If you’ve asked yourself the question could No Man’s Sky be my kind of game?, I’m here to help…eventually. The answer is, of course, maybe, or maybe not. Just like every other game ever. I’ve played roughly a dozen hours and have a pretty good feel for the game. I plan to share some of those experiences, unabashedly aping the style of Steerpike’s “Dark Souls Diaries,” minus all the incompetence. This is kind of the “but first, a sort-of-review” edition. (Heavy emphasis on “sort-of.”)
It’s been a long road getting here: I first posted about the game in the forums here after the tantalizing VGX trailer on December 10, 2013. Thirty-two months later, No Man’s Sky became a real game that people could play on August 9. In my mind I’ve invented a narrative: No Man’s Sky is, in a way,
the end the culmination of an era. An era that began with optimism and open-mindedness, and has ended with clenched fists, gritted teeth, shattered dreams and rampant pessimism. In this not-completely-unfounded narrative I’m talking about what has happened in the world of video games from 2007 to 2016. (Note: this is clearly a highly subjective opinion piece based on my perspective.)
2007 isn’t that long ago. At the same time, 2007 is like, fifty-billion lifetimes ago. I won’t waste more than a sentence saying things like “we didn’t have smartphones” and “nobody really knew Twitter existed yet” and so on. That stuff is obvious. I’m just talking about the tiny little insular world of video games. 2007 is ye olden times. The Nintendo Wii was a thing that many people still cared about and didn’t yet have a boxed-up-in-closet to living room ratio of 9:1. The Xbox 360 was a full year into hitting-its-stride goodness. Steam had its most important year to date and was saving the shit out of PC gaming. The PS3 was definitely a video game console that no one could deny existed because it was totally a real thing; some people even had them. I personally knew one person who had one. That’s fucking crazy. One could argue that the industry was not as mired in sequelitis back then as it is today, though I think it’s easy to look back with rose-tinted glasses. Still, some things were different then. I’m talking about the great optimism which had a hold on games. What I mean by that, and the crux of my mostly-anecdotal argument is this: Critics, reviewers, what-have-yous, they were all more open to loving a given video game. More open to highly rating a video game. I know, numbers are just stupid numbers, and I know that Metacritic (and to a way way way way way lesser extent, Game Rankings) has caused sleepless nights for developers and publishers who needed to meet arbitrary goals. But Metacritic can’t just be ignored either. It is a window into the ebbs and flows of the general reception of games (and other stuff) over the years. I look at Metacritic all the time. It’s most useful as a discovery tool to find new outlets, or old ones forgotten. What regular check-ins have told me over the last decade is that critics, in general, don’t like video games as much as they used to.
From ’98 to about ’03 I was an avid reader of PC Gamer. In December of ’98 I remember loving that they validated my obsession with Half-Life with a 98% review score. Looking up their highest review scores ever (on the internet, via my 33.6k modem), I remember thinking how awesome it was that this new game I loved was basically being hailed as the best game ever by these guys who clearly had all the answers. (I’m not trying to throw barbs, PC Gamer was great for a time.) For a long time, Half-Life was PC Gamer’s highest rated game along with Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. For a long time, Half-Life was my favourite game. I thought it was so cool that, as great as Half-Life is, PC Gamer was saving their 100% perfect score, waiting for the perfect game. It was this weird bullshit badge of honor. PC Gamer was too cool to dish out a perfect score. Yeah! No game is perfect yet! Fuck games! I look back now and realize how darn ridiculous that was. They acted so precious with their review scores, and for what? Giving a 10/10, 5/5, 40/40, or whatever, is not that big a deal. It’s just a video game. Or it’s just a movie. Or it’s just a book. Or whatever. Don’t mistake that statement either; I’m not one of those people who says “it’s just a video game” or “they’re just video games.” I don’t mean it like that, as in they’re not a seriously excellent hobby. Because they are. I mean it in the way of, yeah, playing games is a seriously excellent hobby that I love, but also: Why are we being so serious about everything? Life is a goddamn mystery to me, and something I definitely know is that no hobbies should be held as so precious that, when we criticize and review and discuss them, we can’t also give them our highest grade or recommendation or whatever. In that way, yeah, numbers aren’t that big a deal.
The perfect score
Hypothetical situation: let’s say I worked for PC Gamer in 2004. They wouldn’t have let me give Knights of the Old Republic I or II a perfect score. They probably would have let me give KOTOR 1 a 96% or maybe even a 97%. But KOTOR 2 they definitely would have limited me to 91-92% max. And that’s ridiculous. Criticism, words, and especially scores are way too tied to logic and objectivity. They should be tied to the subjectivity of one’s experience. I would never say to someone that Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords is a “perfect game” whatever the fuck that is. I wouldn’t say it’s a game that does everything right and has perfect writing and mechanics and blah blah blah. The ending was clearly unfinished and broken (but kinda cool in a fucked up way). Still, to me KOTOR 2 is a perfect score game. It’s a 10 out of 10. Or 5 out of 5. To me. For me. The point of that should again, hypothetically, say to a reader who, hypothetically, has read a bunch of my writing and knows my tastes: Oh, this is a 5 out of 5 game to Max. That means the experience he had playing this game is on par with the enjoyment he got out of other games like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Mass Effect, Dark Souls, The Last of Us and Fez, etc. etc.
How can there be such resistance to adopt this kind of thinking? We’ve been groomed too long by the PC Gamers of the world.
In 2007 and the few years following it, the super high review score averages were bonkers! The landmark I use in this argument is BioShock. In the first few days after its review embargo lifted BioShock had a 100 on Metacritic. What?!? It then spent a long time on 98 and later settled on 97. I don’t think there’s a game from the last year of the PS3/360 generation, or up to present day in the current generation, that has a 97 on Metacritic, or any mid-high-90s score that isn’t a remastered old game. With two exceptions, The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V. Because duh. But what gives? Why can’t we get some game’s average up there? Because everyone is jaded as fuck. And it’s bumming me out. Can you imagine what it would take for something to even temporarily have a 100 on Metacritic today? If the God that created the universe spoke to us through the clouds, explained everything about the universe, told us which religions were right and which were wrong, we still wouldn’t give that 100. That would get a 96, maybe. “I mean, he/she/it explained everything and all our questions are answered but…I still feel empty.” (If that really did happen, I’d probably feel empty too.)
BioShock, GTA IV, Mass Effect 2, Metal Gear Solid IV, Red Dead Redemption, Super Mario Galaxy, Zelda: Twilight Princess, Call of Duty 4. All mid- or high-90s. That isn’t happening anymore. Like I said, this is all anecdotal bloviating, but the scores thing is real. All you have to do is look up the all-time high scores. They’re all from the early-to-mid PS3/360/Wii era. Critics were ready to be excited and let games in. Now, fearing backlash, critics have to be tough on games! Shields up! Uh oh, everyone, some games are coming! We’d better shit all over them so we keep our cool credibility. “I’m a games journo, yeah it’s a tough life. Like, I always have to play games for work, I never get to play them for fun. It’s so hard. But yeah, games suck. Fuck games! I want to go back to my childhood and play Super Mario Bros. and Tecmo Bowl and Chrono Trigger. There were no problems in the Reagan/Bush era!”
Of course you can’t blame any one outlet for the aggregated score a game has on Metacritic. You can still want and hope and ask for better. To pick on the biggest guy for a minute, here is how I interpret IGN’s review score scale. 0.0 to 4.9 is all the same, and it means a game is probably broken in multiple ways and is all around awful. 5.0 to 6.9 means a game might not be completely broken but it’s total shit. 7.0 to 7.9 either means it’s an unprecedentedly shitty AAA game, or a forgettable non-AAA game. 8.0 to 8.4 means the reviewer pines for their childhood, when life was pure and the world was a good place. 8.5 is the default score and means absolutely nothing. 8.6 to 8.7 means this is a highly disappointing AAA game. 8.8 means this is a AAA game that had great expectations but didn’t meet them. 8.9 means the reviewer doesn’t have enough clout to award games 9.0 or higher. 9.0 could mean anything from this is the latest From Software game to this is an exceptional video game but we’re too scared to go higher. 9.1 to 9.2 means this is a AAA game that for the most part has met expectations. 9.3 and higher are off limits, reserved only for Mario, Zelda, or GTA games. Feel free to share my interpretation with others. I’m funny.
What did we expect?
2007 set the bar really high, I know. And truly, taken as a whole that year probably hasn’t been topped since. But that optimism feels gone. Expectations are a tricky thing. In all aspects of my life, I’ve tried to learn as the years go by to leave my expectations behind. And it’s not so I can wallow in my buyer’s remorse, which I don’t often experience. It’s so I can take a work of art as it is.
In 2005 I discovered an album that changed my life, or more specifically the way I listened to music: 1996’s “Endtroducing…..” by DJ Shadow. After a year of being obsessed with its sample-crafted ear candy I thought why don’t I look into more of this guy’s music? So I did, and to my surprise it was almost all stuff that I didn’t find interesting at all. It wasn’t what I was looking for. What I thought I was looking for. A couple years later I discovered the 2000 album made of pure joy that bursts from the seams like one of those snake-in-a-can things, “Since I Left You” by The Avalanches. It was the “sequel” to “Endtroducing…” that I had been looking for. It gave me a lesson that keeps evolving to this day. My expectations of what the rest of DJ Shadow’s catalogue would be were foolish. He has a few other tracks that I enjoy, but when I put them on I don’t expect the same experience that I get from “Endtroducing…” That feeling I wanted to be replicated by a guy in California was actually captured four years later by some vinyl-loving dudes in Australia.
My love affair with “Since I Left You” marked a conscious shift for me, in which I no longer “follow” artists or bands in the way I used to. I’ve always been an album guy, and that’s only intensified over time. I seek out albums; individual works of art. And I try to take them as a single piece. A good example is the way I feel about Radiohead. I got into both OK Computer and Kid A in 2000, and those were the two most important albums I can think of that were my gateway into other good music. Compared to those two albums, I think every other Radiohead album is shit. That’s just how my experience crafted my perspective. However, I don’t compare every other Radiohead album to those two albums. I compare them to nothing and let my ears and brain enjoy them for what they are. In Rainbows, The King of Limbs, and A Moon Shaped Pool are huge disappointments when judged against the impact OK Computer and Kid A had on me. So I don’t do that anymore. I take them as they are; and in that way they’re all fine albums that I’ve been able to enjoy.
Sliced bread, etc.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Of course you do. The world at large, critics and fans alike (although I don’t know how you’re a fan of something before it exists), let their expectations for No Man’s Sky get the best of them. After my initial super-excitement on December 10, 2013 and countless events that built the hype to DEFCON whatever the most critical DEFCON level is, I tamed my expectations. I even adopted a healthy chunk of skepticism. Wait, wasn’t I pleading for optimism? Doesn’t hype equal optimism? No. Hype begets disappointment. The way I see it there were four camps of people pre-NMS release. There were the critics and fans who steadfastly wore their positive hopes and dreams on their sleeves. There were the fans who thought NMS would be the greatest thing ever and change everything (and looking at the evidence, I don’t know why). There were the people actively hoping the game would be a failure so they could partake in the schadenfreude. And lastly, there were the people who tempered their expectations and either were or were not curious. I fall into the fourth camp, of the curious variety. And so I bought No Man’s Sky on the day after its release date. Over a series of I-don’t-yet-know-how-many dispatches I’m going to attempt to give you a personal account of my journey with No Man’s Sky. It should be apparent that, since I’ve already dedicated so many words, I do like No Man’s Sky. If you like the idea of diary-type dispatches about the adventures of one player, stay tuned! Though if you like the idea of diary-type dispatches about the adventures of one player but don’t like my insufferable writing style, then I’d like to recommend you check out Vice. Specifically, the Dear So and So letter writing-style missives of Austin Walker, Mike Diver and Patrick Klepek. Walker’s brand new outfit at Vice, by the way, is doing some of the best work in video games journalism already after existing for barely a month. I expect they’re only going to get better. Bookmark their site. With the beautiful thoughtfulness of Austin Walker’s (formerly of Giant Bomb NYC) body of work, and Patrick Klepek’s (also formerly of Giant Bomb, and more recently Kotaku where he broke story after story) scoop-obtaining virtuosity, Vice is going to be one of the top places I go to for games-everything for the foreseeable future.
Why I’m enjoying NMS thus far can be attributed to my painfully-explained philosophy above. I didn’t have expectations that this game would change everything. I didn’t have expectations at all of what it would or wouldn’t do. If you have expectations of any kind, I urge you beware. If not, let my words wash over your eyes and inform your synapses.
Anyway, this had the word “prologue” in its title for a reason! I’ll briefly write about a few things I think would be helpful to someone still on the fence. If you’ve been following news of NMS post-release you probably heard that there was a big Day One patch. Not big as in the download is half the size of the game on the disc. Big as in it includes a lot of major changes about the way the game works, including the seemingly-last-minute addition of The Main Story Path. Pre-patch it seems that no such thing existed, which is pretty interesting when you consider how long this game spent in development.
The part that’s actually about No Man’s Sky
About that, the story. This game doesn’t really have a story. Not that many people expected it to. But there’s definitely not much in terms of story that I’ve seen so far. No Man’s Sky relies entirely on passages of text that the player finds on terminals and ancient monoliths scattered over the surface of planets. I’ll make a few comparisons to help paint a picture. First, the game at its core turns out to be a very basic survival, mining and exploration game. The survival part is very simple so far. I have yet to die on the surface of a planet, despite every planet I’ve been on having some form of fucked up thing that slowly kills me. I’ve died twice in space to space pirate assholes. Dying is harmless; you’re asked to retrieve your “grave” in the style of Dark Souls. Do that and you’ll get all your trinkets and resources back. Money can’t be lost and your ship can’t be destroyed. You always have a ship; without it there is no game.
Next, I’ve heard other people say that the survival/mining aspect is very Minecraft-lite. I’ve never played Minecraft but I’ll take their word for it. Inventory management, everybody’s favourite thing, will undoubtedly play a part in every player’s game. Weirdly enough, the developers, for reasons I can’t comprehend, aped the menu style of Destiny. Like, aped it to a T. Do you want to click something in No Man’s Sky? You’ll have to hold square or X (PS4, folks) for a second before anything happens. I think that part of Destiny sucks, and while it’s not as noticeably bad in No Man’s Sky, it’s still a bewildering choice.
Finally, exploration. There isn’t really space exploration in this game, which might sound disappointing, but I mean … it’s space, people. Really though, every solar system is pretty simple. And that’s fine with me. When you get off the first planet you start on, or warp to new systems, the loop seems to work the same: You’ll be pretty close to a planet; not far away will be a space station, and there may or may not be other planets a bit more off in the distance. So far I’ve been to a solar system with one planet, and I’ve been to another with five, and other amounts in between. I’m not sure what the limits are. These are not realistically scaled solar systems, which is probably for the best. I admit it would be cool to be in a vast emptiness, but what’s there is already pretty vast and empty. NMS is somewhat of a choose-your-own-adventure kind of game. You can use your imagination in concert with some of the game’s systems to increase your level of immersion. Your ship has a pulse engine thing-y in it which allows you to get to most places in a solar system within under two minutes. But if for some reason you want a super chill space ride, you can just drift on thrusters and take several literal, real-world hours to fly to a planet.
Speaking of that, one of the coolest things about No Man’s Sky is lifting off the surface of one planet, jetting out of the atmosphere, flying to and landing on another planet, all without any obvious in-game loading. Meaning control is never taken away from the player. A lot of textures load in gradually as you touch down on the surface of planets but, like, what the fuck did you expect? A video game now exists which has an actually-real massive universe (you didn’t think you’d get through this without me trotting out the “18 quintillion planets” figure, did you?). Thirty years ago we pressed one button to jump over small gaps. Now you can get in a spaceship and fly off the surface of a planet and FLY TO ANOTHER GODDAMN PLANET. That’s fucking insane. Just think about that.
As for planetary exploration, the comparison I’ll make is Mass Effect. The first one. Remember all the “uncharted” planets that basically had nothing but a few IKEA houses and space monkeys on them? No Man’s Sky’s planet surface experience is kind of like that, except there’s much more flora and fauna everywhere, the environments are generally weirder, and every time you want to get in the Mako to speed up traversal you’ll have to fuel your launch thrusters with some very easy-to-find isotopes.
All of that makes up the essence of the game. Here is a point form list of the things I have done so far:
- used a mining-tool thing to mine elements from rocks, plants, mineral veins, etc.
- scanned plants, rocks and animals, and uploaded their discoveries to a galactic database to get some units (money).
- shot some flying animals out of the sky with my mining-tool thing because they were too hard to scan and I wanted money so I shot them down and scanned their corpses.
- realized I was a cold-blooded killer (see above)
- found knowledge stones and monoliths that increased my knowledge of alien languages.
- met several aliens (I think there are three or four races you’ll meet; I’ve met two and learned of a third).
- used the words I’d learned of said languages, bartered with, given gifts to, and received gifts from said aliens
- pissed off sentry drone things by mining things on planets and then either: ran away from the sentries or shot them down.
- got into my spaceship to avoid the shitty weather of planets
- got into my spaceship to fly to waypoints on planets that would take more than three minutes to walk to.
- managed the shit out of my inventory, and struggled with which resources to keep and which to scuttle.
- flown off the surface of planets and then FLOWN TO ANOTHER GODDAMN PLANET AND LANDED ON IT.
- talked to aliens on space stations to trade with them and inquire about maybe trading ships for a sum. I haven’t traded for anyone’s ship yet because I’m holding out for something better. And they’re expensive.
I’ve probably missed a few things but those make up the bulk of what I’ve done. I’ll end by saying the following. No Man’s Sky is probably not the right game for people who are looking for a certainly finite experience with clear goals and paths and narratives. NMS indeed does have a light narrative of ancient alien mystery blah blah blah, and it does have goals, but it’s not some polished obvious journey. No Man’s Sky might be the right game for someone who is looking for a go-at-your-own-pace, use your imagination to fill in the gaps, make your own kind of fun, weird and meditative experience.
I’m enjoying it so far; it’s a game really up my alley. I think that’s due to my low/tempered expectations for the game, and my desire to play the occasional game rather unhurriedly, in little one and two hour chunks. I’ve been thinking about it a lot when I haven’t been playing it. The only other game this year which has given me a similar itch is Overwatch. This game might be the polar opposite of Overwatch.
Coming soon, chapter one of my journey through a lonely galaxy.