[ I want to note that this post was written prior to the major Foundation 1.1 update released by Hello Games in November 2016 ]
This is one of my very occasional Byte Cellar posts not pertaining to vintage computing, but it’s something I’ve really had on my mind and have been needing to share for the past few weeks.
Earlier this month Hello Games released their much anticipated space exploration / survival game No Man’s Sky for the Playstation 4 and Windows PC. The game was five years in the making by Sean Murray and his small team and just might be the most highly anticipated title to come along in as many years. The promise of No Man’s Sky was a ticket to a procedurally generated universe with infinite worlds to explore. Well, 18.4 quintillion planets (2^64) — entire planets, every inch of which you could explore if you so chose. The media hyped the game incredibly, building up a massive fervor in the months prior to its release. (When, earlier this year, Murray announced that the game would be delayed several months, both he and the reporter who broke the story received death threats.) And then the release came…and so did the haters.
Many review sites who, in previews of the game months earlier, referred to No Man’s Sky in messianic terms were now giving it 6/10 ratings. Particularly vocal hardcore PC gamers were screaming that the online aspect of the game was less than they felt Hello had promised — there was no true multiplayer. People were finishing the storyline quest (which one has the option to ignore at the outset) in a week or two and writing off the game as too short, with too little substance. And the PC launch was, unfortunately, fraught with performance issues. There was much vitriol.
Not everybody felt “cheated,” however. There were some who felt…amazed. In awe. Immersed utterly. Emotionally moved. I count myself among those fortunate individuals.
Playing No Man’s Sky is the best and most breathtaking gaming experience I have ever had in my life. The sense of the infinite and of limitless discovery is tremendous. I am just lost in this game.
“Game.” Is it a game? It certainly seems more of a pursuit, a hobby, even a passion than a game to me. Inserting one’s self into No Man’s Sky is to begin a potentially endless adventure, visiting world after world after world that no eyes have ever seen before. Worlds placid, worlds violent. Worlds teaming with beautiful and fascinating life both plant and animal. Dead worlds, as well. You can never know what’s waiting down below when you drop into atmo.
All my life I have dreamed of exactly this in gaming — an interesting, alternate universe, massive in scale, in which I can freely wander and explore at my own pace. That is what No Man’s Sky is to me, and it’s my observation that many others are similarly moved by the game. The fact that the universe is procedurally generated and that even the game’s creators can’t describe everything that’s out there to be encountered adds to the incredible sense of the unexplored, the alien. There is a lovely feeling of solitude to the whole experience of discovering a world, leaving your mark on it, and moving on to the next.
Blazing the trail that lead to the existence of No Mans Sky are a small number of rather notable titles from the past. Elite and its sequel Frontier: Elite II obviously come to mind. I spent some time with both of these procedurally generated titles long ago, but the technology of the day prevented any sort of real vistas and the trading dynamic dramatically outweighed the exploration aspect that I love so. Of course, I am aware of Elite:Dangerous. I own it and played it for a while on the Mac — flight stick, head tracking and all — and I love the flight physics, but it has proved extremely difficult for me to “get a foothold” in that universe and, again, the commerce side of the game overrides exploration for me. And, while Apple’s ancient implementation of OpenGL does not support the Horizons expansion (planetary landings, rover exploring), I have watched many hours of gameplay video, and it is truly impressive. The realism is amazing…but perhaps to a fault, I would say, as compared to the lush and more fanciful worlds of No Man’s Sky. Amazing stars viewed from a distance, but barren grey and red planets are the playgrounds of Elite:Dangerous.
To me, No Man’s Sky gets the balance of its various aspects just right. You must mine planets and asteroids for materials necessary to keep your ship and your suit running and to craft important upgrades, the blueprints of which you acquire along the way, talking to humanoid aliens and searching downed ships and hardware strewn about each planet. Certain items you must purchase at a nearby space station or surface terminal, and so there mining is about cash — but it’s not overpowering. You can purchase snazzier ships with larger cargo holds (cash), but you can also repair and claim downed ships you manage to find on a planet’s surface (no cash). Because you are set upon during space flight by enemy ships from time to time, you’ll want to upgrade your weapon and shield technologies, but it’s far less intensive a battle scenario than that of, say, Elite:Dangerous (which I found to be unenjoyable). As well, there is the core story of the game that urges you towards the center of the galaxy, collecting mystical artifacts along the way. I have chosen to ignore that aspect of the game for now, as it is exploring for the sake of exploring that is the pleasure for me, but the story is there for perhaps more traditional gamers. I’m sure I will go there some day, but I’m having way too much fun just slowly soaring above these alien landscapes, taking my time and landing occasionally to stretch my legs and feed the alien wildlife.
I became so quickly absorbed in the game that just a few days after jumping in, I pulled the PS4 out of the den entertainment center, brought home a 32-inch, curved 1080p display, and pushed my Mac workstation over to make room for a desktop PS4 No Man’s Sky cockpit. That large, curved screen at desktop viewing distance really takes immersion to the next level. As I played for a couple of weeks like this I was loving the game more and more, sharing particularly lovely vistas in my NMS gallery (from which the photos on the page were taken), and enjoying others’ sights over at r/NoMansHigh and (the less “chill”) r/NoMansSkyTheGame.
Looking online at some of the screenshots and videos of the PC version, I started noticing rendering mods that were appearing, the PC version’s ability to adjust the field of view angle, and the silky 60+ fps that high-end gaming systems were getting (the PS4 version is a very acceptable 30fps). After pondering that for a few days I decided that, since I am going to be spending probably thousands of hours exploring this universe, I wanted to do it with the best possible set of eyes, so to speak. So, for the first time in 19 years (that was an AMD K6-based system!), I am building a gaming PC to play No Man’s Sky. Windows 10 on a Core i7-6700K, Nvidia GTX 1080 in an ASUS motherboard — the parts are on their way as I type this post.
I am writing this post evangelizing No Man’s Sky amid an internet full of salty reactions to try and do what I can to convey the experience that just might be waiting for you. It’s not an MMO, it’s not a space battle simulator, it’s not an FPS action shooter. There are elements of these things in the game, but at its core No Man’s Sky is a universe waiting to be discovered. And the worlds within are not the backdrop; they are the experience.
Choice posts from explorers of a similar mind:
- No Man’s Sky Review: A Lonely, Magical Journey
- How No Man’s Sky Exposes the Gaming Generation Gap for 80’s Kids
- No Man’s Sky Doesn’t Have a Multiplayer Problem, Gamers Have a Solitude Problem
- No Man’s Sky Review – A Meeting Of Math, Art And Divisive Game Mechanics
- Microcosmologist – Games I Like: No Man’s Sky
- Review: No Man’s Sky Captures the Thrill of Exploration
- No Man’s Sky, eh. What a load of old smeg. [Jeff Minter’s take]
- Notes on No Man’s Sky
Update [7/21/2019]: Follow-up posts I’ve written here regarding No Man’s Sky:
- My Skylake Gaming PC Build (Oct. 4, 2016)
- Procedural Planetary Exploration Across the Decades (Nov. 14, 2016)
- Did You Hear About That Nutter Who Dropped $4K on No Man’s Sky?! (Jan. 29, 2017)
- A Gamer’s Reflections as “No Man’s Sky” Turns One Year Old (Aug. 8, 2017)
- A Planetary Anachronism: “No Man’s Sky” Beautifully Rendered on the Amiga 1000 (Mar. 14, 2018)
- Today My “No Man’s Sky” Journey Reaches the Two-Year Mark (Aug. 9, 2018)
Update [9/3/2016]: Since putting this post online (Steam ID: blakespot), I have assembled the gaming PC I mentioned within. I’ve started off anew on the PC, and the higher framerate is very nice, though I’ve not yet installed any of the mods out there, but most importantly I can report that when used with a gamepad (I grabbed an Xbox One controller and Xbox Wireless Adapter for Windows) the game feels exactly like the PS4 version. That said — and this is the reason I am posting this update — gamepad control delivers a vastly superior experience to mouse + keyboard. The difference is night and day. Obviously the PS4 was the focus in the development of No Man’s Sky, and the mouse + keyboard experience is shockingly inferior. If you are playing this on a PC, get yourself some kind of gamepad with dual analog sticks, they provide the seamless motion and panning that vistas like these deserve.
Update [9/4/2016]: Another word on gamepads. I tried attaching a Sony DualShock 4 (PS4) controller to the PC via USB and No Man’s Sky recognized it automatically and even changed the in-game button icons to match the icons on the controller (circle, X, square, triangle) — nice. I prefer the PS4 controller to that of the Xbox One, and was pleased to see this work. And, as a bonus, there is one un-mapped button on the PS4 controller that’s not mapped in the game (the Share button), which can be nicely mapped via DS4Windows to Steam’s screenshot keystroke for capturing those lovely vistas!