Video game immersion is a delicate balancing act. Too much direction from the game disrupts the storyline while not enough leaves players confused and frustrated; too great a focus on technical creativity can limit gameplay but if there’s not enough focus, the game gets uninteresting. Immersion is a dilemma few games have truly solved, but not for lack of trying, and, as this year’s hotly anticipated No Man’s Sky demonstrates, not for lack of ingenuity.
No Man’s Sky puts the player at the helm of a solitary starship and tells them to explore a seemingly infinite number of planets. In a seamless sequence, players direct their ship into the atmosphere, choose a landing site, set down, and emerge to chart the world. Each planet is entirely unique in every respect: flora, fauna, topography, geology, meteorology. If this is getting too scientific, it’s only because the game’s main goal is to discover and categorize as many planets as possible. The purpose of this categorization is unexplained and unnecessary; the scientific thrill and frightened excitement of being alone to chart the unknown is purpose enough.
At least, that was the experience gamers were promised in the build up to No Man’s Sky. The game had everything going for it: hype, stunning visuals, and unprecedented immersive elements in a practically unlimited universe. But only a month after its release, reviewers and players alike have complained of unfulfilled promises, frustrating gameplay, and the worst thing in the gaming world: boredom. So far, many think No Man’s Sky is fated to leave, as an insignificant legacy, a little bump of disappointment in the gaming world — that it’s fated to become another stumbling block for the “artsy” games of the future.But for each of these lessons in What Not To Do, No Man’s Sky also presents ideas that are ambitious enough to leave lasting impressions on the future of game making.
I must respectfully disagree. Most of the complaints about No Man’s Sky are valid: the gameplay is awkward and non-intuitive, there’s not enough narrative, consequences for poor decision-making aren’t severe enough to matter, and it’s hard for gamers to build a real community around the game. But for each of these lessons in What Not To Do, No Man’s Sky also presents ideas that are ambitious enough to leave lasting impressions on the future of game making.
No Man’s Sky’s biggest claim to fame is its seeming infinite-ness. Plenty of players have tried to mathematically grasp the game’s scope through everything from numbering the planets (counts vary between 5 and 16 quintillion) to estimating the time it would take to catalogue each one, which is the game’s apparent goal. One of the game’s creators, Sean Murray, calculated that our own sun would die out before the game’s universe was fully explored.
This system isn’t perfect — there are plenty of gameplay issues, the most significant of which are tied to the scope of its virtual universe. Although each planet is unique and many host intelligent life, player interactions with these characters are limited to trading, fighting, or ignoring. The scenarios that involve player interactions with alien races are underwhelmingly repetitive in comparison to the visual variety of the enchanting terrains.
Furthermore, there’s little that connects each planet to the others. 16 quintillion separate worlds sounds great in theory, but it’s isolating in practice. Players can upload the planets they chart to the game’s shared cloud for others to potentially land on, but the chances of that are, well, 1-in-16 quintillion. And even if two players are on the same world at the same time, they cannot see, much less interact with each other. It’s an incongruous and self-contradicting combination of single and multi-player dynamics.
But for all of its practical issues, this concept of unconquerable infinity ultimately sets No Man’s Sky apart. Inherent in the idea of any game is the goal of winning. You play to accomplish something: outlasting the enemy, surviving the elements, battling to victory, collecting the items, leveling up. The point of any video game is, traditionally, to beat the game. But No Man’s Sky is inherently unbeatable. Players can play and finish a primary plotline directed by an enigmatic being called ATLAS, but in terms of true completion, no one will ever be able to catalog all of the worlds in this virtual universe.
The incentive for players to keep playing isn’t a sense of accomplishment — it’s a sense of wonder. From this perspective, No Man’s Sky is truly one of the most artistic games ever made. The point of all good art is not just to look beautiful, which No Man’s Sky certainly does, but to also to cultivate a feeling for its participants. The feeling that permeates this deeply scientific, analytical game is a spirit of awe at the universe’s natural beauty. The goal is greater than just cataloging lists of elements and lifeforms — it’s about caring for these worlds, being amazed by them, and wanting to understand and steward them.
It would be very easy, and very enticing, to set up a game like No Man’s Sky as an adventure in conquering: to get as many worlds and resources as you can and to use as much as you can. No Man’s Sky instead proposes stewardship as an incentive for playing. Stewardship should be humanity’s natural position towards the created universe. We were made first and foremost to be gardeners, and then also given responsibility for all living things on our planet.
That’s a big philosophical leap for players, bigger still because the idea has stuck despite the difficulties of gameplay. Those wrinkles will have to be smoothed over if another game with the same spirit is going to have the commercial success No Man’s Sky hoped for. But the idea is out there now, and future games will undoubtedly, bit by bit, deliver on it.