No Man's Sky Part 1: The Hype and the Reveal

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

This is one of the most difficult opinion pieces I've written in a while. No Man's Sky is a game that I was really looking forward to and my first impulse is to defend the fun experiences I've had in the game. At the same time, it would be disingenuous for me to ignore the disappointments I've had during my playthrough. It would be easy for me to focus on those frustrations and disappointment and write a venomous article about the game but as cathartic as it might be to rant and rave for a while, I won't deny the good times I've had. So I'll try to tow the line here, but I may stray a bit. Stick with me though, it gets complicated.

I've been eagerly following the news of No Man's Sky since it was announced in 2013. As someone who grew up with Ray Bradbury, Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, the look and concept of No Man's Sky was immediately appealing. I can't tell you how many times I dreamed of soaring through the cosmos, encountering bizarre alien species and exploring distant planets teaming with life.

When their offices flooded less than a month after the teaser release, I was worried that the game I'd been so excited to learn more about had been washed away, but rejoiced when Sean Murray said that they were back to work after salvaging what they could. Over the next few years, I followed the news from Hello Games as their game drew more and more attention.

I began to worry when news broke that Hello Games was shifting focus towards the PS4. I'd always assumed that No Man's Sky would be a PC first game, especially given the size and scope of the game. My first thought was that the graphics would be toned down, though as a massive procedural game, I hadn't expected them to be hyper realistic at all. My second concern was that the PC release would become an afterthought, and those of us not using the PS4 version would be handed a sloppy port of the game months after its release on console.

This is a screenshot of No Man's Sky from Hello games before the game's release. Where did this go?

As time went on, Sean Murray started showing up in more and more places. He played No Man's Sky in front of huge crowds at E3, on small couches with journalists from IGN, Kotaku, Polygon, etc. He showed up on almost every single late night show I could think of. No Man's Sky made headlines around the world any news about it spread like wildfire. There was an immense amount of talk about the game and every time I saw Sean Murray, he looked a little more worn, a little more bedraggled. I felt bad for the guy, but I was more excited about all of the feature he was talking about.

Each time he spoke about the game, it seemed more and more features came to light. Sean mentioned finding your friends in the game and the statistical improbability of it all. He talked a lot about factions, base building, huge space battles, derelict ships and stations, the difference and variety of ships, naming vessels and creatures, plants and geological features and hinted over and over again of a strange mystery and incredible payoff at the center of the universe. The only person I had ever heard talk so much about so many features in a single game was Peter Molyneux. This should have been a red flag, but I kept on track with Sean, hopeful and ever expectant to play the marvelous and expansive game I had been sold on.

Through all of it, I swallowed most of the concern I had. I did, however, temper my excitement a bit. I remembered the release of Black and White 2, Fable, Assassin's Creed Unity, Duke Nukem Forever and the slew of other games that had failed to live up to their hype. I knew that the hype machine was a chaotic beast whose reach could not be easily controlled. Still, I held out that this game would be something different for me and everyone that experienced it. A vast universe to explore and numerous ways to engage in it is an instant sell for a lot of people.

One of my first screenshots. I was so excited.
By now it's clear that we did not receive the game we thought we were getting. The game I have played for more than 30 hours has forced me to reevaluate my expectations over and over again as I discover how many of the features Murray talked about are missing. That the player model has been revealed to be a ghastly looking placeholder thing apart from being totally invisible to other players means that there is essentially no multiplayer experience to speak of. Sean Murray told the MIT Technology Journal in 2014 “Ultimately we don’t know whether people will work, congregate, or disperse.” I think it is clear at this point that they had some idea of what would happen.

In addition to the total lack of multiplayer, there is no evidence to suggest that the three alien races in the game really care about one another at all. There are no missions for the other factions, only the Atlas questline which ends rather disappointingly with next to no reward. There are large freighters in the game, but they exist only to be attacked by you or by pirates and cannot interact with you in any way other than to get in the way of your flight path, shoot at you and blow up when you shoot them. The languages you can learn from the alien species translate into weird, broken sentences with the same solutions to the same limited puzzles. There is no ability to build anything, and your ship, multitool and suit guzzle resources at an astonishing rate.

I was sure that this place would lead me on a grand adventure. I got a bit of text and nothing more.
The technical problems I've had with the game are equally frustrating. The game will randomly decide that the framerate should be locked at 60 fps, whereas other sessions on the same planet will yield 80-90 fps. I've crashed a couple times out of the blue, my ship has been thrown violently into orbit from the surface when trying to just take off, I've been attacked by creatures who clip through the environment, I've had notifications stay on my visor for more than five minutes, I've had quest progress randomly reset (I was asked to repair my perfectly functioning analysis visor some fifteen hours in while looking at ships on a space station). On one planet, I found a hole in the terrain that opened into more sky, as though the whole planet were a wafer thin crust bubble.

The hole in the world that I mentioned. I could shoot into the hole and not hit anything. Notice the planet peeking through the hole. Classy.

It is hard for me to talk about all of the problems I have with No Man's Sky. It is a game that I have wanted to love for three years. I may not have pre-ordered the game, but I still feel a great deal of regret that I am trying to turn into something constructive. For all of its numerous, numerous faults, I cannot deny that I have a great deal of fun exploring various planets, trying to find one that is somewhat earthlike. I've scanned and named a ton of creatures, plants, rocks, planets and systems, but I'm not done yet. I don't know how long I can continue to play like this, before it becomes too tiresome, but for now, I am happy to discover new things in the face of adversity.

There is one more question that begs an answer, and we'll get into that more next time: How did it all come to this? What happened to the game that was shown time and time again? How long ago did the team know about the issues and why has everyone been so quiet since its very troubled launch?