Experiencing No Man's Sky

No Man's Sky is not a game for everyone.

But neither is Call of Duty. Or Battlefield. Or GTA. Or Candy Crush. Or Clash of Clans. Or any other game. There is no universal game, just as much as there isn't a universal movie, or book, or food. It is, however, a game for me.

It is hard to describe what No Man's Sky is or what you do in it without sounding silly. It is an open world game that let's you...cruise the galaxy? See the stars? Look at hills? Words don't do it justice. Remember that first E3 trailer from way back in 2014? Did you like that game? Then you're in luck, because that is what the game is.

I saw that trailer and instantly fell in love with it. I also started to worry immediately. I worried that it wouldn't be the game they demonstrated, that it would turn out to be like any other shooter out there. That the things they showed in that first trailer were just a glimpse into a complex multiplayer affair, complete with factions and complicated rules and all that stuff. I didn't want to play that game. I wanted to play the game they showed: A slow moving discovery simulator. Fortunately for me, that's exactly what this game is.

No Man's Sky is, at its core, a game about exploration. What does it mean to be someone whose only possession is a starship? What does it mean to discover the universe all by yourself? It truly excels at giving you an impression of isolated exploration. There are no NPCs handing out involved fetch missions. It is highly unlikely that you see any other players. In the beginning you are told to travel to the center of the universe to uncover a mystery, but you don't have to. You are nudged, of course, but after you've understood the base mechanics you are free to do whatever you please. Stay on a the first planet for weeks? Go ahead. Want to see many different planets in paid succession? Go do that. Want to drift around space endlessly, listening to the fantastic soundtrack? That's your choice.

The game mechanics are very simple. I think there is a reason for that (other than the smallness of the team), and that is that they are not important in this game. The mechanics is not what it is about. You get to fly through the galaxy, shoot rocks, and trade minerals. The mechanics are in service of the experience: marveling over a weird rock formation, or seeing a few bird-shark things fly around, or falling down a hole in the ground and discovering a hidden cave. What the developers wanted you to see is the infinte universe; the universe promised on pulp novels, on comic books, and the cheesy film posters of yesteryear. It is a love letter to the future we had in the past. The romantic notion that space travel is hard and lonely, but worth it because space is So. Damn. Beautiful!

For games like Skyrim, Assassin's Creed, and GTA the open world is merely a backdrop for the story you're supposed to experience. They are giving you something to do at every other corner: Find my baby. Play tennis. Go shoot that guy. Have you killed a dragon yet? I need four cows.
No Man's Sky is different in that the open world is the story. Criticizing it for having dull mechanics is like looking at a Dali painting and pointing out that clocks don't melt in the real world or saying that David Lynch films are terrible, because they have no plot. Plot is not everything.

One of my defining video game experiences was playing Morrowind for the first time. I was fourteen or fifteen and I was intrigued by the aesthetic more than the actual game. It looked beautiful and I needed to have it. I even bought a new graphics card to display the fancy water animations (hello, pixel haders!).

The game opens with your character waking up on a prison ship. You get up and tell the guard about yourself. Are you using magic? Are you fast? What race do you belong to? That sort of thing. After you're done with that, you are released into the world. The guard tells you about that one guy in that one town you can talk to, and that's it. That man the guard told you about is part of the main storyline, which you can follow or ignore. You can kill him if you want to, rendering the main storyline kaput. Or not. You can talk to him, play the main story and be done with it in 40 hours. It's all up to you. I loved that freedom. I spend most of my time just wandered around and looking at interesting rocks or going down into dungeons to find interesting swords. I felt lost in a huge world and made up my own adventure (partly because I wasn't fluent in english yet). I followed creatures to see where they were going. I explored caves for no reason other than that they were there. And this is what I feel like playing No Man's Sky. I feel like a child, looking at book covers, imagining the stories within.

We crave familiarity and wonder in our fiction. Pop culture is doing a great job delivering things that are familiar to us. Producing sequels, prequels, and carbon copying mechanics works. They promise us, yes, you can go back, you can experience your childhood over and over and over again. "Don't you remember how it felt to watch Star Wars for the first time? Here's more Star Wars!" it is comforting, but not very exciting. It's cold and calculated. Don't get me wrong. I love Star Wars and I will gladly watch all of the new movies. I think Kylo Ren is a way more complex and interesting character than Darth Vader, but he can never evoke the same emotion in me, because I saw Vader first. I hadn't seen any Star Wars movies before I saw the first Star Wars movie, so of course it would have a lasting impact. Any new Star Wars movie, no matter how good, will always be just another Star Wars movie. We too often lose sight of why we love something in the first place. Why it made a lasting impact. It's the rush of discovery, the wonder of seeing something new and interesting. No Man's Sky is a game that captures that wonder and excitement perfectly. It is the experience I was promised way back when I first heard about video games and for that I am grateful.