Think pieces on No Man’s Sky seem to be almost as abundant as plutonium these days. The hype. The disappointment. The “broken promises.” The rush of individuals trying to explain what it all “means.”
If you’re interested in broad commentary, Superbunnyhop, Rock Paper Shotgun, and Errant Signal all, I think, have useful perspectives on it. But when I see a game that seems to be stumbling, I like to see what I can learn from it.
My own pleasure level with the game pings right around the midpoint. Like some of the commentariat, I’ve enjoyed the zone-out / zen quality to the game, and I don’t feel lied to or let down. I was probably a bit on board the hype train, but it’s not some great injustice that the game didn’t fulfill its bombast. That’s okay. It’s still fun for what it is.
However, I bounced off of NMS. Dipped in, saw the appeal, and moved on. This is especially weird because I tend to be very exploration focused in my games, and if there’s one rush that NMS undeniably gives in greater doses than any others, it’s the thrill of discovery and the infinite new horizons that await.
The problem for me – and likely for at least some others – is that the discoveries are pretty meaningless. Each planet is a slight variation on the theme of “consume a resource you find to keep your meters high enough.” The resources are the same. The meters aren’t distinguished. The universe of No Man’s Sky has variety, but it’s like the variety of the sky colors or the mushroom plants or the palm trees – it’s aesthetic variety. It’s the 21st century equivalent of a palette swap.
This causes NMS to fail on the level of fantasy. I don’t feel like an explorer discovering new things, I feel like a bureaucrat cataloging slight variations on the same basic things. The discoveries I make have little distinction, and little meaning. The amazing vistas of these worlds are devoid of mechanical grist. It’s too smooth, too slick, without much to hang your “this is a distinct experience” hat on. As a result, it feels samey, for all its variety. My exploration doesn’t change anything.
I don’t think it’d be too extraordinarily difficult to improve on this, ever-so-slightly. We have complex systems, we just need to add some more dimension to how they interact with each other and a bit more variety in what they can affect. What if, for instance, we make the aliens a bit more complex? Say we change the algorithm at the game’s start slightly to have a more even balance of alien races in your starting region. Then, we differentiate them. They could ask for different resources, have different goals, and have active agendas on the various planets you visit. The gek, for instance, might seek greater and more powerful starship weapons for their impending conquest. Change some of their requests to things that starship weapons need; change some of their rewards to starship weapon plans. As your standing increased with them, the universe could be filled with more powerful gek starships (perhaps protecting you as they destroy others). Planets with the gek might be rich in resources that the gek are specifically pursuing (a little algorithm change). Finding a new planet rich in Thamium-9 plants might be a sure sign for a clever player that the gek either are here or will be eager to come. Perhaps if you gave the gek information on the location of this new planet, they’d become more powerful and more common as you approach the heart of the galaxy. You’d be welcomed. Your discoveries mentioned.
If you want to go even farther, you could have some of the ruins or destroyed bases or downed starships be victims of the gek’s attacks – audio logs that describe what your earstwhile allies have been doing.
Allying with the gek (instead of some other race) would then be a choice with ramifications, a choice that influenced your playthrough of the game and made it different! And a little algorithm tweak and some new dialogue shouldn’t be a MAJOR timesink, right?
Anyway, for all I know, Hello Games wanted NMS to be chill and zen-y, a vaporwave ambience-creator for folks to get high and tool around on. They absolutely accomplished that, and it’s no small feat for a very small team. But, if I were a devil on Sean Murray’s shoulders, that’s what I’d be whispering in his ears.