No Man’s Sky: What It Is, What It Isn’t, What It Was Supposed To Be, What I Wanted

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So, No Man’s Sky. It’s out, it’s a real video game, people on the street are playing it, and there’s been a lot of controversy since it launched. I honestly don’t feel like I’ve played it quite enough to do an authoritative review or anything, but I’d rather not fall too far behind the discussion on this one.

The controversy surrounding how No Man’s Sky turned out in my opinion is stemming from three main areas: 1) What the game tries to be versus what people wanted it to be. 2) What Hello Games said would be in the game versus what’s actually in the game. 3) How this game’s creative vision might have been better executed given the first two points.

From the very beginning when it was first unveiled I expected Hello Games to have a vision for NMS that didn’t quite gel with what most people these days want out of $60 games. This is why in that blog post right before launch Sean Murray said he expected it to be a divisive game. I think some but not all of the criticism is coming out of that.

NMS is generally a very chill game. Depending on how you play, you don’t spend that much time killing anything. You can spend hours and hours just walking from place to place and gathering resources. The whole game is really about traveling. On some level the loot gathering is actually pretty similar to some AAA open-world games, but on the other hand there’s just a lot less action in NMS.

For a long time Murray compared it to the kinds of open-world survival games that got popular on Steam, and that’s what NMS really feels the most similar to in its moment-to-moment gameplay. It’s a survival game. Maybe one problem with this is that NMS got a lot more hype than all those other games tend to. Even Minecraft didn’t build all its hype until after an alpha version was publicly available and it spent years building its feature set. Part of me thinks NMS shouldn’t have had the amount of hype it did, because it really doesn’t operate like most mainstream games. I’ve heard the mechanics that are there can get boring after a while, but I haven’t played quite enough to reach that point. I’m actually still learning some things.

Another main point of contention between what NMS is and what a lot of people want is that fact that it doesn’t really force a goal on players. like Minecraft or a lot of the other survival games, or even Elite Dangerous, NMS kind of wants you to come up with your own goals. You’re supposed to really just “exist” in its world and have fun with the core mechanics, but not a lot of mainstream games work like this, so it might be an adjustment for some people.

Part of the perception problem is that Hello Games tried to be vague and mysterious about NMS while showing it off at trade shows, and it did so for three years. I understand if it couldn’t really control how long it would take to get NMS done. That flood probably played a big part in the process. But, hyping the game from that early on to such a big audience probably inflated a lot of people’s imaginations about what it would be, which has led to a lot of disappointment, not all of it justified.

I’m reading opinions from people who are disappointed because the animals you find don’t make sense for each planet’s environment, or because the planets look too close together, or  because you can get silicon from flowers. Stuff like that I understand is part of Hello Games’ artistic vision. Murray repeatedly said a core objective of NMS is to basically be a 70’s sci-fi book cover in interactive form, and I think Hello Games accomplished this. The game was never supposed to be as plausible or scientific as Elite. The mechanics are supposed to put fun over science, and while I have some grievances with those mechanics I’ll get to below, I think that’s also perfectly understandable. NMS isn’t supposed to be a space simulator.

What’s much less defensible about NMS are of course the features Murray repeatedly said would be in the game but aren’t. You might have heard of or even read Reddit’s exhaustive list of these features. From what I understand not all of it is confirmed and there are some corrections in there, but I think it still shows that something definitely happened between the versions of the game we saw in trailers and what we’re playing.

The biggest thing is probably multiplayer. I personally don’t care about multiplayer in NMS. I always play Elite in solo sessions. I understand though that if I did care about multiplayer and bought the game expecting to engage in it, I’d probably be looking for a refund. For three years Murray was pretty vague about some sort of passive multiplayer, but it seemed obvious Hello Games didn’t want this to be a game about joining up with friends. It didn’t want to make an MMO and it didn’t want to make something like the mulitplayer in Elite. If this was how it was going to turn out, they should have simply said NMS is a singleplayer game with an online database of things people have discovered. I would have been fine with that.

There are a lot of other little things at that Reddit link like how there seems to be a lot less going on in space combat compared to what Murray suggested in interviews, or ships aren’t all that different from each other outside of aesthetics and inventory slots, or how the environments of planets and the distribution of resources is a lot different than what Murray suggested. Here’s the thing: stuff get’s cut from games in development all the time. This is far from the first time I’ve heard public relations people describe fantastical situations that might occur in a soon-to-be-released game only for the reality to be much simpler. I imagine all the features developers plan out don’t make the cut. The issue with NMS is that Hello Games (and Sony to a large degree) advertised the game based on a huge number of features that are either drastically different in the final build or just aren’t there. People paid $60 based on that marketing. I fully expect NMS to get a lot of updates down the line. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a completely different game a year from now, but a lot of people still didn’t get the game that was advertised to them.

That said, there’s been a lot of back-and-forth on this because when it comes down to it, the game we did get is still fun. It might be for a very particular taste that’s outside the mainstream, but I’m still enjoying it. It’s still easy for me to waste hours on NMS. Specifically, I’m getting a really good sense of progression when I raid abandoned outposts on desolate planets to find meaningful upgrades, or when I scour those planets for the rare resources I need to craft upgrades. At this point, NMS really does make me feel like I’m going on a journey. I like how it gates some types of things behind clear progression markers like getting a certain type of hyperdrive. I’ve heard all that eventually get’s boring, but I spent 60 hours in Elite embarking on exploration where there was a lot less to do and what was there was a lot more repetitive.

There are still things however I wish NMS did. Some of those are things Murray promised in the years leading up to its launch, some are things he never really mentioned. Mostly what I’m disappointed about has to do with there being a sense of a real universe in the game, because to be honest NMS feels less like a universe and more like a bunch of loot dropped everywhere. There are things Elite does that I wish NMS did and that I don’t think would intrude on the latter’s artistic vision.

First let’s talk about trading. Murray suggested from fairly early on that people would be able to make money in NMS by trading between star systems, taking advantages of price differences between them. I remember him specifically saying “buy low and sell high.” Goods you buy in the final game do seem to have differing prices between stores or between systems, but you can’t sense much more than that. Mostly you just find loot everywhere and sell it whenever you get to a store or trade with an NPC. It also brings up a potentially much bigger and more fundamental problem with the game: you can’t really navigate back and forth through the galaxy.

NMS seems to want you to ceaselessly push forward or wander around. Elite by contrast let’s you easily navigate back and forth between star systems. Furthermore, each system gives you information about what it’s economy is like, what kind of government runs it, what its imports and exports are, and so-on. Through this, you can figure out lucrative trade routes. You can figure out the best place to mine an element and the best place to sell it. In NMS it’s much harder navigate the galaxy map and trading seems much simpler. Even space games as far back as Frontier: Elite II in the 90’s were better at this than NMS, and Frontier was developed mainly by one person.

On that note, another disappointment I have with NMS is how static and simple solar systems seem to be. I’m not disappointed that they’re unrealistic — I said above that I already understand NMS wants to be mostly 70’s science fiction, but I feel like there’s more Hello Games could have done to make each system feel like a believable place.

In interviews Murray said planets would rotate and orbit. In the final game they certainly don’t orbit and it seems like they probably don’t rotate on there axes either. There are transitions from day to night, but it basically seems to be faked. You can’t even fly towards the sun of each system — it’s part of a skybox. I understand that orbiting might have messed with the artistic vision — Hello Games wants there to almost always be a big planet looming in the distance to get that 70’s book cover look. I understand that’s why planets are so close together, but I’m not sure having them orbit the sun and rotate would actually destroy that. Maybe you’d see them in the sky less often and Hello Games ultimately didn’t like this.

Technically, rotation and especially orbit wouldn’t have an appreciable affect on moment-to-moment gameplay in NMS, but I still think it would have helped deliver a vision of a believable universe. Part of me wishes that at the very least NMS would pretend its planets rotate and orbit. That’s another issue I have — you don’t get many statistics on systems or planets in this game. To compare with Elite again, when you examine a system in that game you get information on how old the planets and stars are, how long a day is on each planet, how long a year on each planet is, its diameter, and so-on. Stuff like that might not directly affect gameplay in NMS, but it would make each system feel a little bit more like a place instead of a collection of rocks in a diorama. That feeling is what made repeatedly scanning systems in Elite so interesting.  At least give me a map of each system to make it easier to navigate. Right now NMS only gives you the star’s spectrum, how many planets it has, and the weather of each planet. There’s not even an indication of which planet is the closest or farthest from its sun. Let’s not even get into the possibilities presented by having multiple suns in a system — that’s one really cool thing about real science that sci-fi really neglects.

I think this all shows a core difference between why NMS used procedural generation and why Elite used it. NMS, at least in its marketing, seemed obsessed with the fact that it could have 18 quintillion planets and have those planets be the size of Earth with unique life forms on each one. It sort of feels like NMS used procedural generation as an end unto itself. Elite on the other hand used procedural generation as a tool to create a plausible model for the Milky Way galaxy — a stage for combat, exploration, and economic interactions.

Maybe my comparisons and personal disappointments are my fault because I might have anticipated NMS to be a more arcade-like version of Elite with on-foot surface exploration finally implemented. NMS definitely isn’t Elite. In its current form it has trace similarities but errs more on the side of something like The Long Dark or Rust. That part of the game is definitely enjoyable, but to a certain extent that arcade Elite game is what Hello Games advertised.

BULLETS:

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