No Man’s Sky is quite the heat magnet. Indeed, there’s very little need for yet another article from some ripped-off geek-boy registering his disappointment. Something else has even reared its head in backlash, inevitable and irritating in its aloof judgement. I’m seeing so much defence of the game in a wholly uncritical, “well-I-still-like-it”, way that I can’t take it anymore. Sean Murray’s probably relying on the defenders of the game to keep his misfired “labour of love” on track, and much of the hate has slipped into focused obscurity as gamers, one by one, give up on the screensaver that is No Man’s Sky.
The game, I have come to realise, not only deserves every stroke of ire that falls its way, but has in fact gotten off lightly. I have genuinely come to believe that it may be the worst video game ever made, but that requires a lot of explanation and background to sound reasonable. I think I can make a case that, if not completely compelling, is at least interesting and valid. Never before has a game had this much of an effect on my entire perspective of the medium – for the negative, that is. It’s undone the positive work which the likes of Final Fantasy VII, Braid and Red Dead Redemption had carefully built, leaving me feeling cold and contemptuous towards my lifelong love of gaming.
All too often I’ve seen the more forgiving refer to it as “still a good game”, despite its flaws. This is not true. It’s clunky, badly designed beyond acceptable levels, offers no meaningful experience and has none of the elements that make a game even “okay”, let alone “good”. Allow me to compare and contrast to help illustrate my view. I recently replayed Rockstar’s oft-overlooked Bully (or, for certain regions, Canis Canem Edit).
Bully is an average game. It brought many new and unique ideas to a conventional setting, botching a lot of their potential along the way with poor implementation. Still an immensely fun sandbox in its variety, it was let down largely by uncomfortable controls and an almost complete lack of depth.
Uncomfortable controls and a complete lack of depth are only the beginning of No Man’s Sky‘s failure, even managing to make a sandbox of universal scope devoid of fun. While Bully will at least have you performing a range of different, mostly dodgy, tasks, No Man’s Sky is only able to provide around four – all of which are more than dodgy. As such, monotony punctuates every moment as a constant reminder of what could have been – countless concepts both obvious to everyone and not particularly difficult to include.
Bully will at least spice up its shallow combat mechanics with new combinations and interesting weapons. Hello Games would instead rather palm us off with an aesthetic upgrade and meaningless progression, made worse since it never culminates in anything more than an enemy’s health bar lowering slightly quicker. How dare they think that a mere three differing enemy variants is cricket? There are more individual blocks in Tetris, and when put like that I think it’s tough to see No Man’s Sky‘s combat as anything other than a tasteless joke. You can apply the same criticism to every aspect of the game too.
With not one original idea in there beyond scope, what exactly is it about this game that i’m supposed to think is “still good”? Why, when Star Trek Online is available for free, would I be satisfied with only three separate races to interact with? Even their small trio of lazy cultures are derivative and weak; one’s the Borg, one’s the Klingons and the others are Ferengi. What’s that all about then? Why are they allowed to get away with that? Star Trek Online is actually a frustratingly poor release, but it still comes out better than No Man’s Sky under any intelligent analysis.
Let me explain my comparison of the game to a screensaver. When I was growing up in the 90s, most young lads like me were into a good screensaver. They would go off on one, creating their own patterns procedurally and entertaining you with their predictable chaos. That is, for a minute or two. No Man’s Sky has undoubtedly created some beautiful worlds and vistas to take in, but what’s the point when it starts repeating itself so starkly? Of course, I expected limitations and repetition – i’m not that naive. However, over the course of my experience, I visited close to a hundred different heavenly bodies – all of which drew from the same five or six ideas. Compare that to the amount of distinctly designed levels or sections in even average games and you’re sure to find that the limitations of No Man’s Sky go far beyond understandable and all the way into outright insult.
Weaving lovely little areas that quickly make you move on from their simplicity, all that remains is a grind. You carve away at glitched deposits to keep gauges high enough to survive, you exploit mistakes in design to traverse the area more smoothly and you put things on top of other things to make another thing that’s slightly better. What happens if you let those guages drop anyway? Since, when you die, you just appear on a station close to your grave (where you can retrieve all lost items) I think it’s safe to say: FUCKING NOTHING.
Don’t you want more from a game to consider it good? Wouldn’t you rather you could unearth even the suggestion of challenge? Shouldn’t progression be meaningful? This is best seen in quality RPGs, but you can even see it in more mainstream titles like Arkham City, in which your playable avatar is a far deeper gameplay element by its conclusion. The finest examples, like the work of Jonathan Blow, can even progress the mind of the player itself (if one’s willing to take the leaps his puzzles imply). When playing No Man’s Sky, progression becomes simply gaining bigger gauges that deplete slower and practically nothing else. This I could accept, if I was rewarded with some philosophical nugget or intriguing development that helps build the world around me.
With that quietly jettisoned, i’m left in a vast universe – less imaginative than the musings of a child – with my poor imitation Star Trek action figures; all of whom speak the same handful of phrases and offer nothing of any depth. What I realised, making me see the true plummet of the game’s misstep, is that this summary is dangerously close to one of the reality we all live, but i’ll let that simmer without too much further exposition.
The pointless hatchet job that disappointed us all did have one good effect. It made me more passionate for that reality, and the beauties it holds throughout its own vistas. The flip-side to that is how I now see video games. Where I once saw a glorious artistic medium that could only evolve to new heights, I now see distraction and empty, aimless time-wasting.
That’s an exaggeration, of course. I still consider Red Dead Redemption as refined and beautiful as revered symphonies, cinema and sonnets – even Sean Murray can’t take that away from me. Perhaps, with its sequel having just been announced, Rockstar can lift their mighty sword aloft and cut me free of this cynicism. Indeed, I hope they can. Maybe Final Fantasy XV will be the one to turn the tide, who knows.
All I know is, until something peels back the uncaring damage of No Man’s Sky, I can’t help but feel dubious about games for the first time in twenty-six years. Even Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 could be shrugged off like the idiotic grunts of a bully. I put it to you that Sean Murray and his team are worse – that group of friends who took you in and made you feel confident and comfortable before you overhear one day that they were only ever laughing at you. The game, for me, has no redemption, but can Red Dead and its ilk eventually restore the glory of interactive media?