Exploration, Creation, and No Man’s Sky
If you haven’t been following gaming news, let’s just say that No Man’s Sky has had quite the rocky release. Actually scratch that, it’s been a total shit show. For a game that was hyped up to be a life-changing and transformative experience, players found the actual game to be life-draining and transformative in the same way that walking through Chernobyl transforms your health. Countless Youtubers have decried the game as being “As wide as an ocean but as deep as a puddle.” And a Reddit thread has collected all of the features promised that weren’t actually in the game. Basically, a lot of people were disappointed.
Now, is No Man’s Sky a bad game? Most people have said that they were entertained by the game, but for $60 it was too expensive. But whether or not the game is bad, I think that it offers lessons for how to create better sandbox games.
One of the biggest selling points of No Man’s Sky was the fact that there are 18 quintillion (that’s 18 zeros) planets to explore. That number is literally insane. There are so many planets that even if every single human being on Earth was playing the game, not only would it be a huge waste of time, but there would still be planets left undiscovered. These planets all are unique, some filled to the brim with flora and fauna, others desolate desert planets, and millions (or billions or trillions or you get the idea) in between.
Now how did No Man’s Sky create all these planets? They were all procedurally generated. Basically, a computer script created all the planets and the variation on them. And that’s one of the big problems with No Man’s Sky.
Computer software has advanced considerably over the past few decades, enough where a game like this is possible. But it hasn’t advanced enough to make a game like this interesting. The first time you land on a planet, you’re amazed. Crazy creatures, amazing landscapes, all created by the computer. But after landing on your fourth or fifth planet, you start to feel that things are… really all the same. Sure, the planet is a different color. And here all the creatures look like little walking dongs. But the level of interaction you have with the planet is the same. Creatures are either peaceful or attack you on sight. You can gather the same resources on every planet. And stations and trading posts are literally the same, just with different aliens inside with different lines of dialogue.
On the other hand, take a game like Grand Theft Auto V. The world is much smaller (only 3.4 square miles, weak). Yet within that space, the developers have been able to cram a lifetime of detail. As a resident of Los Angeles, the amount of landmarks and tiny features in Los Santos (holy shit, the curvy road to the Griffith Observatory is exactly the same) blew my mind. The reason why Grand Theft Auto has so much staying power is that everything is handcrafted. Every road, every building, every pedestrian is crafted with meticulous detail. The exploration is much more rewarding because everything really is different.
You see the issue of size versus detail pop up in games smaller than No Man’s Sky but larger than Grand Theft Auto V all the time. For example, the map in Just Cause 2 is MASSIVE. From deserts and jungles to cities the map has everything. But driving around these different biomes, you notice that there isn’t really much in them. They don’t leave an impression on you. And No Man’s Sky suffers from the same problem.
“But, No Man’s Sky doesn’t care if you’re bored man. It’s teaching you about existentialism, bro.”
Bullshit. Here, let me give you a cardboard box to play with. There’s nothing in it. Life is meaningless. I’m an artist, give me money.
That’s the next problem with No Man’s Sky. It touts itself as a game with limitless freedom, but in reality, there are limited choices.
In No Man’s Sky, you can craft items to aid you in your exploration of the universe. You can craft upgrades for your exosuit. You can craft upgrades for your starship. You can craft upgrades for your multi-tool. You can… wait, um, that’s about it. To be blunt, crafting in No Man’s Sky is shit.
See, the people calling No Man’s Sky an existentialism simulator have got it wrong. Sure, you have complete freedom to travel from one planet to the next or decide whether or not to kill that alien creature. But an important part of existentialism is being able to leave your mark on the world. An empty canvas is not an obstacle for an existentialist, it is an opportunity to draw anything, create anything with the tools at your disposal. No Man’s Sky’s is less of a canvas and more of an Etch a Sketch. The biggest mark you can leave is naming your planet “Dicks out for Harambe.”
Meanwhile, take a game like Minecraft. The world is also procedurally generated. And yes, that world can get tedious once you get used to it. But what gets players to keep coming back is its deep system of crafting and its great potential for creativity. There is a deep catalogue of items to be crafted in Minecraft, from swords and shields to enchantment tables and portals. In addition, these tools can be used for an actual infinite number of possibilities. A player can build houses and fortress, mosaics and sculptures, even working calculators. Even if someone gets bored of exploring in Minecraft, there is an infinite number of things they can create.
No Man’s Sky gives players an infinite playground to explore. But unfortunately, there is no way for players to really make it their own.
I think developers working on sandbox games can learn two very important lessons from No Man’s Sky.
- A bigger world doesn’t always mean a better one.
- If your world is massive and bland, at least give players something to do.
Unfortunately with No Man’s Sky, the developers banked too much on the massive universe being interesting enough for players and didn’t focus enough on the creative aspect of the game. And no, I don’t hate them for it, they were a small team under a lot of pressure. But when it comes to making sandbox games in the future, I think developers can learn a lot from No Man’s Sky.