Tuesday, August 23, 2016

No Man's Sky - Thoughts

Forget the promises.

Forget the ambiguous interviews, bald-faced deceptions, and misled hype. These issues are no doubt problematic for the future of Sean Murray and Hello Games, but what I want to talk about is the naked beast that rests beneath it all. Behind the mask of this recent consumer frustration is what I would dare call a pitiful game. Forget what it aimed to be and what it may yet become some distant day—playing the No Man's Sky as it currently stands is a chore. I don't fault other players for finding enjoyment in it—tastes are subjective and all that—but a deep game it certainly is not. If you reap no pleasure from its repetitive structure and inventory masochism, then nothing but disappointment shall inevitably await you.

To better articulate the conclusion I've reached, I'm going to walk you through my (very brief) experience of No Man's Sky. The tutorial was a straight-up mess for me, because as awesome as it is to plop the player immediately down into the game world, there's very little direction or proper tutelage on what the player is supposed to be looking for or doing. Sure, I have a crashed ship there, but what are all these things on the ship? What is this laser module I crafted for my multitool? Which elements are more important than others? What does it mean to transfer materials from player to ship? Add to that the constantly decreasing life gauge from the toxic atmosphere, and my introduction to No Man's Sky felt more like a trial by fire than anything.

Not that its hands-off approach was a terrible thing, mind you. Like many players, I feel the game is at its strongest during its first few hours, where everything is captivating because it's new. Roaming the untapped surface of your first planet and feasting your eyes upon the spectacular (and bizarre) randomly generated creatures can be quite thrilling, especially if your home is thriving and verdant. Mine was not however, and wanting to get off of that putrid rock as fast as I could, I made a beeline for completing my ship ASAP. To its credit, the game does occasionally pulse a mission objective at the bottom right of the screen, but it was often interrupted by (paraphrased) "YOU HAVE PRE-ORDER CONTENT TO REDEEM!", forcing me to swap out my ship for the shiny preorder one in order to assuage its nagging.

Launching into space and yearning to leave that hellhole behind, I warp jumped to the next system and began engaging with my favorite part of the game: rigorously naming everything. Having a penchant for nonsensical words (my preferred moniker is dobu gabu maru after all), I dubbed my solar system "Kah Nim Thursh" and set about designating every planet a type of "Kah"—like "Sunburst Kah" or "Drygreen Kah". As each celestial body was a slight variant of a desert biome, I had a challenging (but entertaining) time thinking up alternate names to things like the pale, carbon-rich "Flatbone" and rotund, rocky "Stiffstone". It didn't feel like I was making active progress through the game but it at least felt like these planets were found and claimed by me, their names to endure until the last light in the universe dies out (or the servers go down).

But therein lies the rub—nothing you do in No Man's Sky really matters. Since there's no multiplayer there's no camaraderie or stake in claiming planets for you or your friends. While you can "upload" your findings, there's no communal drive that pushes the game forward, thus no reason to designate something by other than its RNG name. The planets are so large that finding outposts feels trivial, and the weird, tiny steps you take towards advancing the story are so microscopic that stumbling upon a Knowledge Stone felt as fulfilling as finding a generic rock. Combine this with a stupefying amount of patronizing congratulatory screens that take you out of gameplay (like "CONGRATULATIONS ON WALKING 5000 UNITS/TALKING TO 3 ALIENS!"), and it feels like your actions in this game may as well be devoid of intention, the design lauding you for simply messing about on its worlds.

This isn't to say I require a guiding hand in all my video games; Minecraft is one of my favorite games because it virtually simulates playing with Legos in a unique and dazzling way. Beyond that though, Minecraft also has an impressive gameplay loop between mining, crafting, and building that keeps you motivated enough to finish each personal objective (like say, creating a fortress in the sky). Even if No Man's Sky was just as "pointless" as Minecraft, it remains inferior because the ancillary elements are wholly uninteresting. Shooting feels poor and awkward, space mining is laughably shallow, planet mining is painstakingly grindy, and the fact that the same space station, outposts, and basic elements await you in every solar systems robs the player of any kind of intrigue or danger. At the very core of No Man's Sky exists only a loathsome inventory management simulator, something that is both awkward yet necessary to interact with in order to progress, and will have you shaking in disbelief at how dumb it can be (I need four inventory slots open to craft the ingredients for one ship part even though I have all the raw materials to make it already? Why? Why? Why?!!!)

I tried to keep my pessimism in check while playing, but my space sojourn had swiftly reached its end when I unfortunately became a permanent resident in "Kah Nim Thursh". You see, since I switched to the preorder ship I accidentally skipped the steps required to obtain the warp drive recipe by jumping to a new solar system, meaning I was SOL unless I could find antimatter somewhere (a necessary ingredient used to travel to a new system which I couldn't manually craft [and I had already bought & used the one in the space station]). I had switched ships again in the new solar system before I discovered this error, and despite my attempt to locate my abandoned preorder ship so I could use its remaining fuel to jump back to my starting galaxy, there was no way to place markers or survey the topography of a planet to find where I had discarded the vessel. Having to choose between restarting the game or forging ahead in hopes that I stumble upon more antimatter, I opted instead to simply abandon the game altogether. There, in "Kah Nim Thursh", my lone space ranger had met his end, the tutorial bubble endlessly suggesting I jump to another system with a ship that was incapable of doing so...

... It was a very fitting way to close out my time with No Man's Sky.

No Man's Sky may put up a strong argument if it was a $20 Early Access title, but its a poor purchase as a released, retail product. Besides getting irrecoverable stuck in it, there was no reason for anyone to visit my "Kahs" and no structures worth seeing that couldn't be seen elsewhere—hell I couldn't even notify people where I was stranded. Each planet contained nothing more than useless, randomly generated materials for me to abscond away with, or psudeo-Spore fauna I could shoot when I got bored of watching them trot in circles. No planet felt like home, no solar system felt necessary, and all I really cared about at the end was mindlessly scouring the surface for inventory upgrades that would allow me to play the game longer. No Man's Sky's true objective wasn't hidden out among the flickering stars, but rather surreptitiously concealed inwards, nestled at the bottom of my stupid, tiny backpack. I walk away from it feeling that despite all the seething rage Mighty No. 9 received at its release, Inafune's effort was at least fun to play.

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