No Man’s Sky, a game of forward motion

I was always going to appreciate No Man’s Sky. The look of the game is pure ‘70s sci-fi trash, all orange clouds and acid rain, the hardware chunky and brightly coloured with just a bit of smudge around the edges. The soundtrack as well matches perfectly, all pop and synth and twang. That’s just the surface, though: to fully appreciate the game, I first had to understand what sort of game it is.

A few years back I played Red Dead Redemption and found myself enjoying the game world itself a lot more than the actual game, spending hours horse riding around the desert instead of progressing through the game by, I don’t know, slaughtering villages of Mexicans or whatever other ridiculously brutal task the very cool guys at Rockstar thought made perfect sense in a story about a man seeking to move on from his violent past.

The landscape of Red Dead Redemption is stunning and a joy to spend time in, but it was still designed and crafted so you were always surrounded by gamified moments to keep the player occupied, and these days that means trinkets and box-checking achievement checklists. You can enjoy the scenery, but the game will still relentlessly track your map-charting progress and foist an achievement on you for unlocking a quarter, half, three-quarters of the map.

There was a particular plateau in the middle of nowhere I decided to climb, just because it was there and I wanted to see the view from the top. It was a tricky climb with an unclear route, and I skidded and fell a few times, but eventually I made it. On the top, right in plain sight, was a small treasure chest containing a small amount of coin. The developers of the game had put that treasure there deliberately, because they didn’t want people to climb this landmark and feel unrewarded. Personally, I felt patronised. The developers figured that anyone who made it to the top would want a tangible reward, and so a reward was there.

No Man’s Sky is not that game.

Second star to the right

With a procedurally-generated universe that’s effectively of infinite size, there’s no point trying to play No Man’s Sky as a game that can be completed or played in the traditional sense. There aren’t any side-quests and there’s no story mode as such. It isn’t a game you can realistically sit down and play for hours at a time until you’ve finished. If anything, the game No Man’s Sky most reminds me of is Animal Crossing. Like No Man’s Sky, Animal Crossing is a game of gradual forward motion, with a loose set of objectives and a direction the player is pointed in but without any pressure to follow. Both games last for as long as the player is interested in them, and both have goals that are reached indirectly, almost incidentally. Both are games that feel more natural to play in short bursts every day; neither is a game that will reward you for trying to complete it as quickly as possible.

A clue to how each game is best played lies in the restricted number of items you can carry around with you. In Animal Crossing, it’s a clue the game isn’t asking you to strip-mine your village for fossils or to plunder every fruit tree all in one go: the game wants you to come back every day to collect just a few things at a time.

The limited inventory size of No Man’s Sky is initially frustrating, but you’re not meant to be collecting everything at once: you’re instead meant to be only gathering what you need to solve the immediate problem at hand, that problem being either “how can I get to the next planet?” or “how can I explore this one?”. You need a particular resource to fuel your ship, so that’s the only resource you need to find. To move quickly to a different planet needs a different resource, so that’s a different problem to be solved. Moving to a different star system requires a particular fuel to be constructed, which is several problems that all need solving sequentially. Solve a problem, move forward to the next.

Like Animal Crossing, No Man’s Sky isn’t a game of stockpiling, but of gently nudging you forwards in incremental steps. There’s no base-building in No Man’s Sky because there’d be no point to staying on one planet, hoarding everything it has to offer, when you couldn’t take it with you. There’s no permanence; when you leave a planet, you’re never coming back to it. Your spaceship is your home, and you’re always, eventually, moving on. You can ‘complete’ a planet by cataloguing all of its fauna and visiting every target on the map, but what does that mean when there are 18 quintillion more planets out there?

Straight on till morning

The game’s turned out to be a perfect fit for those spare moments of time, when I have 15 minutes or an hour to kill, and I can load the game and spend my time wandering around a new planet, or flying between stars. There’s always something new to look at, a cave to explore or a new mountain to climb, and nothing to reward me for doing so apart from the pleasure of having done it.

But then, that’s just how I am with games. I rate the empty oceans of Wind Waker as one of gaming’s best places to spend time, I spent hours of GTA IV just driving around the city listening to The Journey, and I dialled down the difficulty of Half-Life 2 to nothing just so I could enjoy the ride along Highway 17. I don’t want game developers to reward me for enjoying myself. I want the enjoyment to be its own reward.