My lengthy first tour of No Man's Sky was a disappointment. I spent 30 hours skating across the surface of an endless puddle, searching for depths that didn't exist. I skipped and skimmed until, with great regret, I stopped. On my second time through, I liked it a lot more. I spent 15 hours standing still and appreciating the puddle for what it was. I watched the tiny ripples around my toes and admired how the sky reflected up at me from below. I met the puddle halfway, and found depth where there had been none.
The difference between that first time and that second time does a lot to explain No Man's Sky as a whole. It is an unusual and contradictory game, one that asks very little of its players while simultaneously demanding a great deal. It's a frustrating failure in many ways, technically unpolished and seemingly unfinished. It's full of perplexing design decisions and half-realised ideas. It gets a few big things right and a hundred little things wrong. It draws you in with a promise of endless splendour, then swiftly reveals itself to be something much more ordinary.
No Man's Sky reaches for the sun and comes back with a light bulb. I'm pretty much fine with the light bulb.
It is difficult to separate No Man's Sky: The Video Game from No Man's Sky: The Great Hype Experience. It's not impossible, however, so: No Man's Sky is a first-person game about looking at pretty things and crafting jet fuel. It starts with a straightforward crafting grind — break 10 rocks to make four metal sheets to craft one shield upgrade, and so on — and sets it against an endless, procedurally generated universe full of procedurally generated planets. You get in your spaceship and travel from place to place in search of materials to make more fuel and trade for a better spaceship so you can carry more materials and make more fuel and trade for an even better spaceship, and on, and on.
Players are given two directives from the outset: Heed the call of a mysterious entity known as the Atlas, or proceed along a charted path toward the galactic centre. There is also a third option: Ignore both and freely explore. No matter what you choose, you'll continue to unlock more storage and better gear upgrades. You'll blow up a robot or two, and get in the occasional clumsy space battle with pirate starfighters. You'll have charming if shallow conversations with aliens that you meet in space stations and planetary bases. You'll discover some goofy animals and share screenshots of the funniest ones on social media.
Each planet and animal you discover can be named and uploaded to the game's servers, and while you'll never see another player in your game, you may come across one of their discoveries.
That's it. That's the whole game. Whatever its masterful marketing campaign may have implied, No Man's Sky does not offer a universe of limitless possibilities. On the contrary, its limits are obvious after a couple of hours of play. Its flaws and failings become apparent even sooner. Within those limits, however, lies a fascinating and enjoyable game, albeit one that took me 30 hours to discover.
The first time I fired up No Man's Sky on my PS4, it immediately crashed to a blue error screen. Not a good sign. I rebooted and found myself crash-landed on a lonely planet. I set about following the tutorial in order to repair my ship. I crafted the parts and fuel I'd need to break atmosphere and leave the planet.
I knew I was supposed to name my discoveries, so I paused the game and named my first planet. "The Planet Kirk," I dubbed it, slowly selecting the letters with my PS4 controller. I named the star system, too: "Kotaku System." Good work, I thought. Those are good names.
I was given a recipe for Antimatter, so I gathered the materials needed to craft some Antimatter. I used the Antimatter to craft a Warp Cell, which I could use to fuel my Hyperdrive, which I could use to leave the star system. (I also crafted a Hyperdrive.) I learned that I could shoot trees with my laser to collect Carbon, and I could shoot rocks to collect Iron. I learned that Heridium appears in large blue-tinged columns, while Plutonium spikes out of the ground in angry red crystals.
"Perform a warp jump," the game suggested, and so I did. Upon arriving in a new star system, I immediately set about finding more materials so that I could craft more fuel for another warp jump. I flew down to the nearest planet and saw a familiar sight: Rocks splotched with grass and sparse trees. Large columns of Heridium, spiky clusters of Plutonium and all the rest.
I jumped through a few more systems and explored a few more planets. I met some aliens, and I received directions to my first Atlas station. It seemed as good a destination as any, so I headed toward it.
When I arrived, the station gave me a cryptic message along with directions to a second station. OK, might as well head toward that one, too.
For the next 30 hours, this was how I played the game. I'd hop from system to system, chasing Atlas stations. A couple of times I opted to go through a black hole, which promised to take me closer to the galactic core. I passed through a dozen systems, then a dozen more. I stopped naming planets after my second jump. I stopped scanning animals shortly thereafter.
As the hours passed, disappointment curdled into annoyance into outright dislike. There were so many problems, so many small inconveniences. Why couldn't I stack certain items in my inventory? And why was my inventory constantly full? Why was the UI such a bother? Why was combat so mushy and unexciting? Why was it so hard to find my way around on a planet and so easy to lose track of where I'd been? Why couldn't I name my ship, and why did my suit keep telling me my life support levels were low when they were at 75 per cent, and oh my god is there any way to make this suit shut the hell up for three seconds? And so on.
It all seemed so lonely and pointless. I didn't feel like an explorer. I felt like an interloper. Every system I arrived in already had a space station. Every planet was already covered with exploration outposts and research facilities. What was I even doing here?
I saw my friends posting screenshots of the game to Twitter and Facebook. The animals and planets in their screenshots looked like my animals and planets. I discussed my alien encounters with colleagues who were also playing the game, only to learn we were all having the same experiences. That time I agreed to marry an alien? They did that, too. I gave up hope of finding something striking or unique.
By the time I reached the final Atlas station, I was more than two dozen hours in. I couldn't have been more over No Man's Sky if it had been in a mine. The narrative, such as it was, had become a hazy blur of overwritten philosophical rambling. The planets had become a hazy blur of crusty monsters and samey sunsets. I was bored.
I hadn't had the foresight (or the storage space) to hold onto the items I needed to trigger the game's "ending", so I watched it on YouTube. It confirmed my suspicions that the Atlas narrative is purposefully pointless. It exists to repudiate the notion of authored narrative in a game like this. There never was a story, ha ha. Should have taken that third option.
Frustrated and burnt out, I stopped playing. I spent a couple of days doing other things. Then the PC version came out, and I decided to start fresh. This time, I thought, I'd do things differently. I knew what the game was now. Maybe I could finally enjoy it.
Turns out I was right.
The second time I played No Man's Sky, I stayed in one place. I ignored the call of the Atlas, because I knew just how empty that journey would be. I ignored the beckoning of the galactic core, because I wanted to see what I could accomplish where I already was.
I efficiently handled the initial busywork of crafting and repairing. I assembled a hyperdrive in record time. I immediately accumulated enough materials to fuel a half-dozen warp jumps. I doubled my inventory size within the first few hours. As I did all that, I slowly figured out how I wanted to re-approach the game.
My new agenda was that I had no agenda, no objectives. I wasn't going anywhere. I had a few rules: Every time I jumped to a new system I had to name it. Same for every new planet I discovered. I numbered each new system so I could know how far I had gone, and more crucially, so I could know how far I had to go to get back. I returned to my starting planet regularly and never strayed too far in any one direction.
I'd named my starting system Homestead, and it lived up to its name.
Some of the planets I discovered were barren and dull, others lush and lovely. I spent more and more time on the nicer planets, and eventually began to notice details I would have missed on my hurried first playthrough.
One of my favourites is a planet called Greenpeace, located one system away from Homestead. It's mostly covered in thick grasslands, and at night the sky turns a beautiful shade of turquoise.
On the third or fourth time I visited, I noticed that the rocks were covered in odd circular scorches. Sometimes they look like faces.
Each planet has some aspect like the rocks on Greenpeace, some small signifier that sets it apart.
The icy planet Hogarth is rich in Chrysonite deposits, along with floating jellyfish and horrifying T-Rex-sized predators.
The red planet Dragon's Rest is covered in what appear to be fossilised demon wings, giving everything a burnt-out, apocalyptic look.
The planet Farmville is home to dozens of weird creatures like Senator Cruz up there.
Last but not least is my most visited and beloved planet, The Cube Forest. The Cube Forest is a massive planet in the Yutani system, 175,000 light years from the galactic core. It earns its name because it is covered in valuable Vortex Cubes, which can be harvested and sold at the nearby space station for a tidy sum.
I have spent several profitable hours farming in The Cube Forest. My visits have become soothingly formulaic. I land in a large field. I survey the area and chart a path through the cubes. I grab the first one, which sets off the planet's security system and sics a few robot sentinels on me. I continue to snag cubes, moving quickly to avoid the sentinels' lasers. Once my ship and inventory are full, I head up to the space station to cash in.
Thanks to this technique, I was able to afford a greatly expanded inventory and a fantastic starship after only a few hours of playing. The Cube Forest has also given my second playthrough some needed focus: Rather than moving from planet to planet as quickly as I can, I stay in one place and build up my resources.
I've charted nine systems so far, and their planets and moons have become familiar to me. I could tell you their names off the top of my head, and quickly explain what differentiates them. Swamp Thing is a vast, toxic bog. Moon Drago has a spectacular view of Dragon's Rest. Serpintinia is covered in massive, snakelike rock formations. I'm sure I discovered planets just like these on my first time through, but I never slowed down to appreciate them.
I'm now 15 hours in, and a new plan has begun to emerge. I've yet to implement it, but it's actually got me pretty excited. With the money I've gained from The Cube Forest, I'll max out my inventory size and get the best ship I can. I'll store up some resources and upgrade my gear and when I feel like I'm ready, I'll finally move on.
I'll say my goodbyes to Greenpeace and Dragon's Rest, bid adieu to Hogarth and Craphole Island and Moon Drago all the rest. I'll even say goodbye to scaly ol' Ted Cruz, safe in the knowledge that maybe, someday, some other player will find him and laugh. Or maybe they will ask, "Who's Ted Cruz?"
When everything is ready, I'll find a black hole and jump. I'll keep on moving ever closer to the galaxy's centre. I hear the planets get more lush near the centre. I hear you can find stranger, larger beasts there. We'll see.
Few games in recent memory have been as open to a metaphorical interpretation as No Man's Sky, bleak though many of those interpretations may be. You are alone, voiceless and bodiless, casting about in an endless copy-paste universe. You will only find peace when you accept that you're never going to find what you were looking for.
As I prepare to leave my homestead for parts unknown, I'm comforted by the knowledge that I've spent time in this place and gotten to know it. This cluster of planets — Greenpeace, New Meridia, The Cube Forest — will linger well after I've jumped away. Knowing that they may turn up in another person's game makes them feel real to me in some faint but nonetheless meaningful way.
The first time I played No Man's Sky, I moved forward too fast. The second time, I stood still. Now, I'm ready to set out again, anchored by the things I'll leave behind.