It’s been a strong year for games, and there has been a sluice of hugely anticipated releases finally landing for Next Gen consoles, many of which were considered worthy of (at least most of) the hype they’d generated since their announcements way back when. I mention this because, in a way, “hype” is a double-edged sword in today’s gaming world; generating much needed interest (and ultimately driving sales), but also creating a huge amount of pressure and expectation. No Man’s Sky is perhaps the textbook example of this, and after only a brief, tantalising preview at E3 2014, it suddenly seemed like everybody was talking about it. Indeed, this was when my own fascination with the game began, and for more than two years I’ve been following the game with (frankly, unhealthy levels of) interest and excitement.
That’s a lot of pressure anyways, but when you consider Hello Games had, until that point, been a largely unknown Indie Studio, with only a handful of staff, it’d be hard to imagine a more dramatic example of a hype train hurtling out of control. There were times when I even felt quite sorry for Sean Murray (a quiet, unassuming guy suddenly thrust into the media spotlight), and there were many occasions where he distinctly seemed to be in “managing expectations” mode. There’d be these awkward interviews when he’d explain how the game would be about exploration and discovery, but he’d be greeted with a ‘there’ll be epic space battles though…. Right!?‘ or a ‘sweet….but we get to shoot Aliens in their stupid alien faces though, surely!?‘.
In short, after two years of increasing expectations, a fuckload of everybody’s personal projection, and huuuuge media speculation, the whole world had an idea of what they wanted No Man’s Sky to be, and there were exactly no guarantees this would bear any relation to what it was – what it was always intended to be. Going back to the double-edged sword thing, Hello Games had received a level of attention and exposure that most developers could only dream about, but the very idea of No Man’s Sky had taken on a life of its own – and like a virtual Keyser Söze, it had become something mythical, magical, ethereal even. This wasn’t just an intriguing Indie game anymore, it was something much, much more, and in a Gaming world normally dominated by huge, well-oiled publicity machines, one tiny little outfit from the UK found themselves solely responsible for one of the most anticipated events in Next Gen Gaming. I mean, honestly, if I were Sean Murray, I’d have prob’ly spent much of the last year collapsed in a heap in the corner of a dark room somewhere, and that he hasn’t is singularly impressive in and of itself.
Somewhat inevitably though, this unprecedented level of anticipation has resulted in a fair degree of backlash now that No Man’s Sky has finally landed. Given everybody had their own ideas about what the game would be like, many of those expectations haven’t been met, and this has led to numerous, and often contradictory, complaints. So you’ll find a “This game’s so boring, it’s taking forever to do anything”, but also a “15 billion years my arse – I’ve finished it already”. Those who were expecting a game consisting entirely of epic space battles are likely disappointed too, as are some of those who were anticipating a game where every single minute was filled with the discovery of new, exotic species of animals. See, not only were the expectations so varied, but because everybody’s starting experience is largely unique (and random) too, there’s just so much working against No Man’s Sky meeting individual expectations that it’s almost impossible for it to meet them – at least initially. Even for me (as somebody who’s followed the game for a while, and who wasn’t expecting a Space Opera of any kind), I’m kind of struggling to reach the Zone where my No Man’s Sky experience hits the notes I was expecting it to. I spent my first few hours of the game, not in a state of quasi-religious ecstacy like I’d expected to, but in a wierd combination of confusion, bewilderment and (dare I say it) boredom. At the same time though, I was also addicted to the stuff I was bored with, and the confusion and bewilderment were the very things driving me onwards – making me, and No Man’s Sky, a fucked up ball of contradictions.
On the one hand, I liked that the game didn’t burden me with tutorials, allowing me to discover stuff myself, but on the other, I grew increasingly frustrated not having a fucking clue what I should be stocking my limited inventory slots with. I mean, I knew I should be gathering x and y to repair my ship with, but I had no idea which of the other resources would be useful, and I didn’t even know if I needed to repair the ship straight away, or if my time would be better spent exploring the entire planet. Similarly, there was a trade off in the exploring I was doing, because in order to explore I needed to collect various things (to recharge my life support and such – once I’d figured out I needed to do that, obviously), but that left me in the position of not being able to collect a lot of the stuff I was finding. In short, I was all over the place (metaphorically and, like, literally), overwhelmed and a little bit frustrated. After about eleven hours of playing, I still am a bit, although I have just about started to get the hang of things.
I’m still on the planet I started out on – because after eleven hours, I’ve only scratched the surface of the bugger – and just when I’d resolved to leave, I found another new species, and a couple more areas of interest appeared on my HUD. Herein lies another contradiction, and the fact that I’ve not found everything on one planet in a universe comprising quintillions of the bastards simultaneously fills me with with kid on Christmas morning levels of excitement and overwhelming, crippling dread. Again, No Man’s Sky is pulling me in two different directions here, with the infinite expanse of space calling out to me with its sweet, sweet siren song – but with the last two as-of-yet-undiscovered species also insisting that I stay. At times I’ll hit a kind of zen-like contentment just wandering around, mining stuff, unlocking language stones etc, and I feel like I could be happy on “my” planet forever – yet at others, I’ll be itching to leave it behind because the next planet might be something even more amazing. In the first instance, I’m fine with the fact I’m missing two new species, in the second it creates a kind of resentment and feeling of being held back from a universe of possibilities.
Here’s the thing though… the more I thought about this, the more I began to realise that this is exactly the point of No Man’s Sky. Moreover, it was exactly the stuff I was excited about, and why I’d found the game so intriguing in the first place. No Man’s Sky is a Sandbox game in the truest, purest sense, and that freedom is simultaneously both inviting and daunting. It’s an immense blank canvas on which to paint our own adventure, but in order to do that, we have to first embrace the idea of exactly that! Sure, there’s a loose narrative to follow, but how, when, and indeed if we follow that is entirely up to us. No Man’s Sky isn’t about a “story” in the sense we’re used to, it’s about us creating our own, but we absolutely have to be prepared to do that.
Once I’d figured this out I came to understand that my initial problems with the game were mine, and moreover, my issues with it were the result of my failure to keep a sense of perspective. I mean, it kind of goes without saying that a game that could (theoretically) last for billions of years can’t be judged after a few hours, yet that’s exactly what I was doing. Even more stupidly, I was failing to see the universe for the planets (so to speak – I’m here all week….) in that all the stuff I was getting confused about (and overwhelmed by) were the exact things that appealed to me about No Man’s Sky in the first place. Absolutely I’d let the hype get to me, and whilst I hadn’t been expecting a different game, I’d expected a different experience because I’d eventually come to expect No Man’s Sky to arrive as a fully-formed revelation, when actually, I’d initially been excited about it precisely because that wouldn’t be the case.
So what’s my point? Well, in a nutshell, it’s that No Man’s Sky is a complex, confusing experience to evaluate, and that – in essence – that’s exactly the point of it. It’s not necessarily an awesome story-driven game like an Uncharted, and it’s not necessarily a game just about exploration either. It can be, though – just as it could be the most ridiculously massive walking simulator in the history of Gaming. It’s all of these things – and none of them. The key is that we need to be willing to do some of the work ourselves – and we need to keep a sense of perspective as we do so. I didn’t immediately fall in love with No Man’s Sky – but if I’m being honest, that’s because I hadn’t bothered to appreciate that it was up to me how to fall in love with it. My first impressions were weighed down by my own expectations and by my own lack of imagination. Indeed, the game’s real coup de grace is that it’s almost entirely up to you to get as much, or as little, out of it as you like, and at what pace you wish to do so. Now that I’m getting to grips with it, and now that I’m understanding all of the above, I’m starting to appreciate the genius of No Man’s Sky, and I’m even more excited about what it will be over the coming months – probably years.
Sure, there are going to be times when I’m not in the mood for it, but the massive, expansive blank book of No Man’s Sky is already pulling me in, even if I didn’t necessarily enjoy the first few pages as much as I was expecting too. Hell, I pretty much fucked up a couple of those pages myself, but in an infinite Universe, that’s likely to become insignificant pretty freakin’ quickly. I’m currently getting pretty pissed off that I can’t find these last two species, but I absolutely don’t have to bother with them if I don’t want to. I can, afterall, just go ahead and fuck right off to another of the bajillionty-twelve planets and start looking for what they have to offer. Maybe I happened to start out on a planet with two incredibly elusive species of animals – maybe they’re even the last two surviving members of their species and finding them on my planet is next to impossible!? Hell, if they are, maybe it’s imperative that I stay and document them before they disappear forever!? Whatever – it’s entirely my call, my story I’m writing, and I can change pretty much anything about it as I go along – if I want to, obviously.
And No Man’s Sky is – essentially – your story to write, your game to create, and your experience to mould however you see fit. Of course, it’s entirely possible that it’s just not your thing – and that’s fine – but if you’re willing to abandon the idea that a game is definitely going to be x, y or z, it’s quite hard not to be intrigued by the possibilities No Man’s Sky offers. Indeed, much like the speculative Science Fiction the game’s inspired by, No Man’s Sky doesn’t force feed its audience a narrative cliché, rather it chooses to ask open-ended, interesting questions and – ultimately – it allows us to come up with our own, unique answers. Naturally, the game doesn’t necessarily preclude that answer from being “whatevs Alien scum… Pew, Pew, Pew!” but, for me anyways, it’s refreshing that this doesn’t have to be your answer.
I was initially excited by the possibilities of No Man’s Sky, and they’re all still there, it’s just that it’s up to me to put the effort in to finding out what they are. That’s going to take some time, for sure, and it’s certainly not going to be a thrill-a-minute kind of journey either. That said, though, I’ve already seen some genuinely breathtaking vistas, discovered some freaky-ass creatures, and I’m currently more than a little bit in love with the snippets of backstory and history I’m coming across. No Man’s Sky is the very definition of a slow-burner, yet with each passing hour I’m finding myself increasingly invested in, and enveloped by, everything it has to offer. Increased hype and snowballing expectations aside, that’s exactly what I was hoping the game would be, and honestly, it is delivering on its initial promise and I am genuinely grateful for that!