‘No Man’s Sky,’ arguably the world’s largest video game, asks if bigger is better
Fourteen minutes and 54 seconds.
I’m on a distant planet and I need to get to my spaceship. Yet “No Man’s Sky” is telling me that the vessel is a 14-minute, 54-second hike away. So I settle into the couch. But after three minutes of strolling through a salmon-colored rocky surface — and admiring some lavender plant life — I need a break, perhaps for good.
This was the second time in one week I had quit “No Man’s Sky.”
That’s because there’s another, more important number to mention when it comes to discussing “No Man’s Sky”: 18.4 quintillion. That is, there are more than 18.4 quintillion planets to discover in “No Man’s Sky.” You will not live long enough — here on Earth, that is — to collect them all.
The sheer size of the game is alternately intimidating and awe-inspiring, an interactive world as vast as the universe itself. And considering the game is built on a randomly generating algorithm, every “No Man’s Sky” experience will be different. Maybe you and I will stumble across the same planet, but it’s unlikely.
This promise, one of self-exploration across a singularly unique galaxy, has made “No Man’s Sky” the most anticipated game of 2016. Months before the game was released, Hello Games founder Sean Murray was profiled in the New Yorker and visited “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” Each media appearance or mention championed the infinite nature of the game.
Size, apparently, matters.
While hype can be a dangerous thing, the first time one hops into a spaceship and blasts out of a planet’s atmosphere, “No Man’s Sky” seems to deserve all of it. The view is breathtaking — one planet is five hours away, a space station seven hours, another planet nine hours. Get comfortable.
Asteroids glisten. Marauders, perhaps, hover in the distance. Where to go? What to see? What to do?
“No Man’s Sky’s” greatest fault and its greatest achievement is that it only partly answers these questions.
For all intents and purposes, “No Man’s Sky” has no story. There’s a vague quest prodding the player to get to the center of the universe, but there’s no need to heed it. This is exploration for exploration’s sake, an argument that games should transport us to another world and let us write our own stories.
This is, in itself, noble.
If you really want combat, “No Man’s Sky” will allow you to battle robot forces and space pirates. The former protect the galaxy’s animal life and fauna, but you most likely will die attempting to take them on. You can spend the entirety of your time with the game upgrading weapons to make combat more rewarding, but doing so means you’re ultimately killing innocent life. So, don’t be a jerk, “No Man’s Sky” encourages.
Instead, like the games “Journey,” “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture,” “Firewatch” and “Abzu” before it, “No Man’s Sky” promises near free-form wandering, Sometimes a question mark will appear on the screen. What’s there? Walk 10 minutes and find out (yes, you walk in real time in “No Man’s Sky”).
Sometimes, as in the classic film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” there will be a giant alien monolith. Maybe this monolith will present you some keys to an alien language. Other times, a monolith may offer an apparition and ask the player a moral question. Mostly, though, you will wonder why you just walked for 10 minutes to find said monolith.
The look of “No Man’s Sky” is brilliant. It’s bright and optimistic. Caves with twinkling red plants beckon. Occasionally, a dinosaur-like figure will cross the screen. I have spent 20 hours with the game, and while I have not encountered anything close to the busy alien life that early trailers promised (far from it, in fact), the game is still a work of beauty.
So what’s the problem?
“No Man’s Sky” hasn’t given me a reason to care.
Who are you? Why are you here? Who came before you? If you spend enough time with “No Man’s Sky” no doubt you can concoct a narrative, but the game has zero interest in answering player questions.
Perhaps fans of “Minecraft” will find this liberating. I found it — and I hate to say this — tedious. Hate to say that because more games need to inspire wonder of the great beyond. More games need to prod players to uncover secrets rather than kill things.
The problem with “No Man’s Sky” is that players can do everything and ultimately do nothing. And sometimes what they’re prodded to do can seem a waste of time. Like, look for rocks.
Here’s “No Man’s Sky” in a nutshell: Minerals + more minerals = a non-mineral.
At the start of the game you are dropped on a random planet. Your ship is broken. You must gather items to fix it. While my experience may not reflect yours, this took me about seven hours.
If you walk around long enough you can gather iron and plutonium and other periodic table elements and combine them all to blast off. In my 20 hours with “No Man’s Sky,” I’d estimate that 17 hours were spent walking around and pointing a laser beam at rocks or plants to get minerals to better my ship.
Thrilling? Archaeological? The opposite.
You, the player, in “No Man’s Sky” are a callous individual who lands on planets and kills innocent life and mines for minerals to make your ship look cooler — like someone decking out a car with really awesome hubcaps — and fly faster. Ultimately, that is the core of what “No Man’s Sky” encourages.
That is, if you believe games should have goals and objectives. “No Man’s Sky” actually doesn’t care for such things. When it’s at its strongest, “No Man’s Sky” cares most for pure beauty. In a recent blog post, Murray tried to distance himself from the game’s hype.
“It’s a weird game,” he wrote. “It’s a niche game and it’s a very very chill game.”
All of that is true.
But “chill” is the operative word. Sit down, relax, craft some things and don’t think. Then, “No Man’s Sky” may just be the game for you.
Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens
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