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My Thoughts: No Man's Sky

I've never really written about my thoughts on a game before, more than a paragraph of a Facebook status.  But Hello Games' No Man's Sky, released yesterday, August 12, 2016 on PC, has stirred something inside me that I felt warranted a full blog post.  It is also one of the most hyped and divisive games of the year.  Bear with me, as I'm currently hyped up on a massive cold-brew from Starbucks, so this may be a ramble.
My first ship on the first planet I found myself on
The moment I fell in love with the newly released No Man's Sky was upon the first planet the game randomly set me on.  I was mining for elements to repair and fuel my crashed and oh-so-humble starship.  There were strange, unfamiliar animal alien life form all around me, both herbivores and carnivores alike.  Forms of colorful foreign fauna were arching over me.  Radiation was constantly draining my environmental protection shield, and my life support batteries were slowly degrading.  Then, with little warning, night fell.  The stars shown in the sky of this strange, new world for the first time.  It was a breathtaking sight, one enhanced by the realization that the day/night cycle was not a result of clever game-design trickery*, but was actually dependent on my position on this rotating planet-sized simulated planet in relation to it's sun-sized simulated sun.  And the stars in the sky were not a texture generated by an artist, but actual simulated stars that I eventually could travel to.

*For those that don't know, day/night cycles in most video games are generated by moving the primary sun light source around the static map, not by moving the map (or planet, in this case) around the light source.  It's like Copernicus's views of a heliocentric solar system have finally been realized in-game, although truthfully No Man's Sky isn't the first to do so, just perhaps the first to do so effectively and beautifully. 

But this moment generated an actual feeling in me.  Fear.  I felt totally alone and afraid.  I was, for that moment, convinced by this game that I could die out here on this planet, alone.  On subsequent journeys, even after that feeling passed, I still never strayed too far away from wherever I recently landed my trusty ship, as it is my one true constant savior in this hostile alien galaxy.  If the radiation has pierced my exo-suit, if I'm attacked by sentinel bots for over-mining the planet's resources, or if a giant dinosaur-like alien lifeform is running towards me hungry, I can attempt to retreat to the confines of my ship until I recuperate.  And if I'm low on resources and can't recuperate immediately, I can blast off into space to escape those hostilities, hoping there's a starbase nearby I can put to port in so I can buy the supplies I need to feel comfortable and prepared enough to head out into the wild again.

What for?  Why play this game?  For the simple, pure joy of wandering around on alien planets and exploring the galaxy.  If you're expecting anything more than this, you will be severely disappointed.  But if you are, like me, content with living in the colorful cover of a 1970s pulp science fiction novel without ever reading that book, you'll have a wonderful experience.

The game's aesthetic was clearly inspired by the sci-fi novel cover art of John Berkey and the like.

I know that may sound weird, but as a kid, I would go to the library and dazzle at the covers of those overabundant science fiction novels that were, unbeknownst to me at the time, probably on their way to the dumpster or local thrift store to be replaced by newer version with less attractive and more "modern" covers.  I was still too young to be able to pick most of them up for a read and actually comprehend what was inside, but the covers were enough.  They sparked my imagination and turned me into the science fiction fan I am today (with the help of watching Star Trek and Star Wars, of course).  I still  have fond memories of those covers, and have spent a good deal of time perusing them on Google Image Search, just for taking in their wonderfully retro aesthetic.

I checked this book out from the libary more than once as a kid.  I don't remember much of the stories inside, but the cover art has left a permanent mark on my brain.

As a life-long fan of hardcore space flight simulators like X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and Elite: Dangerous, I was first put-off by reports of No Man's Sky being arcade-y and more casual than its counterparts.  But that all changed when I recently heard the game's creator Sean Murray talk about how the game was indeed like stepping into one of those old sci-fi novel covers, and the hype for me began.  But I knew to keep my hype at bay and try to have a realistic expectation of what the game was like, and I think being a game developer helped with this. Knowing that its worlds were procedurally-generated rather than hand-crafted* was the main indicator that the game would end up being repetitive after a while.  And I'll be completely honest:  the game is very repetitive and will perhaps end up boring me after a few more days of playing.

*For the record, as an environment artist for a video game studio, I would prefer making a hand-crafted environment over creating assets for a procedurally-generated environment any day.  That's beside the point though.  No Man's Sky's nature dictates that it be procedurally-generated.

But that's a-okay.  In one day, the game has generated an actual feeling in me, stroked nostalgia of my childhood, managed to artistically inspired me (those ships though!), and brought me a unique joy of living out that fantasy of being inside one of those novel covers.  Therefore, to me, that's worth the release price-tag of $60 for sure.  (Hell, I've spent that much money on a dinner for two in which one half of wasn't even for me, and the next day flushed down the toilet the half I did eat, never to be experienced again.  Okay.  Gross analogy.  Sorry.  But, in comparison, I can now play No Man's Sky for as long as I have a computer capable of running it).  I'm getting the feeling that it's a game I'll want to play in spurts, as an occasional relaxing escape from reality, rather than the 30-days-straight-or-more excursion that were massive games like Skyrim or Fallout 4 .

"But Donny, there isn't much of a story!" No Man's Sky lets you make your own story, however mundane that story may be.  I realized this the other day at work, when my coworker David told me what he did in the game the night before.  He told me about how he discovered a wrecked ship on this planet that he desperately wanted to repair so that he could hop around the galaxy in it instead of the inferior ship he currently owned.  Unfortunately, he didn't have the necessary resources to repair it, so he took off to the skies to buy the parts on the market at the nearest space station.  He got all the parts he needed, but upon returning to the planet, he couldn't find his way back to the ship.  Because the planets in No Man's Sky are the size of actual planets (and you currently can't set custom markers in the game for the purpose of bread-crumbing your way back), it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.  Sure, he could've spent the time searching for it again and eventually find it, but he decided it wasn't worth it, and moved on to the next star system, hoping to find an even better ship out there.

That, my friends, is a story, crafted by the mathematical chance the game gives that there may be a crashed ship on a planet somewhere, and David's own choice on how to approach the situation of repairing it and then abandoning his search for it. You could argue, "WAAAAAH!!!  BUT THAT'S DUMB THE GAME DOESN'T HOLD MY HAND AND MAKE IT EASIER TO BACK-TRACK??"  It's not a big deal.  Sometimes getting lost is a better and more memorable story.  In most modern and scripted games, finding and successfully repairing a crashed ship on a planet would be a one-off experience.  If you didn't get it the first time, you'd be forced to restart from an earlier save until you succeeded, just to move on in a linear story.  But in a vast, truly open game like this, there's always the chance there's another crashed ship out there for you to find, and you'll learn from your previous mistakes for the next one that comes along.  A game like No Man's Sky had to let go of the chains of the conventions of modern game storytelling in order for it to be the uniquely open experience that it is.  (But that's not to say there is no story in No Man's Sky at all.  I haven't uncovered much yet, but there is a backstory of this galaxy to be discovered if you choose certain paths.)

Of course, this game is not without its faults, as no game is perfect.  The combat mechanics, both on the ground and in space, leave much to be desired.  Also, as I mentioned earlier that I'm a big fan of space flight sims, I firmly believe that the flight mechanics are definitely lacking.  I understand that this game was meant to appeal to a more casual gamer than a hardcore sim fan, so I get it.  I can always dust off a copy of TIE Fighter or throw a few more hours into Elite: Dangerous to scratch that itch.  The learning curve or the patience required for a flight sim can easily turn off most gamers, so they're not for everyone.

But neither is this game for everyone.  If I were describing it to someone, I'd say it's a "planetary exploration-crafting-survival sim with frequent breathtaking vistas to enjoy."  If you want a Star Wars-esque space opera recounting a tale of battle between good and evil, this game isn't that.  If you want an on-rails Call-Of-Duty type shooter set on colorful sci-fi worlds, this game isn't that.  If you want the next TIE Fighter or Wing Commander flight sim, this game isn't that.  If you want a heroic experience traveling around the galaxy with a Star-Trek like crew on a capital ship engaging in political struggles or world saving, this game isn't that.  But if you think you want to set off on your own journey to the center of the galaxy with nothing but a mining tool and a crashed starship to start, cataloguing alien flora and fauna, gathering resources to craft upgrades for your current set of tech, saving credits in order to buy that flashy-looking ship with more cargo space you once saw docked at a space station, briefly interacting with other intelligent alien species while piecing together their language and backstory, all while taking in the beauty that this game's procedurally-generated galaxy has to offer, I think you'll definitely like it.  

I recommend, before playing, you throw your expectations out the window, free yourself for a little while of your real-life stresses, and experience what will probably be the closest we'll ever get to being a human being alone on a myriad of alien worlds, with the simple goal of just pressing onward to discover whatever it is that's out there in the galaxy.  I know it's cliche, but as they say, it's all about the journey.

And that, to me, sounds like a shitload of fun.



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