No Man’s Sky has been out a few weeks now, and its fair to say a certain feeling has emerged around it: disappointment. From accusations of Sean Murray and Hello Games lying about how the game’s multiplayer works to the videos and memes making fun of the differences between the first trailers and the final product, the feeling is there. Couple that with technical problems out of the gate, and No Man’s Sky has a bad reputation, regardless of the strides Hello Games has made to fix those problems in the past couple weeks.
But despite that pervading feeling of disappointment, No Man’s Sky is not a bad game. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s not bad. I wrote the Gamespresso review of No Man’s Sky, and you can find a discussion of the title’s flaws there. But as the general perception for No Man’s Sky has taken a downturn, there are many things that just aren’t getting the attention they deserve. And by that, I mean the many things No Man’s Sky gets right, features that scratch that explorative itch and should definitely pop up in other games down the road.
No Man’s Sky Lets You Get Lost
Getting lost is almost always the worst thing a game can allow. Countless, brilliant designers spend each and every day constructing game maps with the sole purpose of making sure players never feel lost. And Hello Games came along and kicked that thought process right out the window. Getting lost in No Man’s Sky is the point. And it feels strangely good.
Because of the procedural generation at the heart of the title, Hello Games is able to create a feeling unlike almost anything else out there. That first moment you open the star map and zoom around a bit, that combination of slightly overwhelmed and more than slightly astonished, is something few games come close to. The nearest comparison would likely be that first moment you step out of the cave or vault in a Bethesda game and realize you can go anywhere and do anything. But Hello Games managed that with a fraction of the people and resources.
Other games, like Minecraft, are huge and continue on until the code literally breaks down, but No Man’s Sky makes a point of letting you feel that size. Knowing, no matter what, there will always be something new to discover is freeing, if a bit daunting. While other games allow exploration, No Man’s Sky requires it.
Your Journey Is Yours to Own
In the course of all that exploring, you collect resources, upgrade your equipment, and rack up a few of the progression-tracking Milestones. It’s the type of progression you can find in almost every game. But each planet you visit it much more than just the resources and the upgrades, it’s also your discoveries. No Man’s Sky lets you lay claim to your journey in a way few games do.
Similar to the feeling you might have in a Bioware or Telltale title, where your story is just that, your story, defined by your decisions, Hello Games found a way to give players ownership of exploration. I’ll admit I didn’t name the majority of the animals or planets I found amongst the stars of the Euclid Galaxy, but when I did, it meant something. The list of every system you’ve traveled to isn’t simply a list of destinations; it’s a list of accomplishments, made important through your ability to name them.
For instance, whether anyone ever comes across them or not, there is now an entire cluster of star systems, tucked away in No Man’s Sky’s universe, all named after different Pokémon. That’s just where my head happened to be on that particular night, and that’s the lasting effect my brief presence has had on that part of the game. But it’s my effect, and those are my star systems. In a completely unique way, without adding building or branching narratives, No Man’s Sky manages to make even just planet hopping into a personal experience a player can look at and say: That’s my journey.
No Man’s Sky Has as Few Seams as Possible
And when it comes to planet hopping, it’d be wrong not to talk about just how amazing it feels to actually be able to do it. Run around on a planet, hop in a spaceship, take off, fly to a new planet, touch down, get out, run around some more. All without a loading screen. It’s enough to make any sci-fi lover’s mouth water.
Gamers have hoped to live that simple dream for decades now. But No Man’s Sky pulls it off, and its only one of a handful of modern games beginning to do so. Along with other, smaller indie games, we also have Star Citizen and Dual Universe, which feature a similar ability with procedurally generated planets, and even Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which has shown gameplay of jumping into a starfighter, launching into space, and blasting into a battle.
Is it too much to hope that Mass Effect: Andromeda or Destiny 2 will see equally seamless transitions? Probably. But for the time being, it’s an experience worth enjoying and appreciating.
It’s a Sci-fi World Where Language Matters
And finally, there’s the fact that Hello Games actually figured out something cool to do with alien language. Far too often in sci-fi stories, from Star Wars to Mass Effect, everyone simply speaks in understandable languages. And if there are differences, it’s quickly translated for convenience. No Man’s Sky embraces that complexity however.
There are four alien races in the game, each with their own language. Finding ancient ruins or simply talking to the aliens can teach you words for the different languages, translating portions of the dialogue each time you strike up a conversation. The more words you know, the better you understand whatever the alien is telling you or asking you to do. It’s a simple system, but it works. It turns knowledge into a resource and makes struggling to understand a foreign language into a surprisingly addictive game mechanic.
Going for broad appeal, most games usually shy away from opaqueness like this. Much like getting lost, if a player doesn’t understand what’s happening, it is generally considered a failure of communication on the developer’s part. But again, Hello Games flips this and allows the potential misunderstanding that comes with different languages to be a part of the game. Not only is it unique, it’s a refreshingly immerse take on a sci-fi universe.
No Man’s Sky isn’t perfect. Its flaws have disappointed a lot of gamers. But for those willing to look past those flaws, there are a handful of great accomplishments at the center of Hello Games’ latest. Not even counting the absurd size of the universe, the title taps into seldom-used emotions and bucks traditional game design to create interesting situations that you rarely find elsewhere. And because of this, No Man’s Sky is unquestionably new and different, exactly what makes the indie scene as special as it is.