The uproar surrounding No Man’s Sky at launch in 2016 was that it promised so much and didn’t deliver. With 18 billion billion planets to discover, each with their own unique ecosystems and flora and fauna, the games potential was for unlimited exploration. Players salivated at the promise of discovering all those “procedurally generated” worlds, being the first one to set foot on a newly discovered planet or the first one to discover and name a new species. The players were meant to feel as they were boldly going where no one had ever gone before, to planets that looked like the poster art of a 70s sci-fi film. The expectations for the game were enormously high.
And for the first few hours it did feel great. You awake on a new planet with a broken ship. Your first task is acquiring the resources to get it up and running so you can get on your journey and see what more is out there. Finding and filling your ship and suits limited inventory slots with just the right resources was a challenge eagerly met. It all seemed exciting but strangely chilled with the trance background music and psychedelic colours. I remember entering a new planets atmosphere in my spacecraft for the first time and it was exhilarating. Who or what was I going to find? Would it be a hostile climate? Would I find any natives and would they be friendly? Would I by chance happen across another player despite the infinitesimally small probability?
However pretty quickly everything in No Man’s Sky started feeling suspiciously repetitive. There wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the planets. They either had flora or didn’t and for those with flora, the plants all looked similar just with different shades of garish colour. As a procedural game the plants and animals are made up of an infinite amount of variations connecting the various parts to create a new entity. However the 5th time you see a weird plant or animal cobbled together from the same parts, it starts to seem a bit dumb. Despite the pre-launch promise of never seeing the same thing twice, the buildings and alien races across planets were actually the same. Even the alien artifacts with mysterious origins looked and behaved in exactly the same way. The first time you come across an artifact its awesome. The 20th time yeah whatever. After a few hours into the game, players started to feel as if they’d been duped. All that planet hopping got tedious and for the price tag players wanted more.
As the No Man’s Sky novelty quickly wore off, Reddit discussions started filling up with all the promises that No Man’s Sky didn’t deliver. Players were pissed that they had purchased an essentially unfinished game with much of the marketed features not yet available. Perhaps the other lesson to be learned from No Man’s Sky was that size alone is not enough to sustain interest. Despite all that promised unlimited possibility, the players biggest complaint was that it was mundane. Granted there was the race to the centre of the universe but even that supposedly infinitely difficult challenge was quickly attained. The hostility toward the game became a crescendo. Hello Games went into lock down mode releasing only notes with its patches and fixes, no doubt waiting for the furious storm to end.
Despite the games crucifixion, it still acquired a fan base with some spending 100’s of hours playing, arguing that it was ok to be content with the “journey” rather than simply looking for action. They were the galactic botanists happy to catalog the plants, or the interstellar anthropologists compelled to learn an alien tongue. These players had no urge to race to whatever waited at the centre of the universe. For them No Man’s Sky provided a free-form discovery that allowed much time for some quiet self reflection, much like going on a really long simulated walk for some time to think.
Now one year on from the shit storm of controversy, is No Man’s Sky any closer to the game it should have been? In the year since the release developers have quietly poured back into the game adding a base-building system, the ability to acquire star freighters, a Path Finder update that brought ground vehicles and a photo mode. But overcoming first impressions has been a challenge for Hello Games and the question is whether enough water has passed under the bridge to draw back disenfranchised players again, and to give it another chance or whether its all been delivered a bit too late. With the Atlas Rises update due out this week we’re willing to give in another go. Let’s see how it goes.