Elite was amazing back in the day. I mean the original wireframe one. The one out now is pretty good, too, I guess. But it hasn’t been back in the day for, oh, I don’t know, at least ten years? Maybe twenty? Vast, open, and mostly empty universes aren’t so amazing anymore. Open universes need stuff in them. They need content. They need gameplay. They need interlocking gameplay systems. They probably need to compress time and distance with some hoo-ha about hyperlight warp subspace drives. They also probably need trading, combat, faction rep, upgrades, and a story. And, these days, a game can’t very well be a game without crafting.
After the jump, hey, it’s No Man’s Sky!
I intentionally didn’t pay attention to Sony’s year of No Man’s Sky hype, so I can’t be disappointed by things like the lack of multiplayer, graphics uglier than the ones in the trailer, or falling short of Stephen Colbert’s fawning praise. Instead, I have to be disappointed by No Man’s Sky on its own terms. It wastes no time getting me there.
The first three planets are interesting. Weird plants. Weird animals. A weird color palette. Weird resources. The next three are, uh, less interesting. The newer weird things are functionally and even aesthetically identical to the other weird things. The universe seems to have an art style and it’s more entropy than intelligent design. A collage of mismatched colors implies alien worlds. Pink vomited into purple. Blue washed up here. Brown stains over there. Leaning red elsewhere. The same caves and crystals and a pine tree on this planet, a cactus on that. If a No Man’s Sky planet got dressed in the morning, I’d ask, “You’re wearing that?” It has a plaid sports coat over a striped dress shirt. For some reason it put on an ascot. Its belt doesn’t match its shoes. The shoes aren’t even a pair. It’s wearing a sombrero. It grins foolishly, pleased at its choices. “Duparhampiaca,” it announces by way of introduction.
Everything is named some nonsense assemblage of letters, as if someone was transcribing Jabberwocky without having his fingers lined up on the home row keys. Best case scenario, you’ll find something that accidentally sounds like the name of Swedish furniture, but with a typo.
Planets seven through nine are heartbreaking. Within ten planets, you’ll realize you’ve seen all you’re going to see. You aren’t going to find any gas giants, high-G worlds, cities, clusters of population larger than three, ecologies, deserts, ocean planets, rivers, volcanoes, or mountain ranges. You’ll quickly realize an overwhelming and safe sameness to this universe, where everything is mild and accessible and snugly nestled into a goldilocks zone of elevations dicated by the reach of your jump jets. No Man’s Sky wouldn’t want you to fall into a hole that you can’t get out of.
And not just physical holes. Every planet has every resource you need, just to make sure there’s no obstacle in your way beyond the time it takes to shoot the necessary rocks. There’s no sense of looking for a red star because metal will be more plentiful in that system. There’s no sense of caring about one planet over another. There’s no sense of environmental hazards mattering. Some planets are hot, some are cold, none require anything beyond a little busywork to charge your cooler or heater. The only thing that matters is how much inventory space you have for when you shoot rocks and they fly into your backpack.
One of the earliest discoveries in No Man’s Sky is that you’re playing a game about inventory management, made by developers whose familiarity with inventory management seems to have stopped somewhere around the first Diablo. 20 years ago, in case you’re wondering. You have to constantly dump resources to make room for other resources. You’re constantly cut off from the information you need about whether you should dump those resources. There’s not an MMO alive that would dream of saddling its player with these tasks using this interface. Yet here is No Man’s Sky, supposedly shepherded along its development by people at Sony who should know what they’re doing, forcing me to play as if I was someone in Fallout who had put a single point into strength. I’m shuffling through screens, I’m counting, I’m deciding what to throw away, I’m wondering whether I dare equip an upgrade because upgrades always take up inventory slots. The better you are, the less you can carry.
It says everything you need to know about No Man’s Sky that the most momentous discovery in this universe isn’t a wrecked spaceship, an undiscovered planet, or even a myterious alien temple. The most momentous discovery in this universe is an extra inventory slot for your space suit. Cue Also sprach Zarathustra.
There’s barely any sense of which planets you’ve explored and which you haven’t, because No Man’s Sky thinks of exploration as following a designated path through a million pointless systems. You want to go back and finish finding all the landmarks, plants, and animals on that planet you visited a few warps ago, the one that wasn’t quite as ugly as the others? It never occurs to No Man’s Sky you would want to do that. It never occurs to No Man’s Sky that you would want to do anything other than move forward at a steady clip towards one one of two disappointing objectives. It has as much a sense of exploration as an Out Run arcade game.
Exploration is only as meaningful as what you can find. If I explore the attic of my parents’ house, I can find my junior high yearbook. If I explore an unknown planet, I can find a fantastic new life form. That’s why there are more games about exploring universes than games about exploring attics. But if I explore No Man’s Sky, a game about exploring a universe, I can find the exact same thing I found ten minutes ago, and ten minutes before that, and ten minutes before that, and each of the ten minutes before that for the entire playing time. Exploration isn’t about exploration. It’s about discovery. No Man’s Sky doesn’t understand this at all.
Remember Spore? This is that. 100% that, but with better space flying and some nifty artwork for the different ships (in terms of hardware, the space porn in No Man’s Sky is pretty decent). But No Man’s Sky seems to think we live in a world where Spore didn’t serve as a cautionary tale about the limitations of procedurely generated universes without gameplay. Procedural generation is not an end. It is a means to an end. But there is no such end in No Man’s Sky. It’s endless randomness for the sake of endless randomness. It does what it does because it can, not because it should. I would describe it as procedural generation in search of a game, but it’s worse than that. It has found its game. And the game is hollow and awful.
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