[Originally published August 13, 2016]
There are two types of goals: those given to us, and those we set for ourselves. This is one of those rare instances where a binary ‘there are two types of X’ statements holds true, and it’s important when it comes to our understanding of No Man’s Sky; or, rather, it’s important to our understanding of why No Man’s Sky lacks the potential for longevity.
Our given goals are:
1) Make it to the center of the universe,
2) follow the path of The Atlas.
These goals don’t matter. AND I HAVE TO SPOIL THE GAME TO TELL YOU WHY, BUT DON’T WORRY Y’ALL IT’S NOT EVEN THAT BIG A DEAL ANYWAYS SO JUST CHILL. You’ve been warned.
When the player reaches one of these destinations, they can either reset the universe and begin anew, or continue exploring the current universe. They even make cheeky reference to the whole experience simply being a simulation going through infinite, insignificant loops. It’s a fun philosophical question about the nature of reality/existence, but – like many interesting philosophical problems – it’s a question of redundant answers. Both options lead to more exploration of a functionally infinite universe. Either way, the core gameplay loop remains unchanged.
And that’s why No Man’s Sky is fundamentally a game about self-set goals.
When the narrative makes a redundancy of itself, we must find refuge in the realm of the mechanic. This is not a slight against No Man’s Sky – this was, in fact, Hello Games’ long-stated goal. Self-set goals exist in the mechanical realm, and are therefore bound by its limitations. We are bound to the possibilities of action and interaction, and all that they entail. Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the way of interaction in No Man’s Sky. Even if Hello Games chooses to clarify the specifics of a multiplayer aspect, the game remains impossibly huge. So that leaves us with the ‘action’ as the guiding term for our self-set goals.
Let’s look at the verbage in this game, yes? You can:
– shoot while flying
– move around
– learn language
– learn new blueprints
That’s 10 verbs, which – at first blush – seems like a decent vocabulary of design. But let’s look a little closer. 2 of those words describe ‘locomotion,’ which is more of a utility than anything else. It doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room, as far as execution. It’s just a function of mobility, rather than gameplay. So setting locomotive goals is difficult – if not impossible – especially given the scale of the world. It’s a barebones, A-B understanding of locomotive design, and it does nothing to intertwine itself amongst the other supporting mechanics of No Man’s Sky. This leaves us with 9 verbs (fly and move become ‘locomote’), and that 9thword doesn’t actually work for goal-setting.
So we’re at 8 verbs now.
Another two can fit under ‘combat’ – shoot/shootflying – but, as I’m sure you’re aware, the combat in this game is a real hot sack of trash. It’s not a huge problem – sure – but only in that it’s an annoyance you can circumvent and ignore. Maybe somebody out there really likes the combat in No Man’s Sky, and to that person I say: I’m glad you’re happy.
There is no ‘better’ at combat. There is no dynamism. Encounters don’t grab me. I have no incentive to set combat goals, because I want to avoid combat as much as humanly possible.
And then there were 6.
‘Analyze’ fares a little better than the previous verbs, though it has its restrictions as well. I put ‘analyze’ in scare quotes because – despite No Man’s Sky’s language – what you are actually doing is recording. When you ‘analyze’ something, you broaden your understanding of its traits/behaviors. When you record, you take down a list of those traits/behaviors, and then you file that information away. Taking record is a prelude to analysis, and it’s all we’re ever able to do. Another A-B transaction. Point. Shoot. Done. If recording all life is your thing, that’s fine. My point, however, is that this is another fairly one-note process that only allows for one self-set goal. Hardly dynamic, I would say.
For the record: feeding animals doesn’t fall under the ‘analysis’ banner – you don’t actually have to analyze this creatures in order to feed them. Additionally, you feed them so that they may track down minerals (or just to see that cute smiley face, which, alright – fine), which is why this function falls under the last ‘verb banner:’
This is what every remaining verb boils down to. Crafting. Learning languages. Learning blueprints. Mining. Buying/Selling. The end is just ‘more stuff’ – acquisition. You can’t ‘do’ anything with the stuff, however, other than buff out the supporting mechanics. You can make combat easier. You can make your ship go faster. You can… go and get more stuff again, I suppose. In No Man’s Sky, acquisition is an A-B process where ‘B’ is the other A-B processes. It’s not a cycle, it’s an end – which is a huge problem when the entire point of your game is that it doesn’t end.
“Acquisition.” Our final verb. And it barely gives us something to do.
A lot of folks will want to compare this game to Minecraft, and – while I understand why – I think that’s an inaccurate comparison. In Minecraft, the landscape is the resource, whereas No Man’s Sky features landscapes speckled with resources. It’s a very small distinction, but it’s an important one – and it’s why I actually think Fallout 4 makes for a better comparison. You pick up items (my god, so many items) that litter a landscape – albeit, one that’s not procedurally generated – BUT, in addition to using them to bolster the supporting mechanics, you also use them all to craft a base. This feature has its restrictions, but it allows for the player to apply themselves in a way that escapes the boundaries of A-B goal-setting. Now, you can do more with the stuff than simply ‘hold on to it.’ You can make a variety of unique self-set goals, thereby elevating the inclusion of ‘stuff’ above A-B systems. It’s not the first game of its kind to do so – and it won’t be the last – but it’s a surprisingly apt comparison.
Listen, I like No Man’s Sky. I think. But this game isn’t ‘the never-ending game.’ It won’t be. It can’t be; and not just because a ‘never-ending game’ is a fundamentally impossible concept. No Man’s Sky is a game that ‘ends’ rapidly – it’s given goals don’t matter, and it so tightly restricts the player’s ability to set their own goals that there are almost no goals to be found at all.
No Man’s Sky is over as soon as it begins – a vast universe with absolutely nothing to do.