I have a confession.
Are you ready?
I like No Man’s Sky.
I hesitate to share this darkest of secrets with you because I have seen, time and time again, the ramifications of divulging such an awful truth. Anyone with an interest in the medium has, at some point, witnessed the public outcry that results from such a confession. It is never long before a multitude of voices appear to correct the interloper.
No Man’s Sky, we must be told, is an elaborate scam. It is nothing more than a fraud perpetrated by the confidence tricksters at Hello Games to deliberately rob consumers of their hard earned cash. It is a shameful, repetitive, shell of a gaming experience. It doesn’t have a plot or a bombastic, cut-scene filled ending. It doesn’t even have multiplayer and as we all know it’s not a proper game unless it gives teenagers the opportunity to aggressively question the sexual orientation of everyone they encounter.
Let me explain.
I have not suffered a head injury. I am well aware that No Man’s Sky is far from perfect. It is repetitive. The procedurally generated nature of the game engine results in a series of game environments which are both different and the same. It is also, for something marketed as a “survival game” often incredibly easy. Again, the fact that the designers could not actively control your gaming experience but were eager for you to not spend long periods of time trapped at the bottom of a deep hole, meant that the game environments are often unchallenging. The user interface is clumsy, the collectable items and the equipment they are used to craft and limited and uninspiring.
Following the original release, there was public outcry at the limitation of the game. The initial teaser trailers, released to much fanfare, were largely unrepresentative of the final product. Although subsequent releases, which showed gameplay, appear to actually be representative of the final release, the fact that original images remained on the company’s website was taken as evidence of deliberate misinformation.
Hyperbole is common in the gaming industry but particular exception was taken to the fact that Hello Games, in response to initial public disappointment, chose to limit announcements and instead focus on actually improving the game. The response from their customers, a small number of whom had previously threatened to murder the game developers in response to delays, was not good. In October 2016, four months after the initial release, the subreddit r/nomansskythegame was closed after a moderator described the community as “a hate filled wastehole”.
No Man’s Sky is filled with flaws. It is also unique and beautiful.
Gaming is supposed to be fun, but it has long since been swamped by the voices of fragile egotists, eager for the world to know that you’re doing it wrong if you’re not engaged in the overtly manly act of shooting something in the face. Now, I enjoy destruction and violence. But I also play games for the experience, not to feel superior to strangers.
And No Man’s Sky is an experience. Burning through the atmosphere of a new planet, my rickety cargo ships shudders and rattles as a whole new world gradually unfolds beneath me. Its calm, purple oceans are peppered with rocky islands, where small six-legged herbivores scatter at the sight of this new intruder. I walk through long, blue grass that sways in the breeze. After I explore the dank and verdant caves, I watch the distant white sun set on the western horizon and gaze upwards to the moons and beyond to the boundless galaxy.
And it is all mine, built just for me. No one has had this particular experience before and when I leave this place it will become nothing more than a string of numbers on a server somewhere. I can name this planet and its inhabitants, leaving my mark here for others to find. Perhaps I will stumble across other star systems were other players have taken the time to name new worlds something other than “Harambe”. It is this feeling of ownership and responsibility to this place that makes me reluctant to leave. It also drives me forward, keen to unlock new planets and star systems, to find new creatures and watch new sunsets. This is a game both of quiet stillness and constant movement.
From the moment I first awake, unsure of who I am or how I fit into this world, I am compelled to move forward. My first encounter is with the cryptic Atlas, a techo-god which for unknown reasons recruits me to its cause. Under the vague promise of some ultimate revelation I must discover new worlds and sacrifice the knowledge of them before its altar. The reward for devotion to this new deity comes in the form of Atlas Stones, which take up valuable space in my cargo hold making the journey more difficult. Perhaps, I hope, at the end of my long journey, the truth will become clear and I will receive just reward for bearing this burden in the next life.
In time I will meet strange aliens, speaking in foreign tongues I will gradually learn. A pair of alien scientists, Pollo and Nada, will also ask me to share the knowledge I have uncovered in rewards for more immediate and material benefit than that offered by the Atlas. The picture which science paints of this world is less reassuring and equally mysterious. Pollo and Nada will repeatedly tell me of their frustrations with the algorithm that created this reality. Perhaps in a wink from the developers themselves, they will tell me I am taking part in a flawed and limited simulation and compel me to find some way to escape. They will warn me that rushing forward will only lead to disappointment and that each individual discovery should be regarded as its own reward.
And if we do rush forward, seeking only to appease the Atlas or to achieve the more selfish goal of reaching the centre of the galaxy, we will discover that we have been told the truth. The greatest discovery is in the journey, not in the destination.
These paths can be ignored, or enjoyed in part for the challenges they are.
No Man’s Sky is life; flawed and repetative and beautiful. We can devote ourselves to a faith in the hope that a purpose will be unveiled at some point. We can devote ourselves to knowledge and discovery, reaping the rewards whilst suffering from an ever growing despair at our lack of purpose. We can carve our own path through this universe. We can rush towards an ending in the hope that there will be something, anything, on the other side, or we can pause a moment to wonder at the here and now.
For each frustrated response on twitter or angry meme, there are a growing number of players who have come to enjoy No Man’s Sky for what it is. On reddit, r/nomansskythegame has returned and become a place where gamers share screenshots of their own worlds, whilst at r/nomanshigh the experience is appreciated for its more psychedelic qualities. Gamers have built communities such at the Pilgrim Star or the Galactic Hub, where players will assist each other by charting this shared universe.
No Man’s Sky’s important moments are not in reaching the end, in beating the system or in achieving notoriety. They are the things we see along the way, the sunsets and the all too brief moments of connection with others on the same journey.