No Man’s Sky and the Intrusion of Mechanics

I have been to outer space and back.  On the way I encountered creatures, both majestic and abhorrent.  I have traveled through the stars, sometimes getting into scuffles with local bandits or an odd group of robots who seemed to be watching my every move.  I have studied the local alien races and even became friendly with some of them.  I have traversed endless menus in order to balance meters.  I have taken a great trek through inventories that needed managing.  And while at moments my journey was magical, at other times it was tedious and empty.

My journey with No Man’s Sky has been a complicated one.  The planet I spawned on was incredibly dull and void of interesting wildlife, so I fixed my ship as quickly as possible and took off for the next closest star.  What I found there was incredible rock structures and an ecosystem full of odd looking creatures, both predators and prey.  I spent multiple hours traversing this planet, observing the wildlife, and learning the language of the Gek, an alien race with whom I would soon become quite familiar.  I repeated this pattern for about the next ten hours, jumping from planet to planet and exploring further the ones which grabbed my interest.  Then, after playing the game a few hours every day for a week, I got the urge to travel to the center of the universe.  I spent over five hours focusing solely on getting warp cells and slowly progressing to this so-called promised land.  I would only make stops when I was running short on resources.  And then when I made one of those stops, I realized my mistake in chasing this goal.  I stopped on a lush planet with structures built into the hillside and wildlife roaming the plains.  It was magical, and it was everything I wanted No Man’s Sky to be.  And it also made me realize that No Man’s Sky is often something else.

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There is no denying the technical sophistication of No Man’s Sky and how impressive it is coming from a small team in Hello Games.  Major pop-in and the occasional crash sometimes ruin this magic, but the fact that you can seamlessly fly off one planet, into space, and onto another planet never stops being incredible.  Those planets can look gorgeous too.  With random generation a fair amount are destined to be boring wastelands,  but the one in five that aren’t caused No Man’s Sky to be the game that I have taken by far the most screenshots of on the PlayStation 4.

The creatures which roam these planets are more of a mixed bag.  Facsimiles to deer and dinosaurs can be awe-inspiring, while some of the more other-worldly animals are nightmare inducing.  But a large majority of them suffer from feeling more like a collection of parts than actual beings.  This especially rings true when you start to see the same parts being used over and over again.  Your interaction with them is also shallow, always boiling down to shooting hostile animals or feeding friendly ones in the hopes that they find you resources.

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And resources are everything wrong with this game. They are the crutch which No Man’s Sky leans so heavily on.  You will spend most of your time in this game mining the planets for minerals which you will either sell to traders, use for fuel and repairs, or use to craft blueprints for new technologies.  I don’t mind either the first or the third items on that list.  I actually found the act of filling my backpack with valuables, flipping them for cash at the space station, and then buying the merchant’s ship to be incredibly rewarding.  Ships are actually the only reward you get playing No Man’s Sky that makes a real difference.  Buying a rad design you fall in love with is always great, and seeing the upgraded inventory space inside might be even better in this game.

And while I like the idea of using recipes to build new technologies, there was just nothing that I wanted to build.  Most of them were weapon upgrades to help you in the dull and infrequent gun fights or moderate equipment upgrades that seemed nice but not very exciting.

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But while those are disappointing and ultimately avoidable, what is fairly unavoidable are the constant meters that are ticking down.  Shields, life supply, launch thrusters, your mining tool, hazard protection, and your ship’s pulse drive are just the ones that I can think of off the top of my head.  All of these are meters which can be replenished by using specific resources, all of which take up a space in your extremely limited inventory, making it impossible to collect other things for too long before either running out of space or risking being stranded with a depleted meter.  And take it from a guy who has been there; Nothing is worse than preparing to evacuate a hostile planet and realizing you ran out of Plutonium.  This type of meter management is almost never fun in games, and No Man’s Sky is no exception to that rule.  It’s a baffling design choice that only leads to frustration and a further focus on inventory management.

And while I keep beating around the bush about the issue, I should probably dive into the inventory system head on.  It’s very bad.  I don’t think inventory management is a bad thing in video games inherently.  It works in a game like Deus Ex where you are trying to craft your character in a certain way or Resident Evil where limited inventory adds to the tension.  But No Man’s Sky‘s inventory is awful.  The fact that the ship and backpack inventories are not only separate but have separate uses is a pain.  The fact that you can only trade items from your backpack and not the ship sitting five feet away from you doesn’t make sense.  Furthermore, transferring items between the two is not as easy as it should be.  If both are full, there is no swap ability.  You have to remove something entirely in order to transfer again.  And finally, while a limited inventory is fine, so much of it is going to be taken up by upgrades and refueling resources.  I don’t think the solution is a larger or infinite inventory, as that would be ridiculous with how much there is to mine.  I honestly believe the entire system needs to be reworked from the ground up, or thrown out completely with a lot of the more “gamey” aspect of No Man’s Sky.

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But when I stumbled upon an enormous alien monolith that taught me some of the Gek language while a dream-like 65daysofstatic soundtrack played in the background, none of these problems seemed to matter anymore.  And it is moments like these that are not easily recreated in other games.  No Man’s Sky has so many flaws, but when I gave up my fruitless journey to the center and decided to stop and smell the roses, I got lost in the experience.  There is even something charming about the shallow interactions you have with the aliens you barely understand.  There is a true magic to No Man’s Sky, and while the game tries to do everything in its power to ruin this magic, it can’t.  These memories are what’s going to make me return in a week/month/year and just spend a few hours getting lost in space.  Future updates promise features like base-building, but I would much rather have a free-roam mode which eliminated all the meters and allowed me to explore a planet at my leisure.  No Man’s Sky is the case for “less is more” game design, and I only wish its creators saw it that way.

Note: This post was lightly edited in September 2018 as part of a site overhaul. It was originally titled “No Man’s Sky Review”.

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