No Man’s Sky in 2020

It’s been nearly four years now and I’m still enamoured with No Man’s Sky. You’d think I’d be bored really but nope, I’m not bored of it in the slightest.

I’m sure it helps that like a lot of games these days, it’s an evolving experience. Originally a curious mix of (the also excellent) Out There and a stranger, much much older approach to the open world game, it was a game out of time and out of step with trends. A larger debt owed to the original Elite, to Mercenary, to Tau Ceti and the likes than to the Ubisoft template employed by so many games.

Whilst No Man’s Sky never really transitioned to that template it has, over time, become a more gentle experience. No longer a universe filled with glorious nothing, it’s now inhabited by other people, a shared universe in a literal sense. There’s a hub where strangers and friends can meet, visit each other’s building works, share treasures and goods amongst fellow travellers as they’re passing through.

You can still happily ignore all that for the most part because the universe is enormous, because there’s enough room for huge amounts of people to continue to discover the undiscovered. Without accessing the hub you can go days, weeks, months without encountering anyone else. Or just flat out turn the multiplayer component off and never see another soul ever.

It’s a largely generous game with the exception of the tightly regulated availability of the Quicksilver currency, used for grabbing cosmetic extras. Elsewhere pain points are fewer, the recent missions to acquire a living spacecraft making for a notable agonising exception.

Sure, that’s all (bad stuff aside!) helped me want to stick with the game. I’m glad I got to play and enjoy the curio that the game launched as but I’m far more content to noodle within its spaces today. It’s generally just kinda nicer, you know?

And oh, it looks so much better too. Each major update has brought upheavals to the art style. It’s not *always* quite as coherent as it should be but it has become more and more something really quite remarkable over the years. Colours, props, the way the worlds are generated have been vastly improved over time. In 2020, it looks much more beautiful than it ever promised to be.

Again, again, I’m not entirely without complaints. The washed out colours of the creatures the player encounters on their travels has been a bugbear since the earliest versions. At least now they’re largely not just an awful shade of yellow more often than not but they’re still not great. The same often applies to the props too. I find myself perpetually longing for the flora and fauna to be more vibrant. (And we don’t speak about the atrocious rain texture either because dear me).

But mainly, it’s beautiful. Beautiful enough that I’ve racked up thousands of screenshots and still find taking pictures a joy. Beautiful enough that it can still leave me in awe, when I’ve surely peeked into every nook and cranny the game has.

That’s really something, thousands of hours spent inside its universe and almost four years since launch. It’s still impressing me.

The most enjoyable thing for me though (and I do appreciate this would also be the stuff that confounds some) is that many additions to the game exist with no grand purpose inside the main game. All terrain vehicles, futuristic motorbikes, submarines, living spaceships and most recently, mechs have little great utility beyond “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and yes, yes, it would. If you want to accumulate a freighter, a bunch of spacecraft you can pilot, frigates you can send off to explore the stars you can. There’s even a bytebeat device that you can program to play tunes because why not.

That’s the thing I love in a lot of games and especially adore in No Man’s Sky. Popping things in there because why not? Because it seemed like a good idea, because it might be fun, because it might just look fine, because it might give someone (player or developer) a giggle for five seconds. All valid. All exciting prospects to me.

And I guess when it comes to the crunch, that’s the reason I’m still there, still tootling away in the vast universe that Hello have conjured into being. After 4 years, No Man’s Sky doesn’t feel any less of a dream game for me. Over time, it’s become more so. And so much of that more so can be traced to some folk sitting there in a room and going “I could put a mech in…?” and then putting a mech in because they can. And, of course, for the game being the eternal 70’s sci fi book cover generator I fell in love with to begin with.

Always that, yeah.

No Man’s Sky: A Year On

I’ve played No Man’s Sky pretty much every day since its release. This is, for me anyway, something rather exceptional.

It’s not the first game to get it’s hooks into me in such a manner but it’s definitely the first single player game that I’ve spent this much time in.

Essentially, I wasn’t kidding when I said that this was a videogame I always longed to exist. Now it’s here, now I’m *there*, out there, I’m quite content.

My relationship with the game has certainly not been a smooth one – for two whole major updates (that’s about six months, give or take) I let the game itself take a backseat.

It became too difficult to progress in, less a meander and more like work. I knew it wouldn’t be a permanent situation as I make games, the machinery of getting a thing you’ve created to where you want it to be has its ups and downs, I know this.

Here was a game that felt like it was moving forward, improving, just that’s never straightforward for the simplest of games. For a game with as many masters to please as No Man’s Sky would have, I can scarcely begin to imagine how difficult balancing the bloody thing would be.

Sure, there’s always that slight nagging feeling with any videogame that’s under constant (re)development that it may drift away. At 400 or so hours sunk in prior to the first major update, I’d have been content to walk away regardless and I’d have been happy with that.

I’d managed to accumulate a huge stash of screenshots and so at some point I figured I’d make use of them. Initially for my own amusement and to ease the load on my main Twitter feed a tad, I set up a Twitter account to post pictures from the game there – this way folks who might want to see them could and those that cared little wouldn’t have so many clogging up their feeds.

(It also helped with a rule I’d set myself whilst between updates – never leave a planet without at least three pictures I was content with).

Anyway, that got a little out of hand and now I spend an hour or so a day retweeting pictures other folks have taken from the game as well as posting my own. It maybe sounds absurd but that account is the best thing I’ve done for myself on the internet in a long time.

I get a real enjoyment from an account that is nothing but things I enjoy seeing. It’s nice and these days I figure I need all the nice I can get.

So here we are a year on or so from the game’s launch and I’m back playing it again as enthused as I was when the game first dropped. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it feels fresh now, it is very much still the No Man’s Sky I fell in love with first time, I would however say that it feels a heck of a lot more whole now. And so much more beautiful. So very much more beautiful.

Sure, it’s not without its flaws. The first fifteen minutes to an hour (depending on how long it takes you to fix your ship up at the start) are achingly bad, it still sometimes feels like there’s holes where things should be and I would definitely argue it hasn’t found itself with anywhere near the amount of props it needs to really shine. Just once again, it feels held together by magic, not crushing grind and fetch quests.

Even though, you know, the game is sort of a series of fetch quests. There is that, definitely.

But I enjoy the rhythm of the game again. I won’t call it a loop because it’s more an amble. I’m tootling across planets, rummaging around for stuff of no real consequence to me, I’m scanning and naming planets because leaving a small piece of me in this universe is very much the whole point as far as I’m concerned. It’s important that nothing out there matters, that I am just somewhere, that this is a place I can be.

I know plenty of folk who find this in maybe World Of Warcraft or Destiny or Minecraft or somewhere. I figure if you’re patient and willing to wait long enough, maybe videogames will eventually turn up a world you’re happy to get lost in, yeah?

Of course it stands in stark contrast to my life these days. I have pain that exists with me all hours of the day, I have duties to look after other people and if I’m honest, I’m rarely happier than when doing small things to make days brighter and easier for folks.

The past twelve months have been a hell of a rollercoaster ride and with so much still to deal with, the near future is looking quite busy too. And yeah, maybe now more than ever, with my daily life and what’s happening in that big old world outside, I no longer just want, I need the escape that No Man’s Sky provides me.

It helps, also, that it’s a game that works around my life. I can put the controller down and go and wrangle the kids from whatever mischief they’ve found themselves in- remove a water pistol from someone’s nose or whatever. I can put things to one side and go and tend to whatever whoever needs at any one time, come back and everything is still fine.

(Well, unless my PS4 does that thing where it decides I’ve left it alone and switches itself off just to annoy me. That happens a fair bit if I’m honest).

No Man’s Sky is a game that becomes background noise.

It is, I suppose, a true ambient videogame. It exists in spaces most other videogames have no interest in occupying, demanding as they so often do your full and complete attention. It is a game that I listen to podcasts to, queue up playlists to listen to whilst exploring, a game that I abandon to go and serve tea.

In so many ways it is nothing and everything. None of this stuff is especially unique to No Man’s Sky but few embrace it quite so wholeheartedly and more to the point, in a way that’s so very to my taste.

It is calm in times that are so far from calm. It is respite. It is the videogame as escapism that I never considered would exist, having long given up that particular dream to a hobby fixated with anything but pastoral, meandering, ambient vibes.

It’s perhaps fitting that the first time I felt the videogame as world, oh so many decades ago now, it was due to the work of Sandy White in making the city of Antescher exist in 48k. Now, it’s with No Man’s Sky – a game Sandy White lent his enormous talents to.

And like with 3d Ant Attack, No Man’s Sky feels like it’s opened up the doors to some more, pleasing, possible futures in games. Whether that be from what folks perceive as the game getting wrong or from its exquisite use of procedural generation that whilst nothing new, is certainly something at this sort of scale.

That’ll always be the best kind of game for me. The sort that seems to offer a smaller sly wink to one of our many futures. I’m glad that all these years on, games have this effect on me still too.

Long may it continue.