On No Man’s Sky: Elitism is Valueless

No Man’s Sky is one of the most divisive games I’ve seen in a long time. Barring the unfortunate PC launch which left a lot of people with perfectly reasonable to high-end computers unable to play (myself included), it’s been a fairly smooth launch and the game works well if you’re either on PS4 or on a PC that runs it. Since I waited for the PC copy only to find that my PC wouldn’t run it, I had about a week before trying it on PS4 to see how the internet at large reacted to it.

Before I get into that, a bit on what I think of the game. No Man’s Sky is more or less exactly the game I expected. Like virtually everything else in its particular genre, it’s systemically heavy while content-light. In this case, I’m defining content as story, characterization, worldbuilding, setting, etc. NMS is full of widely but shallowly varied locations and, like other similar games, is mostly about playing with the various systems at play. Minecraft and Starbound let you build, Elite: Dangerous has complex flight mechanics, No Man’s Sky has detailed systems to procedurally generate flora and fauna on planets. It’s a great game if what you want to do is write your own story or simply play with a complex experience.

Following the general response to it, however, makes me wonder what many people expected the game to be. The trailer showed you basically everything you need to see; it’s not like there was some kind of bait and switch going on. You wander around vaguely in a direction, cataloguing your findings and collecting enough resources to keep on going. If you’re into that kind of thing, it’s GREAT. It’s also one of the only games I’ve ever seen that has a nice, seamless planetside-to-space transition with mechanics beyond “point in that direction”. It’s got a soothing, fun soundtrack and nice, surreal colors.

It gets a lot of hate. People criticize it for being too obviously procedural. People who wanted more simulation compare its flight mechanics unfavorably with Elite: Dangerous or Star Citizen. Both are said with the same tone of “if you like No Man’s Sky, you either don’t know any better or are wrong”. It’s a little sad.

I put a few hours into the game with Kodra. It’s not really a game for either of us. My biggest criticism is that it is really, truly awful at messaging– within thirty seconds of getting control of my character I was nearly murdered by floating robots that swarmed me, left with fewer little health boxes and no shields, and an empty laser. It wasn’t a good initial experience, certainly didn’t welcome me into the game. Some people love that, though, they want their games to tell them nothing and force them to figure out every little detail of the interface and what they should be doing and why. For that kind of player, bad messaging is freedom, and a chance to feel clever.

Here’s the thing about that, though: it’s absolutely cool to enjoy when games don’t tell you basic things and make you figure them out. Pattern recognition is satisfying and using entrenched medium knowledge to solve a problem validates the time/energy spent in developing that medium knowledge in a satisfying way. It’s like film buffs enjoying a film with complex cinematography because they’re bringing a wealth of cinematographic knowledge to that film, or a foodie with a very refined palate enjoying the difference between cane sugar and honey as a sweetener for their sauce. The problem comes in when you start to demand that of everyone else, where it’s suddenly not okay to like a movie because it’s funny and has explosions or because they like an oreo milkshake over creme brûlée.

No Man’s Sky isn’t a “simplified knock-off” of Elite: Dangerous, nor is it a “shallower Starbound with fancy graphics”. It’s doing different things from both of those games, and honestly it’s doing them fairly well. As I said, it’s not a game for me, but I see where it’s good and I can suggest it to people who I think would love it. I’m glad people are having fun with it and I want to hear their stories (and see pictures of either ridiculous buffalo with fairy wings or majestic brontosauri).

It’s okay to not like things, just, well, you know the rest.

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