No Man’s Sky Next is an update that finally shows the space sim’s epic potential. Harry takes a closer look…
There isn’t a word in the human language that can really describe how big the universe is. We’re not good at comprehending numbers that we can’t visualise; there comes a point where size becomes less a specific descriptor and more an amorphous largeness that our metaphors can’t describe.
Therein lie both the problems and the possibilities of No Man’s Sky – when you can go anywhere and do anything, in a digital expanse that stretches out far enough that the term infinite can rightly be applied, how can you even start to decide what to do first?
The first promotional images and videos of No Man’s Sky captured the feeling of stepping bravely into the unknown. The universe was ours again, in all its weirdness and scope. We were going to be adventurers like the ones we saw and read about in sci-fi movies and books, soaring through clouds made of gases we’d never breathe, hurtling through the darkness with our eyes on a prize that was nothing more or less than everything.
But when the game came out there was something missing, a sizable hole in the centre of the game that left so many people feeling a little cold.
There were incredible things to see and do in the original iteration of No Man’s Sky, but getting to them was a lonely and confusing experience that made you feel like you were hurtling uncontrollably towards something without knowing why you were going there. You were too small, too unimportant, to make any sort of meaningful difference to the uncaring, procedurally generated universe that had been made for you.
In a game where size was originally such an important factor, Next – Hello Games’ far-reaching expansion released in July – shows us that it’s the small things that matter far more. The little stories of strange things that happen and how you choose to deal with them.
The people in the sci-fi stories that capture our imaginations aren’t on their own, but are parts of larger communities, settlements, and groups. They’re intrinsically part of something much bigger than themselves, and that means their small actions combine to make a greater impact.
No Man’s Sky Next is still enormous, in ways that no other game can even start to offer, but Next narrows the focus. Look at a painting by Chris Foss, a sci-fi artist who created book covers in the 1970s and 1980s, and you’ll see a snapshot of an exciting universe. But it’s tightly framed. Space is out there, enormous and growing, but within that limitlessness are little pockets of adventure and amazement. It’s those that No Man’s Sky Next is all about.
If we have no one to share in our adventures, is there even any reason to climb that mountain or jump to that next planet? Being able to visit the same place as someone else can be a thrill, but being there when they see it for the first time is something else entirely.
The addition of multiplayer to the game – real multiplayer where you can explore with friends – erases the loneliness. You can build where you want now, creating towering bases on the tops of mountains or sunken fortresses at the bottom of alien seas. Check your social feeds and you’ll see your friends posting images like postcards from the new worlds they’re stood on.
They’re a ‘wish you were here’ message, an enticement to join in, a single frame of wonder from which the possibility for adventures and escapades seems to radiate. Games like Minecraft understand perfectly that there’s a difference between working towards something to share and creating something that’s just for yourself; showing the world what you’re doing is an intrinsic part of modern life, from the castles you build from digital stone to the pictures of food you share on Instagram.
It might have taken a long time for No Man’s Sky to get to this point, but that journey reflects our own position in the universe. We were isolated, then we looked up and wondered if we could reach out. Those first steps were clumsy, but they showed us that if we can overcome the gulfs of space, there are new rocks for us to stand on. The original version of the game thought that populating a universe with new things to discover was enough, but it was wrong.
Because discovery is immaterial. We know that there’s a roiling chaos of dying stars and colliding rocks out there in the cosmos, and we know that there’s some chance that in those distant nebulae there might be someone else looking back at us and wondering why we get so caught up in things like video games.
These are things that have already captured our imagination, and that will continue to capture the imagination of generations to come. What No Man’s Sky needed was a reason for you to go there, to take your precious spare time and spend it bridging those distances. The solution was waiting in one of our most famous gaming proverbs: “it’s dangerous to go alone.” It’s not weapons that Next adds into the mix though, it’s people. And that’s how it lets us look at ourselves, our species, and our pale blue dot.
No Man’s Sky Next is what the game should have always been – a beautiful, communal adventure into the unknown.
Format: PS4 / XBO / PC
Developer: Hello Games
Publisher: Hello Games
Release: Out now