We find ourselves on a rapidly disintegrating course through life, a road leading out ahead of us and our journey to ever find it and claim it. It was here long before ourselves and yet it is our path. Lost, at times, and even alone, much more, we will follow this path until we finally leave this world. Hard times after hard times, good times after good times and always this endless wheel inside a wheel we run on. Walk outside and hear the sound of the gravel crack beneath my feet as that sound echoes out through the ways between the buildings and my breath fogs up before me. Look to the sky and see how the world is so small and look to a tree and think about it as being so old and look at the ground and remember I’m not here forever. But that sky, still endless voyage, that’s the gift we receive in this game.
Normally in a game we find this series of interlocking goals. That all falls apart in No Man’s Sky. I never feel like I’m wasting time planning for the next big thing. In another space sim you’d find yourself grinding rep for factions and doing mission after mission to get that top-tier ship. I don’t feel that in this title. I feel like I can leave my troubles behind and give up mining for a ship upgrade if I want to just go check out caves or photograph some animal for the afternoon. The minerals will still be there later. This moment won’t come again.
I was playing a game that was quite convoluted at one point, I would see this videos online for making your dailies as quickly as possible and how to work efficiently on these long grind chains that constituted the build of power in the game and I’d think to myself “do I even like how this priest feels?” It didn’t matter really whether the devs respected my time or made the classes feel good or fun what mattered was having that grind.
I look at my time with No Man’s Sky and half the time I can’t even remember what I did. It’s just a game where you look at the time and see the afternoon disappeared. All the activities I find myself doing are so weird. Swimming with schools of weird fish or trying to feed every animal I see. These aren’t the interactions that most games prepare for. It’s a game with this joyous love for just fucking off and doing what you want.
It’s not really great as a grinding game. The inventory management isn’t really smooth for that sort of work. Like trying to make a lot of money in any sort of concerted effort is sort of terrible. The game lives and breathes in these moments between everything that don’t really get picked up too well by an image or a video. The game also doesn’t really respect the players time as far as showing itself to you. You can go to several systems that are all not that interesting, nonphenomenal galaxies, but then that one planet shows up and it more than makes up for it.
The big problem for the game is that it doesn’t really reward the player so well for playing the fun way. This is the real problem, the graphics are kind of sweet and beautiful in a trippy way and make up for a lot of the graphical problems and while combat isn’t really great it’s also fairly easy to bypass the problems with the tools they give you. But the big problem is the game doesn’t ever really find a way to pull players onto a fun loop of rewarding exploration and creativity.
But the game didn’t really get reviewed for the game it was. Still a flawed game by most standards, even if I think it deserves the designation of instant classic, the game that people really reviewed was something we didn’t get on any level. The thing is this game turned into something bigger than itself. Gamers tagged the title as a hype train gone wrong and reviewers genuinely seemed to be looking at the game in comparison to what they wanted versus what they saw.
So one of the big problems in gaming now is reviewing. It’s kind of childish-a game releases and you see every outlet race to rate the game and then sort of forget about it. It was a story up until release now it’s over. Meanwhile the actual business of making games has basically totally changed from that format. The actual work of the people making the games really doesn’t have much to do with promotion and a true test of the development house is how they support the game post-release. You look at the negative reviews for New Vegas it’s like they’re talking about this other game that if you never played the game in the first few months you never experienced.
The last Mario Kart is another good example. Or Splatoon. Really most big games seem to have moved to being an experience about more than just the release date but there is still this big segment of games media pretending it has no idea how these things work.
I play Rebel Galaxy and I’m engaging in ship on ship combat and trading with people and making money and getting top-tier ships and just sort of losing interest. Not a bad game but when I play No Man’s Sky I feel things. Setting on this planet and there are these valleys with iron totems poking out like tombstones and creeping orange hints of light behind from some sort of vegetation. It’s creepy. Then a storm kicks in and wind and fog cover everything and I can’t see clearly more than a few yards away. I am in the underworld now and Charon should appear presently. I have become Orpheus.
Most of the time I don’t listen to the game’s music as I play. Great soundtrack but it’s repetitive now and very specific. I feel like its missing different moods I want to feel. But sometimes it doesn’t feel like it matters what I’m listening to the places just speak to you. The game is bigger than itself and asks you to think bigger than yourself. There’s a freedom and sense of play I find that we don’t really get in most games any more. Just weirdness and a chance to laugh at a bizarre creature or glitch or a moment to be caught off guard by a perfect sunset or skyline or structure lit by the sunset against a skyline. Aside from the start of the game there really hasn’t ever been much of a sense of fear or even anxiety just this strange curiosity and desire to see what’s on the other side of that hill or mountain or ocean or black hole.
Your mind is a narrative machine and we’re all slaves to this reality. We’re all attempting to be the heroes of our own stories and suffer because of it. Literature and art have done powerful things by embracing this, giving us the structures of narrative and conflict and eventually stabbing that dragon chaos with Excalibur to save the land. No Man’s Sky didn’t give this to people; at least not how they wanted. The experience of NMS is a constant sense of existing as a metaphor, a fool on a journey all their own guided by instinct and interest suffering their internal struggle whatever form that dragon takes.
But modern gaming is about a specific AAA experience being the primary culture. Doesn’t matter Minecraft is really one of the biggest games, League of Legends the actual biggest game, and both don’t succumb to that narrative constriction or length constriction or price constriction. When we see gamers acting like children over what’s essentially a indie game getting released and having indie sensibilities the fault isn’t so much the people acting immature as much as it’s gaming media taking the immature road more often than not.
The launch of NMS wasn’t one with commentators taking a break from their regular schedule of content to use it as an opportunity to talk about what constitutes value of a game and the importance of being mature and accepting the consequences of paying for what you chose to. No we see the media feed into the immaturity-“It was Hello Games’ fault you pre-ordered and you should be very loud and dumb about it to make sure people understand that baby deserves exactly what baby wants.” The problem with so much of the media really taking the populist approach is they’re actually favoring this other idea of what a game should be-the microtransactions, the specific length and realistic graphical features and that same old price scheme. Oh and the implicit belief that since we aren’t talking about these things they’re OK and you, the consumer, should be cool with this particular path the industry is taking. These are the people who gave the first Dark Souls bad reviews because it was too hard. They need games to stay in this specific configuration that really hasn’t existed since about the PS2 era: they need games to be for kids because they don’t know how to deal with adults.
More and more it feels like the industry is worried about people basically being adults and gamers. I see a similar problem with the election-after years of the media treating people like children they actually started acting like children and now the media has no idea what to do. There aren’t many mature role models out there. There aren’t many mature philosophies out there. Without any adults things will get really bad. Looking back at gaming it’s the exact same thing to me. People need the mature response to these things so very badly and instead they find all these people who are paying their rent with Patreon basically agreeing with whatever people want parroted back at them.
No Man’s Sky feels like a middle finger to the nihilistic commercialism implicit in our modern world. It doesn’t really trap the player behind hundreds of hours of work to have fun. You can literally just choose to bounce on the most extreme level and stop with any of the systems the game lays before you. You see reviews treat this as a problem but it’s one of the game’s biggest strengths. Nothing is ever so important you can’t just go somewhere else if you feel like it.
The path is waiting for you; stretching out from your mind into the real world somewhere. You’ll look back on these games and wonder what you saw. What wonders you remember what places you loved what moments you shared with those close and far from you. No Man’s Sky is full of little moments you actually remember. Hiding in a cave to avoid the cold only to find it leads to water and you start swimming through this underwater cave system just looking at stuff. You exit the water and as the water disperses off your visor you see it chill a bit. The cave is littered with psychedelic colored rocks and feels like an entirely different world from outside where it’s almost nothing but white and wind in all directions. Music plays and you give yourself a chance to feel this moment for what it is. The present is usually this ball of confusion and anxiety and we escape that not by childishly avoiding reality but by diving deeper into it and feeling this moment, this life we have. This cave feels massive, and maybe it is, but it feels like it’s important and meaningful. They could have built a cave themselves but we found this one, we experienced this one. They could of created for us a path. Jung said something along the lines of until the unconscious is made conscious we it will run our lives and we will call it fate. So we have a question: this path ahead of us - is it fate?