No Man’s Sky a.k.a. Space Minecraft is an indie game! Now for the most part, indie developers are a wonderful alternative to the triple-A studios churning out sequels and remakes and reboots void of any creativity or artistic risk whatsoever, like the guy at the bar who ritualistically tries the same pickup line on every woman he sees because one time in 1998 some girl used him for a ride home at last call and he’ll forever think that women swoon at his charms. Or maybe he’s actually getting laid. I don’t know—it’s not my best analogy. Point is, as a writer, I take personal offense at anything artistic being beaten into submission and made into capitalism’s bitch, and with the indie developer scene so strong these days, it gives a small window of opportunity for a good game to slip past the business goons and onto the shelves.
I say, “For the most part,” of course, because bestowing the power to make a game upon anyone with a computer, access to youtube, and a life void of any meaningful relationships or personal fulfillment also removes a few checkpoints along the way that are pretty fucking crucial. It’s like shopping for medicine—no one likes going through a doctor, especially when they prescribe anti-depressants that make your dick sputter and explode like an acme contraption in a Wile E. Coyote short, but if you want to expand to the sort of market that includes psilocybin and ketamine, you suddenly also need to worry that you’re swallowing a slurry made from magic mushrooms, boiled Nyquil, and a slurry of radiator fluid aged in someone’s bathtub drain pipe.
Enter No Man’s Sky. I played it for approximately two hours, the majority of which was spent pointing at my wrist, cycling through menus and saying, “Whaaa?” See, in spite of what students, parents, the general public, and at least 75% of the teachers I work with believe, teaching is actually a ridiculously complicated affair, requiring the teacher to jump through the patchwork mess that is human psychology, connecting new information to memories by explaining its relevance to the user (think about how if you don’t use a second generation HDMI cable to set up your PSVR, the whole contraption doesn’t work).
Shigero Miyamoto does this beautifully, using the Asian concept of kishotenketsu in the first level of Super Mario Bros. Think about how the game starts on an empty screen—your first reaction is to hit buttons on the controller. Any button. And bam. You learn what the buttons do, consequence free. Next, you encounter a ? block. Connect that to the jump button and you learn something new. They give you a pipe as an obstacle, then complicate that later with enemies and holes. Ever wonder why your teachers hated video games back in the 80s and 90s…and the 00s and 10s? It’s because they did a better job teaching you than they did. Don’t believe me? Here’s a test. No cheating. There are roughly the same amount of parts of the cell as there are unique enemies in Super Mario Bros. Name as many of each as you can.
The game is so good that you don’t even realize you had to learn anything about it. Mario is the one cool teacher that you tell your kids about. Meanwhile, No Man’s Sky is the teacher that tested you on parts of the book you didn’t cover in class and docked points for spelling and penmanship. I complained about Kingdom Hearts 2 opening with a 3-hour tutorial (and failing to mention that I could test out any time I wanted), but No Man’s Sky opens with the Bar Exam and the GRE all rolled into one. They begin with such an interesting concept—you wake up after a crash, your life support is failing, you can’t find your ship, and you’re about to die—and then derail it immediately by asking you to spend your last few moments of sentience slogging through an engineering textbook that’ll teach you how to make an interplanetary starship out of a few rocks you shot with a laser pointer.
In it’s defense, after about an hour or so of play, the movements began to make a sort of sense. The game seems to have been designed by children who put their hand up to their heads to scan the imaginary planets they just landed on and then tap furiously on their forearm to look all scientific. It gives the game a sort of playground charm which will, hopefully, become fun in the long run. I just wish I didn’t have to regress through high school chemistry to get to elementary school recess.
I am still in the opening stages of the game. I made it off one planet and onto a second. Flying the spaceship was what I imagine drinking the Nyquil-mushroom-radiator slurry must feel like. There was a large field of asteroids that required blasting on the way, which felt like an obligatory thing-to-do, considering that actual realistic space travel would have been quite boring. But I think I would have appreciated if the game had at least had the courage to say, “traveling through an interminable void? Why not pass the time by playing the actual 1979 arcade classic Asteroids,” rather than trying to say the universe is 93-billion light years of debris and the Big Bang was just God sneezing out slag metal.
I guess the game in its current iteration is good. I’ll see how I feel after a few more planets, harvesting raw elements that litter the universe like an overturned box of Legos. I thought it made a sort of sense that I’d need sodium to keep warm, since sodium can easily be used to generate heat. But then I made it to a planet where the hazard was radiation, and I opened up my life support to see if I’d need lead or some other heavy metal and I still needed sodium. Okay, I guess No Man’s Sky’s science is a bit too trashy to live in Arthur C Clarke’s neighborhood. Fine. I can check out the houses near Frank Herbert, but I refuse to live anywhere near George Lucas.
And before I trash the game too much without playing it, can I just put in a request that “teleport” and “snap” stop being the default motion controls for VR? Pointing, turning and walking smoothly are good enough for a regular controller. The snap teleportation doesn’t add much to the experience except a strong disorientation and a decent amount of vomit inside the VR headgear.