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Your own, personal star trek is too dull

For the longest time, I convinced myself that wanting to like No Man’s Sky was enough. It wasn’t until the massive No Man’s Sky Next update came along that I realized I was fooling myself.

A brief history lesson may be in order: No Man’s Sky was first announced in a hype-heavy, detail-light trailer released at the end of 2013. It was to be a PlayStation exclusive that would let players fly their way through a galaxy made up of quadrillions of stars, each orbited by fully realized, randomly generated planets.

For the next two years, Sony’s hype machine went into overdrive as it tried to match player expectations of what the game could be. Hello Games, the developer, made a bunch of promises about the kind of experience the finished work would deliver, but its eventual 2016 release fell short. Features were missing and the game felt empty. Hype, unfulfilled.

(Here’s my own early hours review for Mashable, published exactly two years ago, to the day.)

For exploration and discovery-minded video game fans like me, it’s hard not to fall for the basic pitch here: There’s a whole galaxy spread out in front of you, consisting of billions upon billions of stars and planets. You have a spaceship, a spacesuit, and total freedom to do what you want — provided you’re willing to put in the work to keep all your gear fueled and operational, of course.

All of those locations are fully realized physical spaces, though they’re randomly generated upon discovery. Solar systems have their own plant and animal life, weather systems, alien structures, and ports of call. Pirates and fleets of trading ships roam the spaceways.

You can do anything and everything, or nothing at all. Want to build a base and just make a single solar system your home? Go for it. Explore endlessly, on your own, personal version of Star Trek? Have at it. Push toward the center of the galaxy, tug on the threads of a story, hunt down pirates, trade goods from system to system — it’s all possible.

There’s just one missing piece: emotional depth. It’s a product of the way No Man’s Sky is designed. In a game that’s built around using math to randomly generate an effectively infinite number of exploration possibilities, there’s not a whole lot of room for scripted nuance.

There’s just one missing piece: emotional depth.

The engagingly written story can only do so much. While there’s an intriguing puzzle to be pieced together as you chase down the source of a mysterious signal, the story’s moment-to-moment action typically consists of visiting some randomly generated type of location and jumping through the proverbial hoops there — the same hoops you’d find at any other location of that type — before the next shred of exposition is shared.

That’s just for those who chase the story. Strip that flimsy structure away and there’s nothing left to guide you through the randomness except your own imagination. And that’s where No Man’s Sky breaks for me.

Since the Next update dropped in July, I’ve gotten into the habit of wandering around on social media in search of cool No Man’s Sky stories. It’s turned out to be a great platform for creating moments of what developers and dedicated gamers commonly refer to as “emergent gameplay.”

Image: damon beres / mashable

This is just a buzz-y way of describing a game that’s built around independent, overlapping systems that, when they collide, create unexpected results. When your Grand Theft Auto chase is derailed by a 15-car pileup you had nothing to do with or your sneaky Far Cry 5 outpost infiltration goes belly-up when a bear suddenly wanders into the scene, that’s emergent gameplay.

No Man’s Sky hinges in large part on players drawing satisfaction from the naturally occurring stories that play out when different systems interact. The game’s core mechanics — mining resources, fueling equipment, crafting and trading supplies, and space combat — aren’t a draw unto themselves. In fact, they’re all rather dull.

The magic of No Man’s Sky only happens when your mind is open to letting it happen. And even then, finding the “fun” in those situations isn’t about the mechanical pleasure of playing a video game. It’s about the intangible way those moments light up your imagination.

That’s how we get stuff like this tremendous Twitter thread:

It would be easy to say here that No Man’s Sky doesn’t land for me because I lack imagination. But I don’t think that’s it, exactly. My personal interests in gaming tend to lean toward experiences capable of providing emergent moments. Far Cry, GTA, Minecraft, the Just Cause games— these are all some of my favorites.

No Man’s Sky stands apart from the rest, for me, because there’s nothing to sew those emergent moments together. Vast stretches of my time playing — many tens of hours before Next launched and close to 20 since — have been dull and grind-y. 

Touching down on a new planet for the first time always brings a momentary thrill as you see the latest crop of alien vistas served up by the game’s procedural generation engine, but it’s too fleeting. And once you step out of your ship to explore on foot, the same drudgery awaits: More mining, more visiting some abandoned manufacturing facility or alien being’s hideaway.

It’s easy to lose yourself to that rhythm. I haven’t exactly hated my time with Next. Mostly, I’ve just been indifferent. When I’m in the moment of playing it, I get completely caught up in whatever task I’ve set for myself. But when I finally force myself to stand up and break away, I’m often left clueless as to where all those hours went.

Image: damon beres / mashable

It comes down to a question of personal taste. If you live for games that leave you with memorable stories, few are more open-ended and unpredictable than No Man’s Sky. 

I don’t think I’ve ever had such an easy time losing myself inside a game, just because you never know what’s at the end of the next space flight. The thrill of discovery might be fleeting, but once you fall into a rhythm with the resource loop of keeping your gear fueled, new discoveries happen at a regular, constant pace.

The problem for me is there’s nothing beneath the surface. Your discoveries are merely frozen moments. A powerful Photo Mode tool allows you to capture those moments easily — and that, in turn, has led to some incredible virtual space photography on social media — but there’s little in terms of actual play keeping me invested.

That’s the make-or-break core of No Man’s Sky. If the spaces in-between the good stuff don’t keep you on the hook, it all falls apart. Those dull moments of mining and flying around featureless landscapes for minutes at a time are downright sleep-inducing unless you’ve got the mindset for it.

I don’t. Maybe I lack imagination. Maybe the game just doesn’t fire mine up as effectively as I’d like it to. But with the launch of Next, I’m finally able to admit: No Man’s Sky isn’t for me.

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