I played a lot of No Man’s Sky. I even reached the center of the galaxy! It obviously did something right, because I rarely put that much time into a videogame.
The game is gorgeous. This is why people were so drawn towards it, ultimately—it’s hard to watch any trailer for it and not become immediately enamoured with its universe.
But No Man’s Sky doesn’t seem to understand itself. It has an identity crisis: it’s an exploration game that for whatever reason is convinced that people will only care about it if it’s also a survival game.
For a few weeks following No Man’s Sky‘s release, my Twitter timeline was filled with friends sharing screenshots and telling stories about creatures they found, aliens they met, and beautiful landscapes they visited. This screenshot sharing experience reminded me of a very different game: 2015’s Panoramical by Fernando Ramallo and David Kanaga.
Even though it can be difficult to describe, Panoramical knows exactly what it is: a series of relaxing and hypnotizing audio-visual landscapes that morph to your touch.
Panoramical even has dedicated buttons on the keyboard or controller for taking screenshots or gifs and sending them straight to Twitter.
It may seem like a strange comparison at first. What could these two games possibly have in common? My relationship with them is similar in one important way: I find myself seeking out beautiful zen moments not just for myself, but to share with friends. In Panoramical I’m moving around a few sliders, in No Man’s Sky I’m getting in my ship and flying towards a distant planet, but my goal is the same.
But No Man’s Sky‘s systems don’t encourage you to play that way. You’ll inevitably spend a lot of time shooting rocks, plucking resources off flowers, dealing with a perpetually-full inventory, and refilling various meters on your exosuit and spaceship. Most players seem to agree that none of this is particularly enjoyable, or at least that it gets old pretty quickly.
In fact, No Man’s Sky‘s systems actually discourage the meditative exploration that makes it so unique. If you’re landing on a planet only to see that it doesn’t have any aluminum or chrysonite and abandoning it forever, you’re not taking the time to enjoy just how stunning its landscapes are.
There’s no shortage of ideas in various circles of the Internet about features to add to No Man’s Sky that would “fix” it once and for all—multiplayer, base building, etc. However, the issues with the game run much deeper than its “missing” features. Having other players around wouldn’t make it any more fun to refill life support meters, and base building is totally incompatible with the nomadic nature of No Man’s Sky.
So what would No Man’s Sky look like if it were more true to itself? Cut out the cruft: No Man’s Sky is an exploration game. Encourage players to explore planets and systems for the sake of it, not just to collect resources. Add a camera mode that hides the UI. Focus on the relationships between the various alien races. What do they think about each other? What have they seen in their own travels? The three alien races have distinct and sometimes quirky personalities and behaviors, but they don’t actually react to their environment in any meaningful way. If they don’t care about the world, why should the player?