No Man’s Sky is big. Like, really big.
But its vastness isn’t designed in a way that really guides, or even helps, the player. No Man’s Sky seems to seed certain story-centric items at regular intervals depending on your decisions, but the planets you encounter and the items you find feel completely random. You can’t react to the hand of an invisible creator who is treating you as a video game hero due to the fact that the hand created the rules by which the world would be created, but not the world itself.
God, as Al Pacino once so lovingly pointed out, is an absentee landlord.
Why is this so comforting?
With so much to do, and so many of the world’s planets feeling unformed if not completely unimportant, you don’t have to do much of anything. There are no hints at what planets are worth your time, and which aren’t. When nothing is special, everything is. We’ve been force-fed power fantasies for so long that this relentless indifference feels like profundity.
The other aliens you meet don’t seem to care about your struggle to survive, much less your goal to get to the middle of the galaxy. I’m just another random life-form hanging out outside the office on these space stations, trying to get a good price on a beat up RV with plenty of storage. I’m a space bum begging for change to get back home.
“I know three words of your language,” I try to tell them. “And your ship has like 24 slots. Would you take 900,000 units for it?”
Sometimes it works out OK, but mostly they don’t care about me or my struggles. That’s fine.
I’m so used to the Ubisoft-style games where each area has a long list of collectibles and side quests that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to play a game that’s actually epic without the tyranny of the ever-updated “percentage completed” screen. You’ll never run out of things to see in No Man’s Sky, which makes is easy to take off from a planet without scanning all the aliens or exploring every inch. If you’ve ever felt compulsive about your need to see every bit of a level before leaving it behind, No Man’s Sky feels like a gentle form of therapy. You know completion is impossible before you even begin.
I’ve often landed on a planet only to look around, decide that I don’t like the looks of any of the animals or mineral deposits, and take right back off and try again. I judge every planet in No Man’s Sky by its amount of gold and the derpiness of the fauna. I like my planets to have huge mounds of gold and four-legged creatures that look like evolution punched them in the gut.
I’m over a dozen hours in the game and I still don’t know what an Atlas Pass is, or how to get one. I’ve often encountered locked doors that require an Atlas Pass to open. I would take this fact as evidence that the game wants me to drop everything else until I figure out the Atlas Pass mystery and get whatever goodies are hiding behind the door, but No Man’s Sky shrugs at such obvious motivations. I’ll figure it out, eventually, and will find other opportunities to upgrade my gear.
This is part of the reason I find the “addictive boredom” of the game so compelling. “We could do the same calculus with film or music or, increasingly, television – you simply have no chance of seeing even most of what exists,” an NPR story stated back in 2011, discussing books. “Statistically speaking, you will die having missed almost everything.” As life goes, so goes No Man’s Sky. So you might as well take a deep breath and enjoy that one planet with the yellow skies and floating islands called “TurdFartia.”
You do not have to track down all the thumbwhistles in each area, nor is there a faction rating that could keep you locked in one part of the game until you gain control. You don’t have to track down the 100 flurnboffles, but you can if you want to. You can’t run out of content, and sometimes you’re served well by telling the hell around and going back the way you came, never to return.
Fuck spider planets with acid rain in particular.
No Man’s Sky, when seen through certain eyes, stops feeling like homework and begins to feel like a meditation before bed. You don’t have to conquer every world, and in fact you’re only going to visit a tiny percentage of them. Don’t worry about the doors you can’t open; there are an infinite number of doors you can. Sometimes the best thing a game can make us feel is small.