“No Man’s Sky” is a game about wandering. More than that, it is a video game that allows the player the freedom to completely ignore the narrative threads presented to them and immerse themselves in the digital cosmos. In many ways it is a sort of culmination of that classic gaming idea of “switching your brain off” and exploring. “No Man’s Sky” is also a game rife with controversy in the gaming industry, and middling in broken expectations.
After its launch on August 9 of this year, “No Man’s Sky” has garnered a jumble of mixed reviews from critics and gamers alike. Some people have enjoyed the game while others seem to despise it, even going so far as to make threatening remarks towards the small indie team responsible for its development (this is the internet after all). I, for one, have found myself staunchly in the middle of many of these arguments. The complaints of poor gameplay mechanics and broken promises are all entirely understandable, and raise legitimate concerns about hype, over-promising, and development practices in the gaming industry overall. On the other hand there’s something endlessly fascinating about “No Man’s Sky” and the weird universe it sets you loose in with little to no direction.
The gameplay flaws present in “No Man’s Sky” are, at times, glaring. They can simply be nuisances of extreme minutiae that build overtime to make some of the in-game activities feel like chores, or they can be features that feel straight up broken and frustrating in their poor implementation. The clunky controls, mediocre user interface, and absurd redundancy seem like deal breakers. For many people, these issues have ruined the entire gameplay experience, and yet there are those who, despite it all, are able to enjoy the canvas beneath the interface.
There is a strange sense of magic to “No Man’s Sky” and its boggling digital universe of over 18 quintillion planets, all of which were formed using algorithms and procedural generation to take the input of the artists and designers at Hello Games and form it into something astronomical in scale. The concept alone is enough give those who grew up on science-fiction, whether it be literary works such as Frank Herbert’s classic “Dune” and Larry Niven’s magnificent “Ringworld” (a personal favourite), or cinematic juggernauts such as the “Star Wars” franchise, feel an undeniable desire to meander through the alien landscapes that sprawl out before them.
These planets, undiscovered until a player sets foot upon them for the first time, can be vibrant with otherworldly plant and animal life, or barren like a vast wasteland that curves endlessly past the horizon, leaving you as a lonely explorer. The art direction of “No Man’s Sky” is pulpy and pleasant, feeling like a journey across the covers of the classic science-fiction novels and choose your own adventure books of years gone by, giving itself up only to those players who allow themselves to get past the broken gameplay and simply enjoy the world itself. That, in essence, is the key to not only understanding why some people still play “No Man’s Sky” even with its dreadfully executed systems but also to understanding that while it works poorly as a video game it works fabulously as an adventure. The expressive art, adventurous music, strange and hazy lore, and brazenly vague presentation all come together to create an experience that can, for those who are open to the ideas and mysteries tucked beneath the flawed gameplay, immerse you in landscapes and lonely explorations unlike anything else.
I will not argue that “No Man’s Sky” is a great game, it simply isn’t. From a pure gameplay perspective “No Man’s Sky” is a fairly unpolished mess that finds itself emulating overplayed, often lazy tropes of the survival genre with an unintuitive user interface and a clunky control scheme to boot. Those who dislike it and feel disappointed by the lacklustre game are perfectly reasonable, but to me, that is far from the point. The argument here, rather, is that “No Man’s Sky” is the embodiment of digital wanderlust, it is a surreal experience rather than a good game. It opens up the doors of possibilities in digital entertainment and brings the pure aesthetic joy of sci-fi adventure into a new realm. For some, myself included, it is a reminder of those beautiful moments as a child where science-fiction pulled you past the screen or the page and gave you the stars to wander through and play with.