No Man’s Sky: The Magic Behind the Mundane

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If you’ve been tuned into the conversation around No Man’s Sky for the past few weeks, you’ve likely seen disappointment and anger mix with excitement and wonder. Any game selling itself on exploring an endless number of planets was bound to be divisive; that it didn’t quite hit the lofty goals mentioned in interviews or shown in trailers dropped a match onto its powder keg, prompting Twitter and YouTube to light up with accusations of deception. If you divorce the game from this clash between fans and developers, you’re left with something much more mundane: No Man’s Sky is essentially about gathering resources necessary to travel somewhere else, taking the necessary precautions to stay alive along the way.

The cycle always begins as soon as you land on a planet, preferably near a conveniently marked point of interest. This planet could be blue, red, covered in snow or raining acid, but that rarely affects your routine. You harvest a collection of minerals that power your toys, build new upgrades and fetch a high price at the intergalactic market, haphazardly managed in an inventory that never holds enough. Maybe you’ll seek out monoliths that teach you alien languages and barter with a robot, but it isn’t long before you realize these “points of interest” are nearly identical on every floating rock. You’ll snap a few pictures of the wildlife, maybe even pick the occasional fight with flying sentries who keep watch over the minerals you just mined, then climb back in your ship and plant your flag on the world next door.

NoMansSky2If this core loop sounds like it would get dull and repetitive after the fourth or fifth time, you’re absolutely right. No Man’s Sky has a story to instill some purpose beyond “get to the center of the universe,” but when it only changes a few lines of text and your current goal, it only puts in perspective how little your moment-to-moment actions matter. A randomly generated planet is still a randomly generated planet, built with certain pieces that reappear with even more regularity than your average chain restaurant. Once you can spot the shared formula, you’ll never forget it, and what was once a journey into the unknown turns into a decidedly predictable road trip through space.

Given No Man Sky’s precipitous drop into the mundane, why do I find myself returning again and again? Though I’m hardly enraptured by the identical space stations or braindead multiple-choice questions, the simplistic routines of navigating planets leave plenty of brainpower for other tasks. My collection of podcasts slowly replaced the soundtrack (Sorry, 65daysofstatic!), and since space is a more interesting backdrop for a conversation than Twitter, I didn’t feel any need to move on. Having a goal outside of the game itself also shifted my entire approach: I stopped gunning my way toward each new marker, sat back and just enjoyed the adventures I happened upon. Imagine blindly thrusting your finger in the air, flying to the nearest star in that direction, and you’ll start to get the picture.

This laissez-faire approach to the skies also leaves you primed for that rare occasion when the universe coughs up something truly spectacular. I was minding my own business, collecting more carbon and menacing some poor rodent of a creature, when I spotted what looked like a castle in the distance. My binoculars revealed that the structure was actually quite small, but that wouldn’t deter me, nor would the constant acidic rain eating through my suit: none of my other planets housed anything this anachronistic, and I was dying to sprint inside.

NoMansSky3I bounded up and down several ridges, boosted across gaps and even took a nasty spill before I reached this out-of-place edifice, but it was worth the effort. What was once a bridge (leading to an even more impressive structure, no doubt) had collapsed and split in half, acting as a makeshift, uneven ramp. In its current condition, the ornate ramp fed into a guard tower, sporting an exposed slab of alien language off to the side. While it didn’t quite meet the lofty expectations formed through my viewfinder, that no longer mattered: through happenstance, curiosity and my haphazard sprinting technique, I had a moment all to myself, a story that didn’t feel like it was the product of any marketing or prior expectations. Though this universe was ostensibly shared by millions of fellow invisible explorers, wading through so many planets that there are bound to be repeats, my journey and destination truly felt like my own.

Moments like that made me step back and reexamine my earlier dismissal of No Man’s Sky’s scale. Even if the carbon-copy landmarks detract from the individuality of each system, I can’t help but marvel at the sheer scope of this virtual starscape. Every time I boot up the game, I zoom past billions of lit-up dots before settling on whatever comparatively diminutive chunk of space I’m inhabiting. Every hyperdrive jump from one dot to another plays into the emotions I felt when I sat on my bed as a kid, conjuring up locations I would love to visit with a notebook and a pen. It is mathematically impossible for me to visit each and every one of this game’s planets within my lifetime, but this persistent movement into the unknown, knowing a whole new world is a few minutes away, soothingly scratches that childhood itch.

This feat of genuine surprise nestled between No Man’s Sky’s layers of mediocrity doesn’t fit on the back of a box or within the 140 characters of a tweet. Sure, you can post photos of that one excellent discovery you made, but that doesn’t quite capture the way it shook you out of your cycle and shouted “You found something few will ever see in their lifetimes. Isn’t that awesome?” I don’t begrudge anyone who would rather spend their time anywhere but mining carbon, though something magical awaits those who can handle the drudgery.

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