5AM Gaming: Reconsidering the Gentle Zen of ‘No Man’s Sky’
Hello. Nice to meet you. My name is Monica. I’ve been playing video games for 33 years and 55 days. I can still remember the exact moment the bug hit me: Christmas Eve, 1984. My first computer. I was eight years old.
If we were in a Gamers Anonymous meeting that would be my greeting to you.
So, to summarize:
1) I’m old, and yes, I own that shit
2) I’ve watched the gaming industry and games themselves grow and evolve over the course of my entire life. And I played my way through it all, from the cartridges I jammed into the back of my Commodore 64 to the floppy diskettes of games I covertly traded with my elementary school friends on the playground, through the early consoles and hand-helds and back again, and then to smartphones and tablets. These days my preferred gaming rig is a souped-up PC. Consider it my mothership. It’s where the magic happens.
Perhaps an apt name to give it, considering my introductory column will be a 2018 revisit of the 2016 space exploration title No Man’s Sky, the expansive open universe game that (perhaps) got an unjustly bad rap upon its release, but in the wake of two years of updates and evolution certainly warrants a current-day revisit, especially if you purchased it back then and quickly abandoned it to collect dust on your shelf.
Admittedly, I was never one of those No Man Sky haters. I diligently read reviews prior to purchase, and the things people disliked about it were largely what I was looking for in a game in 2016, namely something really freakin’ mellow. To this day, when I decide to play some No Man’s Sky I announce that I’m “off to float around in space.”
That said, I’m sure I wouldn’t have appreciated the game half as much if I were younger or not a parent, because in those halcyon days before random grey hairs and offspring, my tastes leaned more to frenetic zombie massacres and creepy gorefests. Both things I still imbibe, but less frequently due to the constant daughter-walking-in factor. Hey, space is safe. No undead eviscerations to explain.
And that’s been yet another amazing thing about growing up with gaming (and something we’ll touch on in later installments of this column): seeing companies’ output change as their earliest consumers – my generation – move through their lives. Games have evolved from coin arcade 2-D side-scrollers and shooters to a multi-billion dollar industry that has something for everyone, including weary folks like myself who spend their days chasing an active, screaming toddler and don’t want to chase active, screaming anythings when they boot up their console. What I want most after fourteen straight hours of hyper three-year-old insanity is a little bit of zen. My stress doesn’t call for annihilation so much as the quiet wonders of space exploration. Very, very slow space exploration. (You can waste a ton of time doing not a lot of anything in this game.)
Simply put, I don’t play No Man’s Sky for the thrill or to work out latent aggression (aren’t those zombie games great for that?), I play it to relax. On that front it delivers, and looks great doing it.
The game has evolved substantially since its rather anemic launch form, which at a then-retail price of $79 made tempers flare. In the current version, which can frequently be found discounted on Steam, you can do a lot more than float in space if you choose. You can command a spaceship or portal hop from planet to planet. Explore freely or follow the story. Become a fighter or a trader or an adventurer. Find a place to build a base and put down roots, or zip from one solar system to the next in search of wealth or conflict or weird-looking creatures. Learn languages, upgrade your inventories, buy vessels, complete missions, farm. It’s all up to you. In a way that’s the beauty of it; play however you want, the game doesn’t care. I suspect No Man’s Sky, the 2018 version, is very much the game developer Hello Games wished it had ready two years ago for launch.
Of course, some of the old flaws remain and always will. There are the technical bugs (“Oh my god, my ship just got swallowed by a planet!”) and the repetition, with only so many auto-generated world variations and so much mission and NPC variety, but then again, this has never really been a game for completists (as exemplified by its infuriating though utterly fitting non-ending ending). Rather, No Man’s Sky has always been about the trip, just like that old Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”
And in No Man’s Sky, that’s what I do – escape the doldrums of everyday life to zip from galaxy to galaxy, mining, farming, helping folks and avoiding conflicts with pirates. Sometimes I point my ship for the game’s predetermined destination of centre of the universe, sometimes I just warp from anomaly to anomaly. I appreciate the freedom to make that choice.
Maybe No Man’s Sky is a little like this column too, in that 5AM Gaming is a wayward, wandering look at things we play and how we play them, largely determined by whatever shiny object has my attention at the moment.
See you in two weeks, and watch out for boiling rain (it’s the worst!).
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