marvel, to a degree that I cannot even begin to comprehend how it works.”

And indeed, No Man’s Sky is a programming marvel. No game[6] before it has managed to feature a universe this vast and this seamless. No Man’s Sky allows you to take off from planets, skip across a star system, and hop down onto another planet, all without the hassle of loading screens. Even in Eve Online’s[7] massive galaxy, this ability is wholly unheard of.

But reactions are, overall, mixed. Reviews are still seeping in at a much slower pace than with most games, mostly due to the game’s core design. With the eventual goal to make it to the center of the galaxy and meet a mysterious, seemingly omnipotent power, many reviewers are hesitant to give the game a final score so soon. Nevertheless, No Man’s Sky currently sits at a paltry 71/100 on metacritic[8], with a horrendously low 4.9/10 average among users. While a huge mismatch between game critics’ and players’ reviews is common, both scores denote an almost unforgivable sense of disappointment from fans who expected something more, or at least something a bit different.

In truth, No Man’s Sky’s biggest faults reside in the repetitiveness and micromanaging that are involved. While most players expected a space simulator of some form, few expected it to feel like a space-based Minecraft. Only, without the world-building but with all of the requisite  tedium. Similarly, exploring the landscapes, which are almost unequivocally breathtaking, can still feel reminiscent to the early part of the Mass Effect Trilogy, and not in a good way.

For some gamers, such as NME’s[9] Mark Beaumont, the problem with No Man’s Sky is the very size it boasts. “These huge games are interrupting the natural rhythm of gaming life,” he writes. “Sure, games are fun to play, but the greatest satisfaction is in the beating of them, and the intervals between ‘wins’ are getting longer.” There is truth his statement that is impossible to ignore. And for the almost neurotic completionists among us (I thankfully do not count myself as one of those), No Man’s Sky is probably a game to be avoided. It’s a nightmare for anyone suffering from OCD. There is no end to it. Even discovering all of the hidden secrets of one of its realistically-sized worlds can take tens of hours. Multiply that by 18 quintillions, and you can easily see the problem.

Trendsetting in Space

Love it or hate it, No Man’s Sky is a proof of concept in many ways. Hello Games has proven, unequivocally, that you can make a game as large as our own universe. And while No Man’s Sky is far emptier than most players would prefer, with much less variety despite the fact that each planet is unique, it’s the prospect for what’s possible that makes the game a huge step forward.

Undoubtedly, many developers will be looking to mimic No Man’s Sky’s universe, even if the game is not a commercial success. The feat Hello Games achieved would have been impossible for an older generation of video game consoles. Even my own PS4 whirs loudly at the strain the game puts on its processors. But when the next generation of consoles emerges, perhaps we will see games just as large but with much more vibrantly populated universes. Throw in the prospect of more realistic adoption and application of virtual reality, and one might begin to see that the future of gaming is much brighter than many of us realized.