We all know No Man’s Sky. It was inescapable leading up to its late 2016 release. But how you could not be entranced by it, either as a fan or as press or a developer? The promise of infinite worlds in an endless universe of inexhaustible flora and fauna is one we’ve been fascinated by for years now, and it appeared Hello Games was ready to deliver it.
But we also know what happens next. In perhaps the greatest collapse of fandom since, well, nothing (unless you assume the Ouya had fans to begin with), No Man’s Sky garnered what felt like only severe, indignant, violent backlash. Director Sean Murray received a deluge of death threats; the studio itself was under investigation for fraudulent advertising (and eventually cleared); and user reviews were like an archeological dig out to discover numbers lower than zero.
In reality, it was a turbulent confluence of awful events that led to that point. First and foremost is that the Internet is full of righteous, privileged assholes, but it’s hard to blame them on some of these facets. Between the absolutely incredible E3 trailer and headlines about exploring 18 quintillion planets and an otherworldly profile by the New Yorker, it seemed like everyone was getting what they wanted. Multiplayer, wildly diverse worlds, and more. But check the ballistics: Murray never said any of what players were expecting.
But then something thoroughly unexpected happened. Rather than indulge in the tried and true fallacy of yelling back at the crowd, Murray and Hello Games went heads down. They spent the next two years trying to make good on a promise they never made, perhaps both the most foolhardy and valiant choice to make. Patch after patch, they propped up terrain editing, a new quest/story system, a photo mode, and more. And it all led up to the latest update Next.
Next is the biggest update since last August’s Atlas Rises. There’s an overhaul to the base building mechanics, a third-person camera, a revamped fleet system, and goddamn beautiful fucking rings. But most importantly, it adds real, genuine multiplayer. You and three buddies can finally band together to explore the universe together, survive trouble together, and generally have a chill time together. The biggest complaint has, ostensibly, been addressed.
Keyword: ostensibly. Firstly, this game is still a mess. In fact, I’d go so far as to called it busted. You could spend dozens of minutes zipping to a planet because you see your friend’s tag on it only to find, well, he’s not there. Or you might load into a base to find that maybe 18% of the topographical geometry is rendering. Or, hell, maybe it just locks up and you have to hard quit the entire thing. It’s a hard game to love.
More importantly, however, I’d argue that the lack of multiplayer was never No Man’s Sky‘s biggest problem. Even with this flawed implementation where it feels more like incidental cohabitation than a machined toy to play with, it’s clear that playing this game with others is less enticing than playing by yourself.
This game has always been a zone-out, chill-out sort of experience. You sit down, power up, and just let the loop take you into its comforting, somewhat uncaring arms. Land on a planet, scan a few thing, harvest resources, and blast off to do it again on another planet. And with photo mode, it’s now a delectably visual, almost carnal endeavour, too, as opposed to a mindless one.
And sure with the launch of Next, your Twitter feed has been full of stories about what people have discovered, and they’re always the little stories we tell ourselves. The players that live Alien as they discover the risk and reward of harvesting mysterious eggs. The explorers that build narratives around the kinds of planets and space stations they find. The journeymen that exist to document their time in lives not their own.
These are the most powerful stories. They feel infinitely personal, anecdotes about things that not only happened to you but could only have happened to you. They compel you to share as much as they compel you to keep them close. It’s an experience hard to put into to words that aren’t just example after example.
It’s also an experience that’s hard to give a convincing argument for. There’s so much cruft in the way of you getting there. With Next and previous updates, the grind of resource collection and refinement has only somehow gotten more egregious. Your anemic inventory space feels like a punishment for a crime you never committed. This is a game that is a chore first before it becomes a joy, and even then, it never stops being work.
Those are the things that Next should have addressed. It wasn’t the lack of content or the lack of multiplayer. It was the existence of a layer of gameplay that seemed to only get in the way of what the game was about. Granted, Next is the best form it has taken thus far, but it’s still a long ways off from where it needs to be.
(If you want to hear more about where No Man’s Sky has been and where it’s going, Waypoint has an exhaustive interview up with Murray that is well worth the read.)