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‘No Man’s Sky’ Has No Reason to Exist (Commentary)

It may be a great demonstration of technical prowess, but it never becomes anything more than that

By the estimates of its creators at Hello Games, “No Man’s Sky” has more than 18 quintillion planets that players can fly their starships to, land on, and hang out at. That is kind of a theoretical prospect, as it’s far more planets than the couple million people who bought the game could possibly ever visit.

For perspective, here’s what 18 quintillion looks like written numerically: 18,000,000,000,000,000,000. That’s the number 18 followed by 18 zeros, a number that, by the way, is so big that the standard Windows 10 calculator won’t display it because it refuses to go past 16 digits. If 5 million people buy the game, they’d each have to visit 3.6 trillion planets in order to cover all of them.

I’ve played “No Man’s Sky” for something approaching 50 hours — which is more time than most players will ever spend with it. And I’ve hit about 70 planets.

The Hello Games team didn’t craft all these planets by hand. The universe of “No Man’s Sky” is procedurally generated. What that means is its creators built a computer algorithm that did the work for them — they set some broad parameters and drew a bunch of visual assets, like plant components and animal bodies, legs and heads, and the game spit out a whole bunch of random combinations.

OK, so we have this cool universe you can fly around in at will. Now what?

Uh oh.

The games industry often sells its products on the promise of “player choice” — like, “look at all the cool things you can do in this game!” For open games like “No Man’s Sky,” where you can go where you want at will within the game world, there’s typically a story being told at the heart of it to give you a reason for being there and guide you through all those cool things you can do. The plot of “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” for example, will make you travel all the way around its world so you will have an idea of how big it is and what’s around so once the story ends you know where the other stuff to do is.

“No Man’s Sky” doesn’t have anything like that. It opens with you sitting on one of those randomly generated planets next to a crashed ship. You have to repair it, by collecting minerals and stuff with a handheld mining laser, so you can fly away and see other randomly generated planets and meet some aliens and otherwise do whatever you want.

There is a very sparse attempt at a story-based skeleton, but it’s pretty calcium-deprived. Some entity called Atlas — which may or may not be an ancient god who created the galaxy you’re sauntering through — says that “your destiny lies in the Beyond.” A couple aliens named Nada and Polo use you to collect data on the galaxy and its inhabitants. And you’re also, ostensibly, supposed to travel to the center of the universe.

But there’s no point to these things either. Because “No Man’s Sky” is really just a game about hanging out, mining stuff, upgrading your equipment, trying to find a better spaceship than the one you have. There’s no actual hook, just things you can do. But not that many things you can do, and there’s certainly no sense of adventure. This isn’t “Grand Theft Auto,” where crazy stuff can happen just by making your in-game avatar walk down a street.

Nothing ever really happens in “No Man’s Sky.” Once you’ve seen three or four planets, you’ve probably seen just about everything the rest 18 quintillion planets have to offer.

The more you play from there, the emptier and more pointless it all feels. I’m tempted to suggest there never was any point to “No Man’s Sky” — but I can’t possibly know that for sure. But what I do know is that the game we’ve been sold is not actually a game, but rather a $60 technical demonstration. You’re supposed to feel some kind of awe at the technical achievement.

But with art, that only matters insofar as it facilitates something else. What Hello Games did in constructing the universe of “No Man’s Sky” doesn’t facilitate anything. Which is weird, because in most of the realm of creative entertainment behind every big technical achievement you’ll find a specific problem that needed solving. Weta Digital’s and Andy Serkis‘ work bringing Gollum to life in Peter Jackson‘s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, for example, solved the problem of how to depict that character in a live-action film.

I don’t know what exactly inspired the procedural generation of 18 quintillion planets in a video game — but based on what it’s like to actually play “No Man’s Sky,” it’s difficult to imagine there was any kind of creative vision beyond “wouldn’t it be cool if we made this?”

The technical achievement is the point, as it so often is in an industry that prides itself on putting the cart before the horse. It’s how Microsoft ends up pushing its Kinect motion control camera hard for five years despite nobody having any idea how to make a game that uses it effectively. They figured the novelty of the thing would be enough to tide everyone over until some enterprising company figured it out.

“No Man’s Sky,” likewise, banks on the assumption that the novelty of an endless universe to fly a spaceship around in is good enough to keep you around while Hello Games figures out how to actually build a game on it.

Right now, though, “No Man’s Sky” feels like a cart invented by people who live in a world without horses.