Full disclosure: I’m playing No Man’s Sky for the first time. I know all about the backlash over how when it was released it was a supposed train wreck. What I’m playing now is the Atlas Rising update, a version of the game that better resembles what was initially advertised. I’m also playing it while reading Death’s End, the third book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, and watching reruns of Star Trek Voyager. I am in exploring outer space mode. I am deep in the desolation and isolation of space.
Stardate 45040.3 (Or Am I in the Wrong Universe?)
I finally purchase a red Class A shuttle that looks like the space equivalent of your dad’s pickup truck that he uses for work—rusting fenders and all. With 27 slots for inventory and 8 for technology upgrades, it’s a good enough ship to travel around the galaxy in until I can afford a hauler. In the process of earning units to buy this shuttle I destroy the market for gold in three star systems by flooding it with massive quantities that I had mined from a lifeless planet. The Korvax alien robot happily hands over his shuttle after our transaction, I transfer my inventory and I’m left with a vehicle that has no fuel for the hyperdrive, no fuel for the pulse drives, and barely enough fuel for the vertical thrusters to get the shuttle off the ground.
The greatest feeling in the world is the way a ship takes off for the first time—even if it is a rust bucket. You jostle with it, figuring out the flight stick before engaging the thrusters and flying off to your next destination. There is a rumble as you engage the pulse drive and space flies by in rainbow streams. Take off and entry into each and every planet affords amazing vistas of sunlight and panic, fire and life. This is what makes exploration amazing.
I land my ship on the nearest planet to the station, a green planet named Rokladirs Tislu. I’m hoping to find the minerals I need to craft the “essentials” for space flight—an upgraded pulse drive, shields, and some beefier weapons. I switch to the visor scanner and find that this is a planet filled with strange flora and fauna. But that’s nothing new—for as much as things get weird and different, they get the same. Strangeness, I imagine, is like a bell curve of a normal distribution. Once you pass peak strangeness, everything starts to settle into a new normal.
I’m searching desperately for Thamium 9 and Plutonium, constantly checking my scanners. Normally these are elements that are abundant on every planet, but this green rock where life and creatures abound is seriously lacking in the red mushrooms that I need to fuel my hyperdrive. I’m supposed to continue on my journey to the core of the galaxy, to figure out the meaning of the Atlas or something. Or maybe I’m just supposed to explore. It’s hard to tell at times. It’s while wandering down the mountainside that I come face to face with one of the oddities of the planet that stops me in my exploration.
A huge gorilla-like creature, floating in the sky with the tiniest pair of leafy fairy wings. He has a tiny face that does not match the rest of his body.
This is part of the wonder of No Man’s Sky. There has already been a lot said about the algorithmically generated planets, aliens, and ships of the game. Each new planet is a stunning ecosystem with strange animals. On one planet I found a little Easter Bunny like creature walking on its hind legs, strutting around from bush to bush. It was fluffy and its face was a nightmare, a child’s drawing of a rabbit made real with disproportionate features. The instinct to pet it quickly went away. It’s a boots on the ground kind of exploration experience that reminds me of the simple days of Star Trek—a new planet every week and no consequences.
There are advanced alien races to meet along the way as well. You chat with them in facilities scattered across the various planets, the space stations in orbit. From these interactions you slowly learn their languages, and it becomes less of a guessing game as to what they want. Sometimes pointing at the wrong thing on their data pad gets you a reward. Sometimes they slap you hard in the head.
But for all the exploration and alien encounters, I find myself succumbing to an inescapable sense of loneliness. The planets are lovely, treacherous, but ultimately void of sentient life. I find myself missing the camaraderie of my crew in Mass Effect, having someone to bother in between missions, in between travelling the stars. Even if you run into other aliens at outposts or on space stations, there is a language barrier (and set dialogue options) that limit what kind of interaction you can have. Maybe it’s the influence of the other media I’m reading/watching at the same time, but man does space feel lonely.
There is an option to find habitable bases and set up shop on any of the planets you explore. Putting down roots takes some of the edge off of the emptiness of space as you can hire specialists to occupy different terminals. Doing so unlocks new crafting options, and is a great way to make a planet feel like home. After travelling for a while I settle on a planet where the only wildlife are strange jumping pineapples.
“It’s like Psych,” my wife says, “All the pineapples.” I name the planet Bruton Gaster.
You Can’t Take the Sky from Me
The addition of the Atlas Rising patch introduces a storyline and quests. And while these quests break up the monotony of space travel, what they do boil down to at times is an endless “the princess is in another castle” where you fly from planet to planet going from waypoint to waypoint.
Video games are supposed to be a distraction from real life right? Then why do I get the same frustration playing No Man’s Sky that I do when trying to navigate the hell of government bureaucracy? Look, I get that the mercenary representative is not in this star system, so what system do I go to? Since every player is in a different part of the galaxy when they start, it’s not like I can go look it up on Google and find out where to go. There is no response from my galaxy map. The giant icon that usually indicates where to go is highlighted on my home system where I currently am. The icon reminds me of the blank looks that mid-level bureaucrats give you when you have the wrong form filled out.
I don’t know why it’s so hard to figure out this stupid quest. I’ll look back at it later and laugh and how simple it is but right now? GRRRRR.
Still the game is at its best when its not trying to give you too much of a story. The narrative is not the strength of the game, since the majority of the quests break down into fetch quests or “princess quests.” The strength of the game is when it lets you just explore—which is something it pretty much does right from the beginning. When the sky is open for you to reach, the game shows its true beauty and strength. There are moments where sun sets on whatever planet I’m on and I’m shocked at how amazing the place looks in the light of dusk (granted the weather could change instantly and I will probably freeze to death now).
Or Can You?
There’s warp travel. There’s portal teleportation. Sometimes though, the greatest mysteries are the game breaking ones. Numerous times I’ve been walking around my base or mining gold and other materials and suddenly, I’ll fall through the floor, deep into an underground ocean. There is no fighting this, and eventually you drown. You don’t want to drown down there since there is no real way to go back down there and collect your body. From below, you can look up at where you’ve parked your ship. You can see the outlines of caves of iron, of plants and creatures, but you have no way to get up. In a game of exploration, falling through the floor of the planet feels like you’ve been sucked into another dimension. You’re unable to affect anything, and you were not meant to be there.
The Sky Belongs to No One
When I first booted up No Man’s Sky, I was nervous. I’ve never played a survival game before, and I was well versed in all the baggage that had come with the games troubled launch. For the first few hours after repairing my ship, I was lost. Where was I to go? Who was I supposed to talk to? Without the waypoints and icons that crowd so many of the other games we play in this age, the lack of handholding was kind of startling.
It doesn’t matter. It’s your adventure. That was the game’s answer to my questions. I had the freedom to explore however I wanted. The point of the game wasn’t some galaxy saving adventure. It’s a personal quest, an adventure that you make of yourself. It’s an adventure that belongs to no one.