Flights of Fancy – A Review of No Man’s Sky
No Man’s Sky is an ambitious title from the developers who brought us Joe Danger, Hello Games. With 18 quintillion (30 zeroes) procedurally generated planets to explore, the game sets a sky high record for the largest game ever. Further than that, each planet is [fairly] different than those before it. How does the game stack up in comparison to its sheer size? Will it find footing at the center of the galaxy, or left to drift among the vast emptiness that is outer space?
Gamers have been traversing the stars for six days in Hello Games’ long-awaited space opera, No Man’s Sky. While players may expire from irradiated, massively barren, super chilled, or super heated planets, they will never expire from lack of things to do; players have a lifetime’s worth of planets to explore, lifeforms to discover, inventories to manage, ships to unearth and/or purchase, and three different alien languages to learn, just to name a few.
That being said, I’d like to launch (guys, I’m sorry for all my terrible puns. I just can’t help myself) this review with my criticisms. Simply because they are just as feeble as us players in the scheme of the game’s universe. NOTE – All time-based comparisons will be on a geologic, light-speed scale.
Firstly – While the vastness of planets procedurally generated is quite an impressive feat of algorithmic computation, the randomness of each planet is not. In just my extremely short time I’ve visited at least 30 planets. More than half have been either completely bereft of life (with the exception of some flora), or completely lacking resources. Now, I’m no computer wiz (PLEASE correct me if I am wrong), but I believe I can drum this issue up with the way the game was created. Procedural generation is an algorithm. An equation that sets the possibilities and limits of everything within the game. It randomizes and automatically creates the planets we explore in real time. Because of this, set animators are unable to manually create instances for each system and each planet; this means that, while the procedure generates these instances, the animator cannot add other instances inside this system. For example, a “seed” is used–much like Minecraft–to determine the type of worlds that it will generate in a specific system. System A might have a simple “trees” and “desert” as a seed. The algorithm will then populate System A with a randomized set of planets, all with randomized set of characteristics. Planet A1 may feature a temperate climate with bountiful forests and creatures, while Planet A2 will be completely barren. In my experience, most of these planets have been the latter.
This brings me to my second criticism – my biggest pet peeve with the inner-workings of this system is this randomization is not based off known astronomical needs. The habitable zone, for example. I visited a planet extremely close to its star, much the way Mercury is to our own Sun. Typically, one would assume this planet to be rocky, barren, and super-heated. On the contrary, this planet contained mostly liquid water and an abundance both flora and fauna. While others, that would essentially be directly in the habitable zone were absolutely devoid of life. I guess the habitable zone isn’t a thing?
Now that my qualms have been aired, I’d like to speak to you about exploration.
That is solely what this game is about. Sure, it contains elements of survival, needing to keep your equipment charged and monitor inventory; the elements that do so are plentiful on nearly every planet, and inventory slots are easy to procure, so survival is moot. What I am talking about is exploring planets to find…whatever you want. A dinosaur-esque alien, or a planet with Dr. Seuss-like flora…my personal mission was–and still is–to find a planet that is most like Earth.
It is a search that–due to the procedural nature of the game–may never come to fruition. I have, however, come across some gorgeous vistas in my travels across the universe.
That is what No Man’s Sky is about: finding your personal glory. Forging a swath through the universe, exploring the many wilds, hoping to find a home like the one we left behind. And while that may never come to pass, I have at least found worlds that I wouldn’t mind staying.
This brings me to narrative. And honestly, I really have no clue what it is, apart from journeying to the center of the galaxy, via either following the path of Atlas, wormholes, or just any route one finds most appealing. It seems the alien races (of which I have only accosted three) seem to be willing to help, for a fair price. The little choose-your-own-adventure monoliths give me a slice into what has happened to each individual planet, but I still am unaware as to why I’m trying to get to the center. To boldly go, I suppose? Now, I’m not saying this is narrative flaw. This to me, says my brain hasn’t focused on the narrative because of the vastness of the worlds in which we are passing through. Much like The Witcher, or any Elder Scrolls game (not for the exceptional storytelling), No Man’s Sky is so large, that exploring distracts the player from the main goal. Which is a good thing. It allows us to pace ourselves however we want. If we just want to jump wormhole after wormhole, we can. If we–like yours truly–just want to thoroughly explore every crevice of the universe, we are allowed. Of all the things Hello Games promised, player agency is at the top of my list.
What makes No Man’s Sky impressive is the sheer scale of its universe. While it may not literally be TO SCALE to our own universe, Hello Games most assuredly reached their goal with a daunting scope and it is this scope that has me awed. Level designers opted for a neon gas-colored universe in lieu of the realistic absolute nothingness black has to offer (I’m glad they did; how boring would that have been?) and spaced (hah) the planets and star systems to a scale that certainly FEELS like space. Pulse thrusters are fast, but still, sometimes three minutes to a planet is an extremely long time in light-speed. Often, planets are so huge, I have to leave its atmosphere and circumnavigate just to get to the marker on the other side, and even that would take minutes. Good on you, Hello Games.
With all that has been said, I believe there were things promised and shown to us that were most certainly red herrings (speaking of the E3 demo that was manually rendered, versus the final release) and while this is disconcerting, the game essentially does what it was created to do. Coupled with player agency and the very real notion of endless exploration, I give No Man’s Sky a