In space, no one can hear you yawn.
Science fiction has always been a divisive genre for me. Books such as Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land have never appealed to me. However, I love the works of Harlan Ellison and Douglas Adams. Star Trek had good ideas with none of the budget, and therefore none of my attention as a child. Star Wars had all of the pizzazz with none of the flair for storytelling; I say that as a fan who still keeps a lightsaber under his pillow.
The genre opens the door (or wormhole) to endless worlds of wonder and possibilities begging to be explored, regardless of the medium. No Man’s Sky, a gushing love-letter to science fiction and the wonders of exploration, manages to be just as divisive as the genre itself. As brilliant as it is boring and as awful as it is awe-inspiring, No Man’s Sky knows what it wants to be but lacks the equipment to get there.
This is fitting, though, for a game that begins with a broken spaceship. The first few hours of the game are unapologetically rough, giving you a ship that doesn’t work and very little direction. I learned very quickly that the planet I had crashed on was an air-conditioner salesman’s dream come true. Hot enough to put my Exo Suit on the fritz, the environment forced me to find shade in a nearby cave and waited until nightfall to search for materials to repair my ship. After some initial stumbling, I managed to get the hunk of junk off the ground. Any initial frustration with the game’s willful lack of hand-holding was immediately forgotten as I flipped the switch on the boost and set my sights on the stars. Well, I set my sights on the next planet that had a warp cell anyway.
The core gameplay loop in No Man’s Sky never deviates much from the game’s opening moments: land on a planet, gather resources to build or sell, buy/build whatever it takes to get yourself closer to the center of the galaxy, maybe take a picture of some of the wildlife for the kids back home. If that sounds boring, that’s because it is, but that’s also missing the point.
No Man’s Sky is primarily a game about exploration, and it finds clever ways to push you forward. Take, for instance, the monoliths. Peppered throughout the universe are alien relics that, when touched, will share a bit of lore about one of the three alien races. Sometimes, the monoliths will impose a question, an existential quandary that can result in earning new equipment upgrades, recipes, or if you’re really unlucky, passive-aggressive disappointment in your decision. Knowledge stones teach you new words. New words mean you won’t always shrug awkwardly when a Vy’keen scientist asks for help in identifying a new species. Learning new words also increases your standing with that alien race, meaning discounts and rare items no matter which galaxy you’re in!
However, any Initial excitement you might have can wane as repetition rears its ugly, procedurally-generated head. The more planets you see, the more these monoliths look the same. Ever notice how every alien you meet seems to be in the middle of reading Freakonomics on their Kindle? You will. Most wildlife encounters are like Mad-Libs with animal parts. For every unique species you encounter there will be a dozen that wouldn’t make the cut on a proud parent’s refrigerator. The first time you break into an abandoned facility, it’s exhilarating. After the third time, I was done. Just shoot the same steel door, fight off the same sentinels, solve a puzzle using basic alien language knowledge, rinse and repeat. Eighteen quintillion planets and they all have the same three things to do.
No Man’s Sky’s biggest problem is in how much it uses its biggest selling point as a crutch. It’s as if the developers thought that with all the stuff to do, no one would care how fun it is to actually do it. Take combat, for instance. First and foremost, there is very little to shoot at in No Man’s Sky, and that is by no means a bad thing. However, sometimes it is as if the game feels like this is, in fact, a bad thing, and it attempts to remedy this by throwing random space pirates at you.
The first time this happens, it’s exciting, and that’s mostly because it’s different. Once you attempt to engage them, however, it’s as if someone took the controller out of your hand and replaced it with a shoe. Trying to get a lock on an enemy is a dizzying nightmare, all the while your screen is flashing red because space pirates have the eyes of a space hawk. I remember the first time I warped into a group of space frigates trying to fight off space pirates. Awestruck exclamations were quickly replaced by expletives; not only could I not identify who to defend and who to attack, I was dead before I could give up and retreat to a nearby moon.
Even the mining and the trading grew quickly tiresome, largely due to how little inventory space you are given. Every tradeable item takes up a single space in your inventory. Only elements stack, so if you have two warp cells taking up space, you had better hope you’re planning on a vacation lightyears away. Upgrades to your existing equipment also take up inventory slots, as if Hello Games were trying to sell additional inventory slots as DLC. It would be less maddening if there were more outlets for selling materials. As is, you can leave the planet every ten minutes to fly to the nearest space station, or you can hope the shelter just over the horizon has a galactic terminal. (It probably won’t.) Now, there are places to upgrade the storage of both the Exo Suit and your starship, but the cost of doing so rises exponentially. Those fellows over at Hello Games sure are fond of exponentials.
Despite all of this, my frustrations and lamentations, I cannot stop playing No Man’s Sky. The game elicits the sort of childlike wonder that only Disney could normally pull off. For every five planets that were forgettable and/or hostile, there would be the one that makes you reach for the “share” button. I remember one of them, covered in lush green hills and massive islands. Knowledge stones dotted the landscape while huge orbs of copper hung in the air. I could hear the ocean crashing on the shore, creating its own kind of music to accompany my hike.
Another planet was tormented by torrential rain. I found an abandoned spaceship in need of repairs and hid under the rocky awnings while in search of materials. It took an hour for me to gather the required supplies and get the ship running. What should have felt like a slog instead felt like my own personal tale of survival as directed by Christopher Nolan. These moments almost make you forget everything that is broken about No Man’s Sky.
While there is a narrative, the best stories in No Man’s Sky are the ones that unfold naturally. That is the saving grace of a game otherwise plagued by half-finished mechanics and repetitive encounters. No Man’s Sky will not be everyone’s cup of space tea, proving to be just as divisive as the genre it represents. It can be boring, but a "good" kind of boring. It can also be frustrating, the sort of frustrating that makes you wish you can travel back to 2013 and relive the first time No Man’s Sky entered the public mind, sparking the long-dormant imaginations of the gaming community.
There is no time travel in No Man’s Sky, only the momentum to push forward. Pushing forward in the hopes that the next planet you land on will take your breath away. Pushing forward in the hopes that you will find a derelict ship ripe for the taking. And at the very least, pushing forward in the hopes that they can fix the combat with a patch update.