I loaded up No Man’s Sky this morning for the first time in a month.
I had no idea what I was doing. I was on a planet. Looking for…something. I was about halfway through the main campaign of the game, if you can call it that. I didn’t really like the look of my ship. It was a weird boxy model where I would fall and take damage every time I got out of the cockpit. That part I remembered. Everything else was lost.
Time to start over.
No Man’s Sky doesn’t feature a New Game button. It doesn’t have a main menu. It doesn’t feature multiple save slots.
I deleted my save file, both from the local storage on the PS4 and my cloud-based PS Plus storage. I reloaded the game, and was greeted with a shiny new crater on a shiny new planet, and the cute little busted ship the game starts you out with.
I then remembered a weird quirk of the opening: it’s entirely possible to just walk right past the object that starts the story. In fact, on my first play I did just that for several hours. There’s a weird red orb near your ship at the start of the game, and if you don’t click on it…you never get the option to start the main campaign.
At least, I don’t think you do.
Heck, that weird red orb even gives you the option to turn off the quest markers and just explore the galaxy. You’ll be given instructions on how to repair your ship, and then you’re on your own. The tutorial phase of the game is clunky, even apart from the quirk of the orb. Every player starts with a crashed ship they have to repair in order to move on. Some prompts in the bottom right corner of the screen and a bunch of text in the menus walk the player through this process.
The resource that I needed to repair my final engine component just happened to be a five-minute real-time walk away from my ship.
Up until that point I was having fun. I shot things. I scanned things. I killed some robots. I explored a cave to gather resources. I found some animals. The mechanics are enjoyable.
And then I was informed I had to walk for five minutes across a largely featureless plane in order to get the Heridium I needed to fly my ship.
I begrudgingly complied. For a game where “anything” was promised…you actually just have to do the things the game wants you to do. Or, you’ll run out of resources and then slowly die.
No Man’s Sky is, at its core, a survival and crafting game. That’s fine!
Trouble is, it has no idea what makes pinnacle examples of that genre fun.
Many of its components are beautifully crafted. The controls are fun to use…but there aren’t any elaborate combat encounters to test your skill. The graphics are gorgeous, and it runs quite well on the PS4…but the procedural generation algorithm and limited pool of art assets result in every planet looking more or less the same.
Every planet has the same rocks. The same crystals. The same trees. Sometimes there will be a slightly random flower. The animals all look kind of samey…but occasionally there’s a horrifying lanky nightmare that’s more fun to try and forget than it is to discover.
The menu system is completely ripped off from Destiny. Straight up. Only they made it slower and less intuitive. Too much of the menu is covered with little bits of text designed to explain the menu, and it runs about 2/3rds as fast as it feels like it should.
The ship is fun to fly around. The conversations are sometimes interesting. the puzzles that you can find in installations or mysterious obelisks are really cool at first…until the moment you realize there are about 8 of them in the game.
For a game that took over 5 years to create, it feels like a game that took about 2 years to create. Even for a team as small as it had. Its biggest problem is this:
It doesn’t feel designed. At all. It has no design. It is missing design.
Design is often the difference between a good game and a bad game, and its one of the hardest disciplines in the industry. Even in a sandboxy survival/crafting game, design is tremendously important.
Minecraft is popular because it has good base design. All of its elements tie into other elements in a fluid and fun progression. You need this to make this to make this to build that. Etc. Same thing in the biggest survival games. There’s a natural progression from the smallest accomplishments to the biggest ones.
No Man’s Sky has no such flow. Many resource chains stop at the very bottom level. There’s nothing satisfying to build towards. The basic game loop revolves around meters that constantly deplete and are easy to refill with stuff that’s just lying around everywhere. That doesn’t provide a satisfying survival aspect; it just feels like busywork.
The upgrades have too much descriptive text, and names that sound the same. The inventory system is cumbersome, and getting space upgrades takes too long and relies too much on luck. The game has competent shooting and space combat mechanics…and no dungeons or elaborate space battles to fight in.
Desolation, dystopia, and nihilism pervade every aspect of the game. As my friend Andy said when we discussed it one day, “It sounds like the most meaningless game ever made.” That desolation is interesting to experience…for about an hour. And then there’s 30 more hours of game.
I’m not trying to argue that every video game has to be “fun.” Although I do enjoy “traditional” game experiences, in the last several years the art of video gaming has branched out to include all sorts of cool stuff. Emotional gravitas is tough to pull off in a game, but not impossible. Dear Esther is a pretty dark and morose experience, for example, but it still satisfied me with a breadth of emotions and wowed me with its visuals.
And it had a point to it beyond darkness.
No Man’s Sky feels like an hour of game design dressed up with an additional 30 hours of mechanics. I wish it had more stuff to do. I know that’s a typical complaint, but I think it highlights how important design is to a good game. Design should be a game’s invisible heartbeat, the pull that keeps you going, regardless of what type of experience the game provides. You should never find yourself thinking “Well, this is cumbersome. I don’t want to play any more.”
Part of me still wants to finish No Man’s Sky, if only to see more of its lush visuals. We’ll never know what happened behind the scenes on this game, most likely. We’ll never know the reason for all the grand promises and all the half-baked mechanics in the game. People are finding portals that don’t work and factions that don’t do anything. Did Hello Games simply run out of time? Unlikely. They had five years to make this. Did they shoot for the stars (hah!) and fall short? I might buy that….except the actual design work under the hood here is pretty simple.
My gut instinct is that all the work on this game went into building the mechanics and technology, and the strange online component, and that almost no time was spent on anything else. They thought that would be enough. The game sold pretty well on the promise of its endless worlds and its beautiful vistas, but now the internet has mostly turned on it. Unlike other games that experience fan backlash (like Bioshock Infinite) I think No Man’s Sky might actually deserve it. Sadly. It’s about 80 percent of a design document away from being an amazing experience. It needed some more writing before they dove into making a game.
No Man’s Sky is a compelling case-study on how not to design a survival game, and in that sense it’s worth checking out. And boy is it pretty and surreal and nihilistic. If you love colorful graphics and space, you might totally dig it. But it achieves almost nothing else.