No Man’s Sky, and the joys of doing nothing in video games

One big thing was drowned out in the Internet Rage that followed 2016’s release of No Man’s Sky; an element those who actually bothered to play the game instead of complaining that you couldn’t fly under an alien Diplodocus’ legs noticed and were too busy enjoying to get caught up in the, like, aggression, man. That being: the ability to just not have to bother if you didn’t want to.

There are countless games out there facilitating the need to do nothing – the walking sims, the life sims, the sandbox physics creation tools, social MMOs, and more. It’s by no means exclusive to No Man’s Sky. But it’s in Hello Games’ ever-expanding epic that the true allure of reflection, contemplation, and general existentialism all came together behind the disguise of a heavily promoted game about spaceships, robots, and lasers.

Sure, you could explore with goals in mind – hunting down the trail of Atlas, maybe – you could play it like a sci-fi Pokémon Snap, attempting to catalogue every species you came across along the way. You could channel your inner Elite piloting skills and hunt down pirates for the sweet glory of victory in combat. It wasn’t quite as… refined an experience as it is today, but No Man’s Sky did offer players a lot of things to do from day one.

And one of those things was to eschew all goals, whether personal or set by the game. Obviously the argument can rightly be made there that aiming to eschew all goals is in fact a goal in itself, but that’s the sort of roundabout thinking that can bog down a piece like this and get us nowhere. It’s also not in keeping with the fundaments underlying these words: relax. Take a moment. Breathe. Just potter about, take it in, have an experience instead of demanding satisfaction.

Mind you, it’s never been a given in No Man’s Sky that you’ll be able to relax and do nothing, even if you’ve been royally committed to that approach in the five years since the game came out. The randomised nature of the universe you explore means it’s not unheard of to discover half a dozen planets in a row that seem to hate your existence and actually work on ending it. Be it extreme storms, radiation levels higher than living creatures can stand for more than a minute, or fauna with a penchant for murderous intent. Sometimes the cosmos does just work against you.

But that just makes those moments of Zen all the more satisfying. When, after trying and failing for an hour or two in the real world, you suddenly find yourself on a lush, green planet full of placid life and a temperature that wouldn’t be out of the question on a sunny day in Margate – when you realise you’ve found yourself somewhere you can take a load off and just exist – that has impact. Would you believe it, sometimes it is about the journey.

As mentioned, No Man’s Sky has expanded significantly since those – on reflection rather scant – early days. Hello Games has quietly undertaken one of the great makeovers and refurbishments of the modern gaming era, bringing its passion project out of the doldrums and raising its reputation and standing in the gaming community to the point that it’s now only really a punchline for the terminally uninformed. The redemption arc of the studio itself shouldn’t be overlooked either, with a name that was poison in over-influential – but still influential – online circles now something of a paragon of virtue.

It only took five years of dedicated hard work and a Herculean ability to ignore the majority of abuse thrown the way of the studio – often directly at Hello Games chief Sean Murray. Only. We can merely guess blindly at the ridiculous toll the whole affair must have had on Murray, the rest of the Hello Games team, and their families and friends.

And all of this so someone can, in a magazine, write a few hundred words about how great No Man’s Sky is to just relax and exist in. How tempting it must have been for Hello Games to lose itself in the universe of its own making; free of stresses, of the input of others – free of worry and having to care about anything going on anywhere else in existence. Instead we end up where we are now: a game still being tinkered with and improved, the result of thousands of collective hours of work, crafted with genuine love and affection – and effort – all so other people can use No Man’s Sky to get away from everything.

Where are we?

At the time of writing‭, ‬No Man’s Sky‭ ‬is five years old and in the midst of its 17th named update since launch‭, ‬Prisms‭. ‬It’s impossible to list everything that’s been added or improved on in the limited space here‭, ‬but we’ve seen base building‭, ‬vehicles‭, ‬multiplayer‭ (‬including cross-platform play‭), ‬new-gen versions‭, ‬countless graphical and procedural generation improvements‭, ‬more varied worlds and wildlife‭, ‬a more coherent narrative to follow‭, ‬plenty of side quests‭, ‬increased prettification‭ (‬technical term‭), ‬and‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬among so many other things‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬a photo mode‭. ‬If you’ve held off because of the five-year-old criticisms‭, ‬now’s a good time to jump in‭.‬

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