Angry Robot

No Man's Blog Post

I don’t personally recall an indie game that received as much hype as No Man’s Sky, and I’ve been gamin’ since you were naught but a twinkle in your daddy’s ball sack. That it presents some aspect of Ultimate Nerd Fantasy has something to do with it. (I’m talking about space exploration, in case you thought I meant fussy inventory management.)

High expectations usually mean huge disappointment, and NMS didn’t disappoint in the disappointment department. By that I mean it was disappointing, to a lot of people. Just to clarify. Man what a disappointing paragraph.

I get the disappointment. I feel you, man. Here is a clear technical and artistic marvel of a game: a procedurally generated actual universe of unprecedented size, uncommon beauty, set to haunting music, and with such a frustrating initial gameplay loop that it seems to accidentally pose some deep questions about the pointlessness of existence. I can go anywhere in the fucking universe and I’m worried about how much iridium my ship can carry? What the fuck is wrong with me?

You get the sense that developer Hello Games struggled to find some gameplay that could be tacked on to the bundle of infinite beauty they had somehow dreamed up, and what they arrived at goes something like: Space Minecraft, but instead of collecting resources to build things, you collect ‘em to upgrade ship, suit and tools. It’s more complicated than that – there’s some plot, and yes you can fight pirates kinda. But that’s the base loop, and at the beginning it’s made much harder because you are randomly presented some subset of ALL the resources, depending on what random planet you spawn on. And you don’t know which resources you need to fuel this or that engine or improve this or that device. And your inventory is much too small.

As you upgrade your stuff, and learn what each resource is needed for, the gameplay becomes less frustrating. 25 slots of inventory means waaay fewer fussy decisions than 12 slots. The loop continues, though; you see pretty ships and they cost millions of space bucks. You start finding out which rarer, riskier resources might yield some real cheddar if systematically harvested. But is that really the point? It’s gameplay loop as existential crisis: a prettier ship, is that all I care about? It won’t get me to the finish line any faster. Is getting to the finish line faster even what I care about? It’s a real Conan, what is best in life? sort of situation. And I’m not sure that crushing your enemies is all that necessary.

In my opinion: the real joy of this game is exploring, discovering new worlds, seeing what strange beings have fluked into existence, and then speeding off for the horizon again. Zen Space Drifter should be the gameplay loop, not Soulless Min-maxing Resource Bandit. It’s odd to have a game’s own systems try to herd you away from that realization, but I suppose the original plan, open-world style, was to have a variety of activities that could constitute gameplay. Trading! Piracy! Taking pictures of rare space birds! Then most of them got stripped down to virtual non-existence in the rush to ship. Hopefully they also crib the continual updates from Minecraft, too, and this becomes a lot more fleshed out down the road.

I don’t mind it, though. After some light bingeing to start, I went a few days without playing it, and actually missed it. I’m a relaxed space tourist – I scan a lot of new lifeforms, take a lot of screenshots of cool animals and pretty sunsets n’ shit. It feels like getting high in your buddy’s van and looking at prog-rock album covers. Is it worth $80 CDN, the…. Eighty dollar question? I guess it depends on how many nights I hang out in the procedurally generated Imagination Van. Is it cheaper to just pay for some gas n’ grass and albums or… no wait, I’m min-maxing again.