Watching the last few years of marketing for No Man's Sky has been nothing but a combination of awe-inspiring and utterly confusing. Every video seemed to show the same thing – walking around, flying around, looking at strange lands and creatures, zapping robots and mining materials. There was little to go on when it came to purpose; what do we actually do in this enormous universe? What is our goal? Who are the antagonists? Can I build a space station?
NMS’s ever vigilant design head, Sean Murray, stressed the vastness of his game in almost every conversation. He was mum on how the game functioned, even as millions of people complained about a lack of depth in the media that drip fed into the community. Eventually, we started seeing play-throughs that made Sean’s task of explaining his game more apt – the journey was the game. The ultimate objective? Get to the centre of the galaxy.
Exploration of alien worlds, untouched by humanity, was the ideal. Hello Games’ had produced one of the most extraordinary procedural generators yet and wanted to build an experience around it. So they gave the player a broken spaceship, a “multi-tool” that doubles as a gun and pick-axe, and some basic life support. Now thrive. Or, at the very least, survive the trillions of worlds with their own animals, ecosystems and secrets.
Unfortunately, this has left Sony with a difficult marketing premise. How do you advertise an experience that has the slimmest of traditional objectives? NMS doesn’t bow to any traditional elements that give fuel for trailers – it doesn’t have exciting combat, or a great story, or any interesting dialogue. There are no hooks – other than the much-vaunted ability to take off and land on any part of any planet or moon that you choose. There aren’t even really any protagonists, including the actual player.
NMS isn’t a traditional game in any sense of the word. It is absolutely demoralising at times, frustrating at others. It destroys any traditional mechanic for resource gathering, forcing players to choose between simply surviving and actually thriving. Your inventory sucks because the game doesn’t care that you need more slots to hoard all of your rare minerals. You can be killed by the weather on your starter planet if you aren’t careful. Your gun is terrible for a long time because you crash landed on a planet with almost nothing.
NMS just doesn’t care about you or your time. It doesn’t exist to make you feel better about yourself. It is an experiment in nihilism – while the game obviously flirts with spirituality and the ideas behind deity, worship and destiny – it doesn’t really treat the player with any respect. This is refreshing. The world does not belong to you at all – landing on planets feels scary and lonely, but utterly fascinating. The relative safety of your ship provides a sense of home and belonging, being the only real constant in the entire game.
Just walking around can be dangerous. Some planets outright hate you – flooded with immense heat, cold and radiation, or frequent events of toxic rain. Some animals will attack on sight, and sentinels, a sort of robotic galactic police, have their own silent rules of engagement on every single planet. Discovering alien relics, which teach you languages and provide gifts, can also physically punish you for being wrong or disrespectful to them. I got ripped apart by four combat sentinels for discovering a rare pearl.
Travelling between and across planets can take forever, just like it would if you were trying yourself. Warping between systems means playing Tetris with your inventory, deciding whether you should sell those rare minerals or goods, just in case you find a blueprint on the next planet that needs them, or to construct warp cells. Other races look at you and act with pure indifference. They aren’t excited at your humanity, but are at most bemused by it. They trade with you because it benefits them and they move on. Occasionally you can take advantage of them or them you, and relationships sour as a result, but rarely will they act with anything more than a solid “meh”. This isn’t Mass Effect – this is the outer rim of the galaxy, and everyone is just either doing their job or living their mundane, boring lives like the rest of us.
The game doesn’t really care if you don’t move forward either. Accepting the Atlas path early on provides some external motivation to keep moving, but other than that, it never holds your hand. There is no map, and your scanners are local to your system and planet. Your journey is yours, and entirely unique to your experience. In this way, it feels freer than any other game I’ve ever played. On some planets you enjoy your experience, and on others, you can’t wait to leave and never return. Immediately. So you do.
Sound depressing? Well, yeah, it is. NMS can be hopelessly boring at times. But the excitement comes in the same way Civilisation is interesting – the possibilities. What the hell is on that next planet? Am I going to jump into a system at full blown war? What will my next ship be? What happens when I get closer to the centre? Could I actually take down one of these enormous carrier ships one day? So you wake up the next day waiting to get back to your universe. To discover those planets. To keep moving.
NMS is a simulation of a different kind of survival – it’s less about cheating death and more about the persistence of your psyche. It’s a simulation of hope, discovery, fear, and excitement. Knowing that the planet you have just put your footsteps on will never remember you were there and likely never host anyone else for the rest of its existence. About your own insignificance in the greater universe. But really, it’s about what drives all of us to get up and keep living, in world full of chaos where little is certain. NMS is an escape into yourself, and for that, it deserves your time.