By Neil Merrett
No Man’s Sky on Playstation 4 – released 2016, Hello Games
It had taken 15 minutes to get there. 15 very real minutes of swimming out into the unknown expanses of an alien ocean.
There were provisions of course, carbon,and other minerals to aid survival, but was there enough to maintain life support for however long it may take to travel out into the ocean and then delve down into its secrets?
This swim was of course not real.
But the effort and patience taken to get to this non-descript spot on an ocean floor took 900 actual seconds of traversing a seemingly endless ocean just to track down a little white dot that flashed up on a radar in outer space. It may have been nothing, but it could also be a treasure that would open up new worlds and languages to hunt down.
The exact purpose for such an expedition was probably just for the sense of discovery, to see what lies beyond the known.
This is ‘No Man’s Sky’, a videogame that is very much defined by a sense of scale and giving gamers an entire universe that seemingly never ends to get lost within – well as long as your patience and interest can last.
Endless exploration; things to shoot at
Perhaps more than any other videogame, No Man’s Sky is a simulation about scope, scale and how small any individual is in the vastness of space when trying to stake a claim on the universe. You also get a spaceship to shoot things with if you so desire.
You play not as a notable hero or tyrant, but simply as a tiny, nondescript individual looking for purpose, kinda like going for a soul searching drive.
The player is led to feel like a miniscule part of a genuine universe of algorithm-built random planets. So big is the game, that it is claimed to be impossible to fully explore in the span of a human lifetime.It is unlikely this will ever be proven one way or another and perhaps therein lives the charm.
Whether seeking to find a distant mountaintop, ocean or planet, how far you want to travel is only held back by a player’s willingness to make sure they have the right elements and technical capabilities. Other than that, you are free to go anywhere – if you want to of course.
These seemingly endless number of worlds, which can be arid, lush, mountainous or oceanic planets, come in varying shades of beautifully realised pastel – sometimes the game is truely picture postcard beautiful. But how varied can such a title really be for players and is there an actual compelling reason to explore something that can never be fully known?
Less than a week after release and with even the most die hard reviewers in some senses barely scratching the surface, the game is still unknown and could very much remain that way forever.
Perhaps it is, in turns, an overhyped foraging simulation that aims to combine Minecraft and VR and the emergence of the future of potentially endless gaming worlds, every player is effectively charged to try and discover their purpose in the game. Whether just to complete its core surface objective of reaching the centre of the universe, or finding something much more unique and personal.
In that sense, the game is effectively a parallel universe and we’re all its explorers, endlessly trying to prove if the whole project is good, bad, meaningless or somewhere in between.
Over the next 12 months, five years or even a decade, many gamers will have moved on from No Man’s Sky, to play new and more sophisticated or thrilling, action packed, plot-led titles – perhaps even some form of sequel. Yet for those still playing this game into the distant or not so distance future, what might they find as they traverse its galaxies?
Might there be a limit to the number of creatures and situations the game can conceivably generate, while players seek to build or buy new and more powerful ships and tools to open up the endless number of worlds?
Will just a humble few players carry on hoping to break or find something inherently meaningful in learning the fictional languages used through the game by a race of robotic alien traders?
The game’s makers classify it as space exploration title. Yet with a seemingly endless number of worlds to find and explore, can the game ever truly be known or understood as it players continue to upload their in-game discoveries to a central server?
View from the critics
Certainly the scope of No Man’s Sky has games writers talking. Even if it is not an entirely successful gameplay experience, what do they really think about it?
Writing for Gamespot several days after release, Peter Brown described No Man’s Sky as utilising “impressive tech” to convey a real as sense of travel, survival and commerce that can be done without a player even having to put trousers on should they wish.
“There are multiple layers to consider, and while some details will make your journey feel more genuine, there are flaws that occasionally derail your investment in the odyssey,” he said.
Brown noted that the game’s geographic depth and detail came ultimately at the expense of genuine characters or complex rivals to side with or oppose and help generate a compelling reason to propel yourself through the game.
Shortly after the game’s release, Gieson Cacho of the San Jose-based Mercury News surmised the title as providing “endless possibilities, but few payoffs“.
“Through the magic of algorithms, artistry and programming, the small indie studio based in Guildford, UK, has essentially built a universe out of computer code,” Cacho said.
Cacho argues that the beauty of the concept of an artificial universe to get lost in, which is devised and built with the logic of a computer, ultimately leads to huge numbers of desolate and drab planets in which to perform similar tasks.
“[The developer] relies on its algorithms for effects ranging from the behavior of the bizarre creatures in this universe to pushing players into encounters with space raiders. It’s all part of the effort to create emergent gameplay,” Cacho wrote.
“The studio encourages players to create their own stories, but unfortunately, the exciting parts — conflict and discovery — happen by chance. This makes “No Man’s Sky” the most boring addictive game I ever have played.”
We are all told at some point that life is what you make of it. In a gaming sense this may have never been more true than in No Man’s Sky.
As a simulation on the vastness of our own existence, there may be no better simulation.
But when it comes to space opera, do we prefer high drama over space tourism?