Quite often when we talk about the size of a game, it’s in terms of limits and boundaries; how long it takes to walk across the map, how many quest markers there are, or how many bytes it takes up on a disc. Percentage trackers for space, story, and scope.
No Man’s Sky – Hello Games’ sci-fi exploration title – is big, but not by any metric you know. It tackles some heavy issues about self-awareness and faith, elegantly making them tangible through the sheer size of its galaxy. Gameplay systems and technical issues work against those grander metaphors however, making it impossible to see the forest for the trees.
There’s a triptych of misunderstanding surrounding No Man’s Sky – the game the developers created, what Sony marketed it as, and what fans wanted it to be. Forget all that. No Man’s Sky is a procedurally generated survival game. To simply gather it under that one umbrella however, is doing it a disservice, and deflecting its other achievements.
You’ll begin on a random planet – one of 18 quintillion – and from there you’ll have to repair your crashed ship. To do so you’ll need to collect oxides, isotopes, and silicates from trees and rocks. You combine these ingredients into materials, and then into functional technology.
Your overarching goal? Reach the centre of the galaxy, jumping from system-to-system with your ship’s hyperdrive. Each solar system, planet, and moon in No Man’s Sky is massive in terms of physical size and space between them – so much so that it’s a physical impossibility for any one player to see it all. No Man’s Sky makes you feel small and insignificant, a feat that I can’t attribute to any other game in existence. It captures the isolation of being on the frontier of the unknown, but It also mirrors the anxieties we face when coming to grips with our own existence.
Stitching your planet-hopping adventures together is an enigmatic being called Atlas. Long abandoned space stations dedicated to it litter the cosmos, the interiors more akin to temples and places of worship, than rigorous academia. Your interactions with this entity take on a spiritual tone, as your character talks about navigating paths constructed by something far larger than themselves. It elegantly reflects the comfort that some find in religion, and also provides the game with some much-needed direction.
Roadblocks to your journey come in several different forms. Planets can either have hostile environments – extreme heat, freezing temperatures, or high radiation – or robot guardians that protect valuable resources. To tackle the former, you’ll need to manage your Exosuit’s life-support and shielding systems. For the latter, you’ll equip different weapon mods to your Multi-Tool, like grenade launchers or shotgun blasts.
But the largest opposing force to your journey – both physical, and in some cases spiritual – is the way you interact with these systems. Collecting materials requires you to manage a woefully small inventory. Maintaining your shields or other life-support modules transforms you into a space-age stoker, feeding resources into bottomless furnaces. If you allow yourself to become consumed by these elements, then No Man’s Sky becomes a checklist of tasks you can never quite fulfil.
Presentation and technical problems also shatter much of the illusion. My first jump to faster-than-light speeds wasn’t met with trepidation and excitement; instead it was anger, as the game crashed. Some environments are clearly more taxing on the PS4’s architecture than others, as the frame rate dips and stutters. Interactions with alien species are limited to a handful of conversations, which are repeated ad nauseam.
But that’s also the point of these systems and meters, these screaming children vying for your attention, these scripted interactions. They’re a known, comfortable quality – the most gamey thing about No Man’s Sky. They exist to ground you, a familiar routine, so you don’t become completely overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe before you. The quality of them however make such a large game feel incredibly small.
There’s something meditative and introspective about No Man’s Sky. It’s size and scope elicits feelings of wonder and irrelevance in equal measure, creating metaphors from calculus and code. Those feelings are savagely curtailed by oppressive systems that transform it into something smaller: a videogame.