July 6, 2019 at 6:12 AM #845
No Man’s Sky
Rating: 3.0 – Fair
A game for those with a scientist’s heart
A little remembered passage of The Little Prince tells about the encounter of the title-character with a geographer. The scientist is sitted next to a table in his little planet, with a big book ahead of him; when the little prince appears and asks what he’s doing, he quickly answers: I’m taking notes about all the things in the universe.
It might not be a good start to begin a review with a quote from a children’s book, more so with one that seems so much to be making fun of scientific thought, but it’s hard not to think about that specific passage when playing No Man’s Sky. Sometimes the game actually feels like an adaptation from Saint-Â¨Â¦xupery’s character, though reimaginanted in hard sci-fi clothes: you’re a space explorer, traveling from planet to planet in your spaceship, without a very clear objective most of the time. Each planet is procedurally generated, with an algorithm developed by the creators, capable of generating, according to them, more than 18.000.000.000.000.000.000 (yeah, eighteen quintillion) different worlds.
If it sounds like too much, it’s because it is: it’s been calculated that, even if you spend a single second in each planet, it would take five billion years to explore them all. If you want, it could be a game to play for a whole life – many whole lifes, actually.
It’s true that such a extense experience, though, cannot be a very deep one. If the universe of No Man’s Sky is absurdly vast, in the end it’s also too shallow. In its core, it’s a survival game, focused in gathering natural resources to better your equipment and keeping them working; it’s those resources you’ll find more frequently in the vast expanses mostly inhabited of each planet. In the most extreme moments there’s even some combat, on the ground as well as in space, though the clunky controls makes you wish there weren’t so many. But most your experience will be doing the same as the geographer mentioned above: finding new plants, animals and rocks procedurally generated, and giving them names to share with other players.
It’s hard not to think about all that’s been promised during production, in trailers that showed worlds full of life and giant animals, even the possibility of finding other players in your space travels. No Man’s Sky doesn’t exactly delivers all that it promised, which made many players furious with the developer Sean Murray, leading to a record number of devolutions after the first week. That actually intensified with the number of bugs, some that could actually freeze the game. Nowadays, after so many patches, there are way less bugs, and more things to do in your journey; still, you can’t really blame those who thought better to return the game.
On the other hand, within what’s actually been delivered, somehow the game became something I always find hard to put back and just stop playing. There’s a lot in it that remember games like Shadow of the Colossus and Journey – games filled with empty spaces, in which the journey is frequently much, much more than the destiny. The soundtrack itself, which is pretty good, reminds me of them, with little discordant arpeggios in between long bars of silence, turning in a feeling between the sense of weird and the sense of wonder.
Not to say there’s just no goal to be met, the game gives you two of them, one more straightforward, the other more in the long term. The first is the search for the Atlas, a kind of alien entity that guides you through the planetary systems, taking you from one point to the next looking to reach mysterious goal. And the second is the search for a quasi-mythical center of the galaxy, and the mysterious destiny that awaits you once you reach it. The truth, though, is that those who want some kinda of linearity and sense of purpose, like in a more traditional game, and just go after the checkpoints withouth stopping to observe what’s around, are precisely those that won’t realize what’s the most engaging and fascinating aspects of the game.
The thing is that even the most interesting details of its plot are only revealed through exploration, in monoliths scattered througout the planets that tell the story of three alien civilizations and their relationship with the Atlas and the sentiels, the senscient machines that protect the natural resources of the planets. Maybe that’s what No Man’s Sky is really about: the sense of discovery and exploration of the unknown. The obvious inspiration are hard science fiction classics, especially those of Arthur C. Clarke; the game actually exposes that reference pretty blatantly, by including quotes from those books in its death screen, before you respawn to continue the game. If it’s true that there’s some repetition in the planet generation, that frequently just reuses the same patterns only differently arranged, sometimes it will still surprise with the sheer beauty of an alien landscape, between a surreal atmosphere, bizarre plants and animals, and another huge planet rising like the sun in the horizon. Those are the moments you just stop and fill your heart with wonder, suddenly understanding again what got you so hyped about this thing in the first place.
In the end, No Man’s Sky is an undeniably faulty game, that promises way more than it delivers, literally aims for the stars and miss them for some hundreds of light-yeras or so. But it’s still a game that’s fascinating and engaging in its own special way, if you have the right references and interests to make you enjoy it. I know I can say it pushes all the right buttons in me: in my scientist’s spirit, that finds pleasure in exploration and discovery; and in my childhood of long hours spent lookinig at the night sky and dreaming of being an astronaut. Still, it might just really not be a game for everyone.
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