For all of the drama that surrounded and in some cases continues to surround No Man's Sky (and I mean a lot of drama), it's difficult to argue that it didn't, at the very least, strongly attempt to innovate. And regardless of your opinion of Hello Games' loved and lambasted (mostly the latter) infinite trek through outer-space, the folks behind the GDC 2017 Awards appear to have acknowledged the very same.
As such, No Man's Sky has been granted the Innovation Award at GDC this year. In doing so it defeats The Witness, Firewatch, and even Pokemon GO for the title, a move that will likely puzzle many. And yet, when you consider how the award is probably calculated, there is a logical explanation. Stripping away context, and the emotions that ran higher than possibly any other release in the past five years, what game was more ambitious than NMS? You might say "well give it an ambition award then," but what the title aimed for is inexorably linked with its original approach to not just world traversal, not just galaxy traversal, but universe traversal. Like the results or not, denying this is difficult. It doesn't make the crafting system suddenly a revelation, but what can you do.
This also depends on how one defines innovation. In a bubble, NMS is surely innovative and possesses quite a number of compelling uniquities. Outside the bubble and with full context, it is difficult for many to shake disappointment for what could have been. And yet, if you define innovation by not just an individual title's raw quality but instead by its influence, legacy, and staying power, well, it's very possible that No Man's Sky is more innovative than anyone ever really imagined. Clearly the folks at GDC think so – we'll just have to wait and see.
Though maybe not as wildly ambitious, some of us here at Game Revolution prefer what Horizon Zero Dawn accomplished anyway. And yet, if the next Metroid Prime allows me to explore dozens of planets and an infinitely vast universe while retaining its own franchise strengths, I'll be sure to thank Sean Murray personally.